Office Hours: How to format a startup resume

Originally published on Medium.

Ah, resume crafting in the age of the internet. So many genuinely useful resources (like, ahem, Office Hours); so many terrible resume templates floating around, waiting to lead you astray.

There’s a narrative about startups that says edgy, experimental applications will get you noticed—that you should save the simple stuff for the corporate jobs. As a startup that wades through thousands of resumes every year, we’d like to personally dispel that myth.

So if your resume.docx looks more like the homepage of quirkyfonts.com, go ahead and X out, take a stretch break, and let’s talk clean and simple formatting.

Why simple formatting?

Unless you’re an experienced graphic designer, your resume does not need to look like it was created by a team of creatives. For the average job seeker, trying to get too fancy with formatting nearly always backfires. Too many fonts and styles can render your resume confusing and hard to read—and most importantly, it can distract a busy hiring manager from absorbing the content.

It should be the experience on your resume that makes you stand out, not your wacky font choice. (And no matter how unique your resume template seems, the hiring manager scanning through hundreds of PDFs will probably have seen that precise design half a dozen times by the time they get to your file.)

So keep it simple, make it easy to skim, and let your qualifications do the talking.

The basics of formatting

1. Pick one (simple!) typeface, and stick to it

A typeface is a set of fonts (like Times New Roman or Comic Sans), and a font is a specific weight and size of that typeface (like 12pt bold Helvetica). Only use one typeface for your resume, and stick to just two sizes: one for the bulk of your experience, and one to emphasize section heading names and/or your name. If you’re not sure what typeface to choose, stick with Times New Roman or Helvetica—and whatever you do, don’t get too quirky. Free internet fonts are almost never your friend.

When it comes to size, readability is key. For the body copy, a font size smaller than 11pt will be difficult to read in print. When in doubt, stick to 12pt.

This goes for color, too—sticking to all black is always a safe bet.

2. Keep it to one page—seriously

Unless you’ve been in the workforce for decades, there’s no reason for your resume to creep onto a second page. It’s a pet peeve for the resume reviewers on the VFA team, and we’d bet other hiring managers feel the same way. Be succinct, and only include the information that matters for the specific role to which you’re applying. More on choosing content here.

3. Watch out for HTML formatting

If you copy/paste text into Word or Pages, the formatting can get a little wonky, and it can also be hard to fix. Make sure to always right click and select “paste and match style”—that way, you’re stripping the formatting from the beginning, and won’t run into weird, seemingly unfixable errors down the road.

4. Align elements carefully to make your resume look neat and professional

When you’re right-aligning or indenting information (like date ranges for different roles, or employment locations), use tabs instead of spaces. Spaces won’t align things precisely, and will be harder to edit when you’re trying to change the content of your resume down the road.

Likewise, the bullet points that describe your experience should align throughout your resume. Make sure they’re consistent.

5. Keep readability in mind when changing margins and line height

For a primer on readability, check out this article from Baymard Institute, a UI research lab.

The basics:

  • A line height greater than exactly 1 will make your resume more readable. 1.15 is a good place to start.
  • While you might decrease margins to fit everything onto one page, margins below 0.75 or 0.5 inches will make the the line length of your resume too long, and therefore less readable.
  • A shorter line height to line length ratio will also make it harder to skim. Try reading your resume out loud. If you ever lose your place between lines, you can bet that will be a problem for the person reading your resume.

Structuring the content of your resume

1. Don’t include an objective

An objective about the type of opportunity you’re looking for signals to an employer that you’re focused on what you want, not what you could do for their company. Plus, the objective in this case should be pretty clear: landing this one specific role.

2. Put your experience in reverse chronological order, but make sure the important details are near the top

Not sure what’s relevant? Revisit last week’s post on what to include on a startup resume. Or think about it like this: if a hiring manager only scanned your resume for 20 seconds, what would you want that person to see? That you have great social media experience, or that you majored in religious studies?

In general, if you’re a year or two out of school and have some solid work experience—of if you’re a recent grad, but gained excellent experience during college—de-prioritize your education by moving it below your “work experience” section.

3. Group related items in easy-to-skim clusters

The proximity of elements on your resume tells us how related they are. If it’s difficult to tell whether one block of text is part of one section or the next, increase the space between sections. If the bullet points corresponding to one work experience bleed into those of the next, increase the spaces between blocks.

4. Consider where you want to place emphasis

Which parts of your resume do you want a hiring manager to notice first? If you’re proud of the place that you worked but think your position was less impressive, bold the name of the employer italicize your job title (to emphasize employer over your position). If the reverse is true, switch the formatting. Whichever choice you make, stay consistent throughout.

5. Avoid making infographics about your competencies

Making the claim that you’re “9 stars” skilled at InDesign but only “6 stars” skilled at Excel 1) doesn’t say as much as a more robust experience section could, and 2) tends to highlight relative deficiencies more than it proves strengths.

Finally, some nice details we DON’T frown upon

If your section section headers need more emphasis than a slightly larger size, you can try small caps or a slightly increased tracking (tracking is the space between letters—to change this in Word, go to Format > Font > Advanced > Character spacing). Choose to use some of these details, but not all.

A bullet is a nice way to separate information, like your phone number and email, or the first line of your address from the second. (Ex: Venture for America • 40 W 29th St. • New York, NY 10001.)

And when you’re all done?

1. Proofread, then get a couple friends to proofread, too

Nothing says “worrying lack of attention to detail” like a typo on your resume. Don’t let it happen to you.

2. Export your file as a PDF

Not everyone will have Word, Pages, or whatever program you used to create your resume installed on their computer. Exporting as PDF guarantees that the the recipient will see your resume as you intended them to see it, formatting intact.

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