Episode 55: How to write the perfect resume – with Doug Levin of JobStars

Certified resume writer and career coach Doug Levin of JobStars explains how to craft the perfect resume and land that interview for your dream job.

Today’s guest

Doug Levin of JobStars

Website: JobStars

LinkedIn: JobStars USA

Facebook: JobStars USA

Instagram: jobstarsusa

Twitter: @JobStarsUSA

What makes the perfect resume?  What should you include to help you land that interview for your perfect job?  How do you format it so it gets through a review both by an automated applicant tracking system and a human reviewer?  

Doug Levin is an MBA-educated certified resume writer, career coach and the founder of JobStars USA, which offers career services that include resume writing and career coaching.

Doug specializes in building resumes, cover letters, and LinkedIn profile content for entry- through executive-level clients in a variety of industries and occupations.  Doug has personally written over 5,000 resumes since he began in 2011.  On a daily basis, Doug and his small team are dedicated to helping job seekers achieve their career goals.  This means building resumes and personal branding materials that communicate experience and key achievements in the appropriate context.

He explains the role of a resume in a jobseeker’s career journey and in helping them capture potential employer’s interest.

Listen in to learn about the modern AI applicant tracking system and how to write an ATS-friendly resume that still communicates the message to humans.  You’ll also learn about the common resume mistakes people make and the best practices in 2020.

Special offer!  Use the code changeworklife10 to get 10% off any JobStars service.

What you’ll learn in this episode

  • [1:22] Doug describes the career services on offer at JobStars and the type of clientele he serves.
  • [2:01] He explains how he came to offer career services.
  • [3:08] The differences between an American resume and a European CV.
  • [4:34] The role of a resume in marketing yourself and capturing the employer’s interest.
  • [6:07] Doug explains situations that might call for a resume to be customised and when it’s appropriate to send the same version to different employers.
  • [7:54] The use of artificial intelligence applicant tracking systems in analyzing suitable candidates.
  • [9:58] Learning to create an AI friendly document that still communicates the message to the human audience.
  • [10:58] The key things you need to keep in mind when creating an ATS friendly resume.
  • [14:38] The common mistakes that candidates make when writing their resumes.
  • [18:20] Why it can be harder to come up with quantifiable achievements in some roles than others and what to do in those circumstances.
  • [20:45] The importance of white space in your document, the right font and positioning yourself in the opening section.
  • [22:47] The career profile section – how to use keywords in your document and present an overview of your career.
  • [26:14] The role of a resume writer and the value they can bring to a candidate.

Resources mentioned in this episode

Please note that some of these are affiliate links and we may get a small commission in the event that you make a purchase.  This helps us to cover our expenses and is at no additional cost to you.

Special offer!  Use the code changeworklife10 to get 10% off any JobStars service.

To see the resources recommended by all our guests, visit the Resources page.

Episode 55: How to write the perfect resume - with Doug Levin of JobStars

Jeremy Cline 0:00
You've found your dream job, you know that it's what you want to do. Now you've got to make sure that you get an interview. How do you do that? By having an absolutely fantastic resume. And that's what we talk about in this episode. I'm Jeremy Cline, and this is Change Work Life.

Jeremy Cline 0:30
Hello and welcome to Change Work Life, the podcast that's all about beating the Sunday evening blues and enjoying Mondays again. Now I know we talk a lot on this podcast to people who change careers by means of starting their own business, but I'm conscious starting a business isn't for everyone. And for many of you, once you've worked out what it is that you want to do, getting a job in that area is the right thing for you to do. And so the focus on this episode is really how you maximise your chances of getting your dream job and specifically how you write your CV or your resume to give you the best chance. And to help you do that, I'm delighted to be joined by Doug Levin, founder of Job Stars. Doug is a certified resume writer and career coach, and make sure you listen to the end for a special offer just for Change Work Life listeners. Doug, welcome to the show.

Doug Levin 1:17
Hey, Jeremy. Thanks for having me.

Jeremy Cline 1:19
Can you tell us a little bit more about what you and what Job Stars does?

Doug Levin 1:23
Absolutely. So Job Stars USA is a career services practice. We provide resume writing and career coaching for entry through executive level job seekers. So this is a career services practice designed for helping individual job seekers. So we work with all different types of clients, entry through exec, resume writing, cover letters, LinkedIn profiles, personal websites, professional biographies, and then career coaching and things like picking a career path or preparing for an interview.

