Resume-writing tips

Over the last four-and-a-half years at Affirm, I’ve reviewed thousands of resumes from job candidates, ranging from entry-level attorneys to seasoned 25-year career veterans, applying to the dozens of job openings my team has filled over the years. Nobody, then, should be shocked to learn that I spend, on average, 30 seconds reviewing a resume the first time it hits the proverbial desk. Of course, I’ll spend much more time with a resume if I’ve decided to follow-up with a candidate, but the initial review process is shockingly swift. And while my recruiting colleagues might spend a bit more time with a resume during an initial review, I doubt it’s materially more time.  

Given these constraints, the best resumes are those that allow me to scan quickly and efficiently. If I cannot consume your grock your candidacy for a role in roughly 30 seconds, your resume gets set aside. It’s worth, then, understanding what makes a better resume.  

Here’s a quick & dirty resume-writing guide I wrote for law students and young lawyers. I’ve organized my thoughts into two main buckets: (1) resume content, and (2) resume format.

Resume Content: You can overcome poor formatting with strong content, but not the other way around. Here is where you should spend 80% of your time when writing a resume.

– Go slow. Start with pen and paper and list your schools and employers in reverse chronological order. List corresponding dates of attendance/employment next to each school/employer. List your degrees under each school, and your positions under each employer. You may have multiple degrees with each school, or multiple positions with a single employer, as the case may be. Under each position, write all of the (1) recurring responsibilities, and (2) notable projects you executed in a given position. The reason I like to start with pen and paper is because it helps jog my memory in a way a keyboard cannot. Once you have everything on a page, then you can proceed to refine in a word processor.

– Describe prior responsibilities with punchy action words. For prior positions, I start each sentence/bullet with a past-tense verb. For current positions, use the present tense. For example: “Drafted/draft legal memoranda assessing claims and defenses of XYZ client” and NOT “Responsible for performing legal research…”

– Specify and Quantify. Specify your accomplishments by identifying specific results or milestones. How did your project or initiative advance your employer’s objectives? Did your successful motion to dismiss defeat a claim for breach of contract? Or, did it defeat a $100mm claim for breach of contract?

– Edit for specific audience. It’s fine to have one master resume, but, before you send a resume to a prospective employer, you should tailor it based on the audience. For instance, if you know you share a particular interest with someone who’ll be reading your resume, highlight that.

– Maintain integrity. Don’t embellish, and certainly never lie. If you were part of a team, say so. Don’t claim credit for yourself when it should be shared. Some of the worst resume-offenses I’ve ever seen involved gross embellishment of a person’s responsibilities on an assignment or project. Such matters are easy to spot and verify through back-channel references. (And, yes, employers often do back-channel references on a candidate.)

Format: Remember, most first-level resume reviewers will read your resume very quickly because they’re battling through a stack of other candidates. The format of your resume must help a reader scan its content quickly and efficiently.

– Font: Use a clean sans serif typeface like Arial in a font size of at least 11. (Truthfully, I can make do with font size 10, but that is becoming less and less true as eyeglass prescription changes.) The point is, this is not the time to get cute with fonts. While you’re at it, just forget that Comic Sans was ever a thing…

– Sections: Generally speaking, include (1) education, (2) professional experience, (3) honors & awards, and (4) activities & interests. (Quick note on “activities & interests,” omit this section at your peril! Here’s where you convey more of your personality outside of academics or work. An employer needs to believe that you’re both qualified and they’ll want to work with you.)

Feel free to include additional sections if you believe warranted by the prospective audience or position, or if you think there is something categorically unique about you. For example, if you are an accomplished speaker or writer, that may merit its own section.

– Sequencing: If you are a new or recent grad (i.e., graduated w/in the last three years), stat with the education section and follow it with your experience section. If you’ve been out of school for three years or longer, consider leading with your experience, particularly as it becomes more relevant to a prospective job opportunity. 

– Length: If you’re a new or recent grad, there’s little reason that your resume should be longer than a page.