I Have Read Thousands of Resumes, and I Have Some Advice

The history of this strange document can tell job seekers what works and what doesn’t.,


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In the last decade, I have revised 3,000 resumes while working as a college career adviser. Here is my advice: The strongest will fit on a single page. Exceptions are few. An 8.5 by 11 inch sheet of letter paper fits about 700 words. So be efficient. Recruiters often say they spend six seconds reviewing the average candidate. Are you worth seven?

I would lose my mind if all I did was revise resumes, and so I got curious about their history.

The internet says Leonardo da Vinci wrote the first resume in the late-15th century. He pitched his weaponry chops — not his artistic services — to Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan. It seems right that da Vinci would have “Invented resume” on his resume, but wrong that he met the future patron of The Last Supper by applying for the job of Entry-Level Warmaker. A Renaissance man and a career changer.

Da Vinci knew his audience: “Most Illustrious Lord,” he opens. I can’t help imagining the eye roll of the Milanese Department of Military Affairs HR Analyst on whose desk this thing landed, unsolicited, with a thunk. “I shall endeavor, without prejudice to anyone else, to explain myself to your Excellency.” It goes on like that for a little while. Geniuses need resume advice, too, and if da Vinci were my advisee, I’d start by telling him to limit the sycophantic window dressing.

Still, there are real strengths. He writes, “I have kinds of mortars; most convenient and easy to carry; and with these I can fling small stones almost resembling a storm; and with the smoke of these cause great terror to the enemy, to his great detriment and confusion.” One could do worse than to imitate the specificity of his enumeration of relevant experience, though I wince at his description of death facilitation as a career skill.

I wanted to push back against this too-neat and much-blogged history (da Vinci, really?), and try to square what I found with my experience of advising job seekers anxious to capture the attention of today’s Dukes of Milan. They all work in tech. I discovered a surprising (to me) number of scholarly essays about these maligned documents and their rise to prominence in the 20th century.

They make peer-reviewed arguments about how resumes convey meaning — and what happens when we feed people with rich histories and full identities into the labor market’s meat grinder. The conclusions are not encouraging. Even strong resumes hardly ever predict an applicant’s real capacity to do a job. When presented with a slate of candidates, hiring managers — even the robots — exhibit sundry biases related to race, gender, ethnicity and education. No one seems to know how, precisely, experience molds people to fit labor slots.

Yet the resume’s demise (promised since the 1980s, when VHS profiles figured to replace paper) seems always to recede beyond the horizon.

Before his death in 2005, Randall Popken taught English and writing at Tarleton State University, Texas. His account of the resume’s rise (by far the most engaging — though the competition is, let us say, not stiff) tracks their early presence in business writing textbooks in the 1920s. In “The Pedagogical Dissemination of a Genre: The Resume in American Business Textbooks, 1914-1939,” Popken argued that mass pedagogy popularized and standardized resumes as we know them. “I do not mean to suggest that the authors of these textbooks exactly invented the resume,” he writes, “this is the site where — for the small but influential audience of future businesspeople — the resume entered and became stabilized in American professional culture.”

I found a few things in my own efforts to track the first references to resumes in the American press. The earliest request for a resume in a classified ad that I could find comes from The New York Times in November 1917. An advertisement for “Sales Correspondent” asks applicants to “bring resume of experience.”

Here, resume means summary or recapitulation. In loads of American newspapers, the word resume appears in theater and book reviews well before it shows up in classifieds. So while this might be the first time someone deployed resume to refer to a professional summary, it predates the evolution of the word into a stand-alone term.

I care less about French meanings and false cognates than about the word resume in the United States’ distinctive usage. When describing the “Chiefly North American” use of resume (most of the world prefers “CVs”), the Oxford English Dictionary points to The Hartford Courant on April 3, 1938. An ad for a “Casualty Claim Examiner” encourages candidates to “send complete resume with snapshot.”

I found an even earlier example. In The New York Herald Tribune, on December 27, 1931, the “Executive Service Corporation” on East 42nd Street posted the following ad: “Acct & statistical exp.; bring written resume.” It felt like finding the first sonnet written on a 15th-century bar napkin.

Popken argues in “A Theoretical Study of Indirect Speech Acts in Resumes” that the act of reading a resume can entail “an aggressive manufacture of meanings beyond those assumed by the literal text.” Herein lies a clear linguistic challenge.

To the floor of my rag and bone shop fall all superfluous meanings and innuendo. I tell advisees to describe previous work in bullet points. Use only strong verbs: led, managed, created, built, sold, exceeded, presented, collaborated, implemented and succeeded. Do this even if you think different words better describe your achievements during these grueling years: endured, survived, marched, overcame, wept, fought, broke, failed, blundered, relapsed, loved. This will improve the impression that you make on the reader!

I didn’t know I would have this career. I don’t remember applying. Sure, resumes are one way to ply craft. To obsess over word counts, syllables and meanings.

But lately, I keep imagining myself as the protagonist in some maudlin campus novel. The protagonist works at an unnamed New England college. He spends his life in quiet service to future captains of finance, technology, medicine and law. He never rises above the rank of Associate Dean, da Vinci Center for Career Advancement. In the end, word spreads throughout LinkedIn that he lies on his deathbed, and his former students flock to campus for a tearful thank you, and one final revision.

He never realizes the resumes constitute his magnum opus.

Want some real advice? Resumes do violence to language. They are poetry, inverted. You must dry the joy from the bones of words; drain the human sauce; leave a labored husk printed on eggshell. Only then can you guilelessly communicate that you were on the dean’s list at your university for five of eight total semesters. And hope it matters.

Don’t add languages you haven’t mastered. Everyone will know you don’t speak “conversational” Spanish. And no one cares that you once went to France.

Good luck in your search.

A-J Aronstein is the dean of Barnard College’s Career Center and is not writing a novel about it.

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