Jeremy Cline 1:58
And how did you get into this area the first place?

Doug Levin 2:02
From 2005 to 2011, I worked at a large job board called Career Builder here in the States. And my last job at Career Builder, I managed their resume service. So they are a large business, but they had a small business within which was their resume service. And so this was my first kind of exposure to the resume writing role back in 2010/2011. So it captured my interest having been in this space and after working at Career Builder for a number of years, I decided to resign and build my own business. And so I went from, you know, running a practice to going back to the ground floor of starting my own business. The focus was resumes, cover letters and career coaching to help job seekers.

Jeremy Cline 2:52
Let's just get the terminology right because I'm here in the UK, you're there in the US - in the UK, we tend to talk about someone's CV, their curriculum vitae, whereas you talk about resumes. As far as you're aware is that essentially the same thing, is what you call a resume the same as what we call a CV?

Doug Levin 3:09
Yeah, I think they're interchangeable terms. There do seem to be some cultural differences between an American resume and a European CV, but functionally, the words are interchangeable. But I would say that, you know, I have worked with some overseas clients in the UK, Germany, France, etc. And I noticed there are some differences in style. So I think that the European resume/CV tends to be a little longer, you'll find it closer to a three pager whereas an American resume is typically a little bit shorter, closer to two pages. And then there were things like sometimes use of an image. So in a European CV, you'll more likely see a headshot on a resume, things like that. Whereas on the resume in the US you wouldn't. So yeah, there are some cultural differences, but I think interchangeably the words mean the same.

Jeremy Cline 4:06
That's really interesting because it was kind of drilled into me at an early age that my CV should not be any longer than two pages. And I don't think I've ever included a headshot in mine. I don't know whether I've had the US influence or whether it's a UK thing, but that's really interesting. Before we get into what your resume should actually say and that sort of thing, perhaps you could talk to - and it might seem like an obvious question - but what would you say is the purpose of the resume?

Doug Levin 4:34
The resume is a essentially a marketing document. And the goal of the resume is to capture interest and land an interview. In most cases for you know, the job seeker in 2020, you know, you'll be applying to the job through the internet. And so you'll be filling out the form and uploading your resume and your resume is really that first opportunity. That's your first image or presentation to the potential employer. I mention that because really there are ancillary components too - so the cover letter, your LinkedIn profile - those all factor in, but really the resume is that first impression. And so the goal, like I said, it's a marketing document, so it's almost like you're trying to capture interest and get interviews. And so one thing I find is that many job seekers feel like they want to put as much good quality information in as possible. The tricky part is people on the other end, who are evaluating resumes are typically short in their consideration and might not want to read pages and pages. That's why I call it a marketing document. You really need to capture interest, get an interview, and if your resume does that, it's really served its purpose.

Jeremy Cline 5:55
Is a resume a document that should be tailored for every job application, or can you get by with your kind of stock resume, which is the same document you just send out every time?

Doug Levin 6:08
It really depends on the focus of the individual. So if your focus is varied, so if you have different job titles or different industries that you're looking to target, then you probably will need to do some customization of both your resume and cover letter on a case by case basis. Whereas if you're very clear headed on your target, whether it's the occupation or the industry, then you can build something that's very targeted and geared, and in most cases, you don't need to customise it. Either way, the cover letter is an opportunity to customise with each usage because you want to speak to that particular employer and their concerns, their mission statement, things like that. But for the resume itself, if you're clear in your target, then I think one version is sufficient. However, let's say for instance, you might be in sales - and there are ancillary components in sales. So there's business development, there's account management, there is new business development. And sometimes people don't want to take options off the table. And so in cases like that, where you want to keep your options open, then you need to do a better job of customising your resume - that's updating the core components for each job you apply to so that it feels genuine and aligned with your target.

Jeremy Cline 7:35
Talking about the audience now in 2020. Is there still always a human involved in the initial review or has it got to the stage where the first pass of resumes might be done entirely by artificial intelligence?

