Making sure your resume gets to the top of the pile

What happens to your resume after you click the “send’’ button?

For most job seekers, the process is a mystery: Faceless human resources staffers poring over piles of CVs, deciding which applicants get an interview, and which get a generic “Thanks for your interest’’ e-mail.

I spent last week talking to chief executives and human resources executives about how resume-sifting works at Massachusetts companies, from accounting firms to makers of organic crackers. Here are the 13 most surprising things I learned, and most useful pieces of advice I heard.


- At most companies, your resume gets a quick scan by one person who decides whether the hiring manager will see it. That scan lasts between 30 seconds and a minute, says Ed Nathanson, director of talent acquisition at Rapid7, a Boston data security start-up.

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- If at all possible, find an employee at the target company to submit your resume, along with a personal recommendation. At Black Duck Software in Burlington, vice president of human resources Tammi Pirri says that 35 percent of the company’s hires in 2011 “came from our own networks and employee referrals. And we expect that to grow to 45 percent or 50 percent this year.’’

- E-mail, social media, or old-fashioned mail can get more attention than just submitting your resume through a website. “My favorite thing is when people seek us out, because I need people who are self-starters,’’ says Nicole Bernard Dawes, chief executive of Late July Organic Snacks in Barnstable. “If someone e-mails or sends me a LinkedIn message that says, ‘I love what you stand for, and I really want to come work there,’ that’s something I pay attention to.’’ Audrey Lampert, cultivator of talent and culture at Gemvara, a Boston start-up that sells jewelry online, says that on the rare occasion someone sends a paper resume. “It sits on my desk and I look at it for so long that I eventually call them.’’

- If your resume looks interesting, it will often be compared to your LinkedIn profile. Do the two documents list the same jobs, dates, and skills?

- No one likes a job hopper - but don’t try to conceal it. “If someone has had six jobs in four years, that rubs me the wrong way,’’ says Dara Hagopian, senior recruiting manager at Eversave, a daily deals company in Wakefield. And HR execs are skeptical if you cut out the months and only list the years worked at each company, trying to make the tenure look longer.


- Your resume reflects attention to detail. Most human resource executives say they like a clean, simple design without grammatical or spelling mistakes. “Paying attention to those things can be an indication that someone cares about doing the administrative stuff that most jobs require,’’ says Charles Telep, manager of research recruiting at Forrester Research in Cambridge.

- “Enhancing’’ job titles can spark skepticism. “Let’s say someone was really an account executive, but the title they put on that job is regional sales manager,’’ says Hagopian. “You can sort of tell that they’re trying to beef up their title, because in the job description, it’s clear they weren’t managing anybody.’’

- Resume readers tune out over-cooked lingo - isn’t everyone a “motivated and creative self-starter capable of incentivizing and supervising multiple high-performance teams’’? What they really want to see are data points and concrete descriptions of what you’ve done. “If you expanded sales in Europe from $1 million to $4 million, put that in there,’’ says human resources director Paul Crivello at Digital Lumens.

- Customize each resume to particular job opportunities. That means ensuring that the cover letter explains your interest in the company and this specific job, and the resume lists specific tools and skills mentioned in the job description.

- Many companies use applicant tracking software to sort resumes. At Thermo Fisher, a scientific instrument maker in Waltham, vice president of talent acquisition Kevin Darby says they look at between 800 and 1,000 resumes each week. While most will be perused by a human, the software can bring resumes to the top that include particular keywords related to a skill mentioned in the job description.


- Do cover letters still matter in the 21st century? “I don’t have time for it,’’ says Crivello, “We just want a one- or two-page resume.’’ But others say a short letter can be used to explain why you’re excited about the opportunity. “If there’s a one- or two-line note from someone who has clearly spent some time on our site, and maybe tells me about what they found engaging, that can be really compelling,’’ says Lampert at Gemvara.

- There’s no consensus about whether resumes should start with a summary of career achievements or a career objective. Crivello falls into the first camp, suggesting that applicants summarize accomplishments of the past five years. Darby at Thermo Fisher likes to see “career goals and aspirations’’ at the top of a resume. But goals that seem off-target or too ambitious for the job can kill your chances.

- No amount of resume rehab can persuade a human resources executive that you’re someone you’re not. A person with 25 years of experience applying for a junior associate job will get nixed just as quickly as someone just out of school who believes they should be in a VP’s office. “The first gate to get through,’’ says Telep at Forrester, “is having experience that is relevant to the role that we are trying to fill.’’

Scott Kirsner can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.