Resumes usually provide a selected snapshot of an applicant’s experience, qualifications, skills and experience. They feel like a great place to start and sometimes finish. In reality though, a resume is (or should be) a glossy highlights package that might be completely true – or not. It might have been written by the applicant – or not. It might give you an insight into his or her professionalism and education – or not. That’s not to say resumes should be ignored, its only to suggest we see them for what they might be and what they’re intended for – an indication into how an applicant perceives an adequate or ideal professional presentation when selling themselves, within the ability, resources and awareness they have at their disposal.

What to look for

Cover letters are often very revealing. If the applicant tailors a cover letter to your role, it might be assumed they are specifically keen on your role (or, as we find from time to time, we receive a cover letter written for another role altogether). It can often give you an insight into their professionalism, spelling, grammar and attitude (we had one recently that simply stated “Started (a new role) 4 months ago but wanted to see what you have to offer”). In some roles cover letters are not common so we can miss this up-front insight, but for desk and senior roles we expect them as a sign of professionalism.

Long resumes bother us. Whilst acknowledging that different industries typically have different employment lifecycles, and that there may be many valid reasons for job or career changes, there is a lot to be inferred from longevity. When people change jobs, we ask applicants to talk us through why the job changes occurred. We don’t hesitate to probe and provoke, but we do it without judgement – often employers are business changes are the cause of instability and it would be unfair to hold that against the employee. However, it pays to be cynical as repeated patterns can be expected to continue.

Omissions bother us. Applicants might choose to only include relevant experiences, but we prefer to see it all, and if it’s not relevant we’ll not waste time on it. Gaps raise questions, especially about honesty. We also look out for things like “various driving jobs” for a given period. Who with? Why “various”? Doing what exactly? It’s also a good idea to compare the language and messages of resumes and cover letters to interviews – search for authenticity and consistency.

Even if they are accurate, there’s a lot resumes don’t tell you, such as:

  • Behaviours – normal and under stress
  • Personal motivations
  • Ability to solve problems and resolve personal differences
  • Objective skill and achievement levels
  • How they like (or need) to be managed
  • How they fit in, got on and reacted to feedback
  • Honesty and integrity
  • What other voices are likely to influence their joining and their responses to job demands

For us, resumes and cover letters are an important starting place, but, in conjunction with behavioural interviewing and amazingly revealing online assessments, only one influence in forming an opinion about whether an applicant will succeed and thrive in a given role.