What Does Your Resume Convey in 6 Seconds?

Resume angst.  It’s a very real thing and the majority of job hunters I meet seem to suffer from it.  There just aren’t many people you’ll meet who will stand behind their resume 100% and say “I think my resume is terrific, sums up my qualifications beautifully, and is a piece I’m highly confident in sending out to potential employers.”

This reality was confirmed further by the fact that no fewer than 10 clients of mine sent me an article last week, while I was out of town, discussing the latest study on resume effectiveness.  This article really seemed to hit a nerve with many people, as it claimed that psychologists have now pegged the “yes, interview” or “no, don’t interview” decision for any given candidate to be based on a mere six seconds of resume scanning.  They then discuss which elements of one’s resume are most important, based on colorful heat maps that show the tracked eye moments of 30 recruiting professionals who were asked to review two sample resumes.

Here’s an article outlining the full study, in case you missed it:

Business Insider Article: How Recruiters See Your Resume

On one hand, I’m glad that various organizations are starting to apply some scientific rigor to the job-seeking process, since it’s a field that hasn’t received all that much attention by researchers to date — and is one that millions of Americans have a lot riding on. On the other hand, as some of the folks who commented on the article pointed out here, you could literally drive a truck through the scientific validity of the study.  Unless they’re holding out on the full details of the experiment, some of the conclusions reached seemed completely speculative as to why recruiters appeared to prefer the resume on the right versus the one on the left.  While the empirical results may be accurate, there didn’t seem to be much basis for concluding “causation” of any kind, at least based on the information presented.

But let’s not judge too harshly.  Just because this study wasn’t held to impeccable double-blind standards doesn’t mean it doesn’t contain some important and useful nuggets of truth.  So what are the real takeaways from an article like this?  What useful tips might an earnest job hunter derive from this study on how resumes are reviewed?

As always, I’d welcome your opinions on the subject, but the biggest “aha” I took away from things was related to the following conclusion shared in the article:

“In the short time that they spend with your resume, the study showed recruiters will look at your name, current title and company, current position start and end dates, previous title and company, previous position start and end dates, and education.”

Now this statement may be of little interest to non-resume-writing-wonks out there, but to me, it validates something I’ve been pointing out to people for years.  Which is that your resume’s ability to land you interviews is going to be based primarily on where you’ve worked, what titles you’ve held, and for how long — versus the “copywriting” or “formatting” elements of the piece that so many people get unduly focused on.

In other words, while it certainly helps to make your resume look pretty and to work in some important keywords throughout the piece, these approaches aren’t usually going to overcome a lack of directly comparable work history to the target job in question.  Especially not in this economy.  If interested, you’ll find an article of mine from two years ago here, touching on this issue, as well as a career poll I ran here that shows most people really are much more interested in the “facts” on a resume, versus the fluff.

In closing, I’m certainly not suggesting that resumes AREN’T a critical piece of the job hunting process.  They are.  And you definitely want to work hard on yours and even solicit professional help, at times, if you’re struggling with how best to capture your credentials on paper.  But at the same time, in the spirit of keeping things real, it’s misleading to think that you’re going to see a big uptick in your interview rate simply by sending out resumes, whether of the professionally-produced variety or otherwise, unless your employment history is already correlated to a strong degree with the given job opportunity you’re pursuing.

In many cases, and as we’ve discussed frequently in this blog, if you don’t have the perfect pedigree for a given career path on paper you’ll need to shift gears, go underground, and concentrate more on opening doors via relationships and other methods.  Resumes are too constrained by nature to provide high hopes of success in transferring skills from one type of role to another.  As this study seems to suggest, fairly or unfairly, there’s just not a lot of “thinking outside the box” that’s likely to occur in a six-second scan!

5 Responses to “What Does Your Resume Convey in 6 Seconds?”

  1. Betty: Thanks for your comment and while yes, this is an older post you’ve commented on, I’ll be honest — I’m an unapologetic “two space” user both based on years of habit, as well as the fact that despite what the typography experts tell us, I personally think two spaces after period just downright looks better. So while I fully agree that to be perfectly, formally correct one should only use a single space after periods, and would advise most people to follow that convention, I personally choose to buck the trend — and only hope that the quality of the content might, on occasion, trump this minor formatting issue! 🙂

  2. I noticed in your article, you are using “two spaces” after a period. I too learned the “two spacer” but it seems out of date now? Picky but curious. As a designer who does fool more with the look than the content (it’s not my resume, I don’t pick what it says but do clean it up,) and I think consistency is really important. If you use one space after a period, do it everywhere. If you use a comma after the last “and” in a list, do it everywhere. Don’t use funky fonts to stand out but they say Times New Roman can look like “font laziness” since it’s default in word. (found that one online. lol but still a serif font is easiest to read.) Try to find a way to not have your word resume look like it was done in word?