Doug Levin 7:54
The latter is the case in many cases, I think, you know, every company is different. Every company has their own process. But we've definitely seen over the last, you know, 20 years, this movement from a human review to an applicant tracking system review. And so the ATS - that's the common term for applicant tracking system - that's a general term for the software that companies use to manage the flow of applications coming in and out. And still, in many cases, companies use applicant tracking systems and software to analyse a resume versus a job description. So if the company's hiring for an account manager you know, with five years of experience in such and such - in many cases, their applicant tracking system can analyse your resume versus their job description, and do some of the work of screening clients out before it gets to the human reviewer. So these systems are very popular because it saves a lot of time. The tricky part for job seekers is of course trying to tune an applicant tracking system that is not a human being and how that all works. And there's a lot of confusion. You know, the tricky part too is that there's so many different systems out there. And it's not like all companies use one or two main systems. There are literally hundreds if not thousands of applicant tracking systems in use in corporate America and corporate in the European Union.

Jeremy Cline 9:30
So the ATS system or the automated system - presumably that's just done as a first pass and before someone might be invited to an interview, presumably there would always be a human looking at the the CV at the resume before you get to the interview stage. Is that right?

Doug Levin 9:48
That's correct. In most cases - depending on the size of the company and the software that they use - companies use applicant tracking system to automate the process of evaluating your resume before it gets to the Human Resources manager.

Jeremy Cline 10:06
Okay, so you've got to present a document then that can both be examined by the AI system, but then also has to be read by a human being. So you can't sort of turn it into a gibberish document, which happens to work for the AI but then the individual will look at that and think, well, this is just nonsense.

Doug Levin 10:25
Yeah, Jeremy, that's absolutely right. It's building a document that's both ATS friendly and visually appealing. You really have to build a resume to to specific audiences. So the one that works with these technology systems and then one that also is visually appealing and communicates a message or context to the human reader.

Jeremy Cline 10:52
So what sort of things do you put in which might help you with the the ATS system?

Doug Levin 10:59
With the ATS system, keywords are very important. Both keywords and key phrases. And so that depends on your focus. So that's a matter of what is your occupation, what is your industry, and from those two factors, also, what is your seniority level. So that's a third factor. With those factors, there are keywords and key phrases that are going to be most commonly used. So it's never a perfect science, but ultimately, you're trying to pick the right keyword. So if you're in product management, there are keywords specific to product management that you're going to want to use in your resume. Those can be found doing some internet research, or studying the job description that you're interested in applying to and trying to mirror the language that they're using. So keywords are a big component. The other component is the layout, the physical layout of your resume. In many cases, these systems are designed to pull in code information from your resume and analyse it. And so these systems are designed to pull your information from certain styles. So when we talk about layout, for instance, using columns, so if your resume has columns - it's not a top to bottom, but kind of left to right - these software systems may not be coded to hold your information and store it and make sense of it in that format. There's something called an ATS-friendly layout. So it's not only the keywords but the actual physical layout, making it easier for these systems to actually pull - you know, make sense of the content on your resume.

Jeremy Cline 12:49
And does that also extend to the order that you put things in? I mean, is it best to start with your education or start with your most recent position first? And I'm thinking here particularly in terms of the way that the ATS system will pull out the data.

Doug Levin 13:06
Most systems are intelligent enough to parse and categorise information regardless. So leading with your education versus your education being at the bottom of page two shouldn't make a difference in terms of the ATS component. The software should be able to. However within that you do want a top to bottom layout - a chronological view would typically start with your most recent work history and work your way back - and that's not only for the human reviewer but also for the applicant tracking system. So you want to try to not confuse it, but it's more so about the visual layout and distortions - so columns or graphics, tables, boxes, these are all things that can be distortions for these systems and pulling your information.

Jeremy Cline 13:59
What about the digital format use? I mean, is it best to send these in a Word document or a PDF? Or is there a preferred method of delivery?

Doug Levin 14:07
Yeah, Word or PDF. Those seem to be the safest options. You kind of want to follow whatever the system is asking you for. Every system is different. Some ask you to upload a Word or a PDF, it's good to have both. And then that way you're covered.

Jeremy Cline 14:24
So it's good to have both, in a Word document and a PDF document.

Doug Levin 14:28
Correct.