    The most important thing you can do with a resume? PROOF. PROOF. PROOF. (Hint: I always find errors better in the final PDF than in the file itself, esp on close up!) Then keep PDFing till you have the perfect product. Is your phone number right? spacing the same throughout? margins equal? things line up esp bullet points. Another hint: don’t use spaces after bullet points, use tabs. Oh, ALWAYS when you save your resume, resave your backup file. You do have a back up file right? Make sure you are not now working in the back up as well. Don’t get confused by having changes on two different files. I’ve done that.

    Just more 2 cents. I am by no means an expert. just a perfectionistic designer—the best kind. OK, this is an old post but found this blog page at the top of google. Cool for you.

  3. Hey Matt, How timely! I am finishing up a client’s resume today! My takeaway from the article is that formatting is important. “The one on the right was looked at more thoroughly than the one of the left because of its clear and concise format” From my perspective as a former hiring manager, it doesn’t matter how great a candidate is and how long I had to look at a resume, the key was finding the information. Both formatting and clear bullets describing accomplishments are crucial. Make it easy to read and understand your value proposition and you’ll catch the attention of the reviewer.

    Welcome back!


    Read more: http://www.businessinsider.com/heres-what-recruiters-look-at-during-the-6-seconds-they-spend-on-your-resume-2012-4#ixzz1sFKe7NmI

  4. Randy:

    Wow, that’s some great and thoughtful feedback you shared. Thanks for taking the time. What I think this article neglects to mention, too, is that the “six-second rule” probably only applies in high-volume recruiting situations, NOT the majority of hiring circumstances. In other words, it sounds like they recruited a team of outside recruiters to be part of the experiment, who would have a vastly different approach to screening resumes compared to a small business owner or an experienced hiring manager like yourself. People sometimes take these articles as gospel, without understanding these important nuances, just like there’s a lot of paranoia about resume-scanning software when in reality only a very small fraction of employers (just the big ones, mainly) use such software. Again, thanks for sharing your terrific perspective…

  5. I see the trend and support Matt’s conclusions. If we turn and look at this from the other side we find a great OPPORTUNITY to be different.  I.E.  When employed and responsible for hiring great people we might consider actually reading the resumes carefully until certain the applicant will not be worth an interview leveraging our individual discernment capabilities.  We are all busy, but nobody has less “time” than anyone else; until they invent a vending machine that sells extra time.  Using recruiters is indeed a time saver in the area of screening culture fit and certain qualifications and attributes. But I content the hiring manager should look at all resumes if humanly possible first.

    We are all busy, but nobody has more/less “time” than anyone else; until they invent a vending machine that sells extra.

    Most of Matt’s crew consists of higher level employees and thinkers; management and executive types.  Why not leverage this study about how resumes are screened in our next positions to hire the very best?

    I’ve been a hiring “Manager” for close to twenty years. I believe that hiring is logistically the easiest thing to do. And firing (letting an employee go) is the most difficult thing to do as a manager. (Perhaps more emotionally than logistically in this “at will” WA State).  It should be treated just the opposite.

    To ensure my teams gain members that add the highest value in all areas  I’ve developed the practice of ensuring every resume, outside of those obvious mistake applications, are read in full at least once and usually twice if the individual is complex with extremely broad and varied skills. This is not, or should not be, a “dating game” based upon a 6 second visual scan/viseral reaction  . It is important to secure a “culture fit” and a bright and qualified candidate. Most human resource specialists are absolutely great at identifying rude or otherwise unwanted cultural attributes. However, despite the multitude of resumes processed, they do describe what the person knows how to do. I find if I stay on top of resumes I can build great teams drawing from talented and good people looking for a change, advancement, to be better appreciated or perhaps move to Seattle.

    I agree that from a job seeker angle this is rare. But, leveraging this apparent existing resume treatment norm and daring to be different will bear fruit.

    My 2 cents.


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