Jeremy Cline 14:29
And so in terms of the content, let's turn it around this way. What are some of the biggest mistakes that you see people make when it comes to writing their own resumes?

Doug Levin 14:38
I guess one thing is the tense that you're using, so first person versus third person. And so a lot of people will write in first person tense, like I was responsible for x, y, and z, or my responsibilities included ABC. So that's first person tense. And that would be considered a mistake. Typically the standard is you write in third person, so instead of saying my responsibilities included, you would say 'maintained responsibility for...' And so you want to narrate in third person, that's one that sticks out to me, because I see that quite a bit.

Jeremy Cline 15:18
If I could just pause on that one. Presumably you don't mean literally writing about yourself in the third person? So you wouldn't say Jeremy has skills in blah, blah, blah. Jeremy has done this, Jeremy has done that. You more use the passive voice. So rather than saying 'I did this', you'd say something like, 'has experience of' whatever it is?

Doug Levin 15:37
Precisely, exactly. Yeah. You wouldn't use like the example you provided, but instead of saying 'I was responsible for' doing such and such, you'd say, 'maintained responsibility for' and then list the responsibilities.

Jeremy Cline 15:54
Okay cool. Thank you for clarifying that. And so moving on to other mistakes?

Doug Levin 15:59
Another mistake I think is too many bullet points. When you think about an individual job description on your resume - so you worked at some company from 2017 to 2020 - and you're trying to lay out that work history. The right way to do it is instead of all bullet points, you want to do a paragraph and then bullet points. So bullet points should be reserved for achievements, initiatives, projects. The opening paragraph would be your duties and responsibilities. One of the common mistakes is when we're listing our job description, using all bullet points and mixing your duties with your achievements, that makes it harder on the reader. So what you want to do is reserve bullet points specifically for your achievements or accomplishments. And then you have an introductory paragraph that would highlight your high level duties and responsibilities.

Jeremy Cline 16:56
And are there any other sort of glaring mistakes that leap out at you as things that people do and shouldn't?

Doug Levin 17:02
One other thing would be an imbalance in your achievements versus your duties. When we talk about an achievement that might be a specific initiative, a project you completed, a time when you save the company money. These are specific achievements or accomplishments. And you want to have a good balance of those with what were your duties or responsibilities, what were the mundane expectations of the role. So sometimes we have too much of one or the other. And so that's a common mistake is you might see someone list their job and it's totally task oriented and there are no achievements whatsoever; or vice versa, where it's all achievement oriented and you know, you don't have a feel for what the what the actual role or job description was. So making sure that you have a balanced job description and avoiding an imbalance, which is a very common mistake.

Jeremy Cline 18:02
Do you find that people ever struggle with coming up with what achievements are? I mean, you know, if you think of your job and your job is to go into the office and do bla bla bla bla bla, and you do it and everyone's happy with what you do, I could see that some people might struggle to say, okay, but what's the achievement there?

Doug Levin 18:21
It depends on your role and your function. So some jobs are easier to come up with those achievements. So if you're in a sales or marketing role, you can maybe tie directly your work to your results. So in some cases of jobs, that are all achievement-based and it's pretty clear cut, whereas maybe you work in regulatory compliance - you're not a revenue based role. You're not generating revenue, you might not be even completing special assignments or what have you. And so some roles are definitely less achievement-oriented, and in cases like that, I generally recommend if you can't think of an achievement - and achievement is quantifiable typically, so dollars, percentage - if you can't think of quantifiable achievements, then think about specific projects or initiatives that you lead, you know, and it might not be quantifiable, but you could still talk about a time in which you lead a project or directed an assignment and delivered positive results.

Jeremy Cline 19:34
Okay, so to take your example of somebody in compliance, and it's kind of difficult to say something like I stopped our business getting pulled over the coals by the SEC 16 times or something like that, that's kind of not something you can say. But you can, for example, say that I designed and implemented a system which meant that our compliance processes were more streamlined and less of a drain in the business for example, would that be appropriate?

Doug Levin 20:01
Yeah, that's a great example. That's exactly right. And that's a specific kind of outside the box, hey, I took these steps and completed this and it resulted in such and such. That is a good way to display and it might not be an achievement, but it's more like, Hey, this is a specific initiative. And yeah, that's a great example.

Jeremy Cline 20:25
Are there any other good practices in terms of the form or the layout? I mean, we've talked a bit about columns and sort of going top to bottom and avoiding things like tables and boxes and graphics and that sort of thing. I mean, are there any other things which are just a good idea, like types of font you use or the point size or spacing or anything like that?

Doug Levin 20:47
So one thing that's important is whitespace. So having breathing room. You don't want your document to be so crammed together that it's hard to read. So whitespace is important and valuable in terms of giving it a little breathing room. There are multiple acceptable fonts - I like to use Arial or Calibri, or Times New Roman, somewhere in the 10 to 11 size font range, that's a little more flexible. Most systems can work with a lot of different fonts. But one thing that's important is the opening section. So when you think about a resume, if you think about a two page resume, the first half of page one is kind of like prior to your work history, this is like the section where you're kind of branding yourself, you're positioning yourself towards your target. This is an important area to really hone in on as far as what is your industry focus - what is your occupation, what is your level of seniority, and this is where you're going to use the keywords that are aligned toward your target. That opening section of your resume is really important to set the tone, communicate the right context. And then once you do that, then the rest of the resume is your work history, your education, your certifications, things like that. So it's really a balance. Two pages is not a lot to work with, especially if you have 10/15 plus years of experience. And it's really an exercise in allocating space appropriately, so that you have a good balance.

Jeremy Cline 22:33
So what goes into that top section then because certainly, I've often seen that you'll have someone's name and address at the top, contact details, and then it kind of goes straight into work history and that sort of thing. So what goes in this initial section?

Doug Levin 22:49
So between the work history and your name and contact info at the top is a section called the career profile, and this is the section where you're aligning your skills and experience at a high level towards your target. So what might be in the section typically, there's a title. If you're targeting account management roles, you might use a title called account manager. And then below that title, you would put a sub header, it's an action statement. So you know, the essence of what an account manager does, so like a one line action statement that positions you as a strong account manager. So again, there's the title, then the sub header, then an introductory paragraph that's three to five lines, followed by core competencies that are aligned to your industry or occupation. That is the balance of a career profile, having an opening title with a supporting sub header, followed by a three to five line paragraph that gives your high level professional summary and then you'll typically list nine to twelve core competencies. And this ties back into what we were talking about with keywords and key phrases. If my title is account manager, then the nine or twelve core competencies need to be keywords or key phrases that tie into account management.

Jeremy Cline 24:21
And again with this initial three to five lines, that would all be again written in the in the third person? So you wouldn't use 'I am this,' 'I do that'?

Doug Levin 24:30
Correct. So this would be in third person and it would establish - so this will be a section where we would say maybe 15 years of progressive experience with a fortune 500 company or whatever the case may be. Industry specialisation in the consumer packaged goods industry - and again, this is whatever your case is, but this three to five line paragraph is going to be kind of an executive summary, a high level overview of the work that you've done over the last 15 or 20 years.

Jeremy Cline 25:03
And then when it comes to the competencies, is it enough to make sure that you pick out lots of keywords from the job description and just put them in that core competencies? Or is there a bit more to it than that?

Doug Levin 25:14
You can use kind of like the common keywords. So again, if you're in account management, then there are going to be keywords and phrases that are kind of ubiquitous in that space. You can use those common keywords and key phrases, maybe business development, customer success, whatever they are. From there, it's kind of up to each individual. If you want to take the extra step of studying the job description and updating your core competencies to mirror the phrases and terms that they're using, then you're welcome to do that, and it improves your odds. But not everyone necessarily wants to tweak their resume to that degree. At the same time you can kind of use the ubiquitous common keywords and focus more around volume. It's up to each individual what strategy they want to use for that.

Jeremy Cline 26:05
So tell me where someone with your skills fits in with the process. What does a resume writer bring to someone's resume or CV?

Doug Levin 26:15
There's a lot - you know, trying to understand the client's focus and concentration, trying to make critical assessments of what's relevant and what's not. I think a lot of people have difficulty writing about themselves. And so there's that outside perspective. But, you know, my job when I work with someone is to really try and step into their shoes and figure out their focus and build documents that are aligned with their target. There's just a lot that goes into it to really understand all those components. You know, it's not easy. Many people who are job seekers might have been working for a company for 10 straight years and never needed to update their resume. And so it can be a really confusing. process if you're doing it alone, so working with an experienced resume writer provides a safety net and direction on how to really build a competitive document.

Jeremy Cline 27:11
Fascinating. And I guess - certainly the people who've been in the same job for 10 or 20 years - the whole idea of these automated systems, they can be quite alien to a lot of people?

Doug Levin 27:21
Oh, very much so. There's a lot to learn. You shouldn't really be expected to know all this if you're a dedicated professional and you're focused on your job and something happens and you need a resume and you need to start applying to jobs, it makes sense to reach out to an expert that specialises in a field that can give you you know, a head start.

Jeremy Cline 27:43
Doug, this has been incredibly helpful. Just so much practical advice in what you're saying. Do you have any books, tools resources, which you routinely recommend to clients or which you've just found really useful in the career space?

Doug Levin 27:58
Yeah, absolutely. So I have a couple book recommendations. You know, one of my favourites is called What Colour is Your Parachute?

Jeremy Cline 28:06
Oh yes.

Doug Levin 28:07
And that one goes back aways, and it gets updated every year. It's probably the go-to for job seekers, it's kind of like a bible of everything that you would ever need. And then one other one - it depends on your focus, but if you are an executive level job seeker, there's a book called Rites of Passage: 100k to a million. And this is for people in the hundred k plus. You can look it up on Amazon, Rites of Passage, but it's a really good book for senior level professionals that are, you know, looking to get ahead.

Jeremy Cline 28:45
Fantastic. And I will link to those in the show notes. And where's the best place that people can find you?

Doug Levin 28:51
You can go straight to my website. It's JobStars.com. you can check out my professional bio on there, all the services - so we provide resume writing, and career coaching. I'm easy to get in contact with, jobstars.com, you can fill out a contact us form and I would be happy to hear from you.

Jeremy Cline 29:13
And I mentioned that you might have a special offer for listeners.

Doug Levin 29:17
Yes, indeed. So you may use a coupon code changeworklife10. So that's all one word changeworklife10, for 10% off your order.

Jeremy Cline 29:28
Brilliant. I will link to all of that in the show notes. Doug this has been a really, really interesting and helpful conversation. So thank you so much for your time.

Doug Levin 29:36
Thanks Jeremy, I enjoyed it.

Jeremy Cline 29:39
Okay, hope you enjoyed that interview with Doug Levin of Job Stars USA. I'd never really thought before of the idea of your CV, your resume being a marketing document, but Doug's quite right, that is exactly what it is. And it's a bit of a mindset shift really. Most people will probably just see their resume as something that they write down to show that they've got some experience and what they've been doing, but actually thinking of it as a marketing document as something which you're really using to showcase yourself. I think with that sort of shift in mindset, it means that you're naturally going to create a better document. There's a tonne of value there about what sort of things should go into a resume, the formatting, how you make sure that it deals with both the human reviewer and also the applicant tracking system. And I have to say, before I spoke to Doug, I was a bit cynical about the value that resume writers could bring - I just assumed that they would present you with this kind of template, which wasn't really tailored. But it's clear from speaking to Doug that there's a whole lot more than that, that there's a lot of things to get right. And even if you tailor your CV for every application you make, there's clearly quite a lot that goes into the formatting, the design, the content - that a CV writer a resume writer can help you with. And Doug's absolutely right, why should you know all this, why not rely on and use people like Doug to help you maximise your chances for something which is really big, which is really quite important - getting the job of your dreams. You'll find Show Notes for this episode at changeworklife.com/55. You'll find there there's a couple of template resumes to show you the sort of form that Doug was talking about, as well as links to the resources that Doug mentioned and how you can find him. And don't forget, if you'd like to use Doug's services, then go to changeworklife.com/jobstars, and use the coupon code changeworklife10 for 10% off whatever services that you choose to engage Doug to provide you with. Next week is a really special episode. It's the one year anniversary of this podcast and I'm marking it by talking about the bucket list. What sort of things should you have on your bucket list? Do you have one? Should you have one? Have you written it down? That's all the stuff that we're going to be talking about. It's my year anniversary episode. So please do come join me and I can't wait to see you then. Cheers. Bye.

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