How your resumé actually gets reviewed at tech companies
I reviewed 120 resumés in four hours.
In 2014, I went to Duke (my alma mater) with the Dropbox recruiting team to do on-campus recruiting. Duke has a big career fair every fall. Companies set up booths in the gymnasium and students come by to learn about the companies and open roles. This is also an opportunity for students to drop off their resumés.
The career fair was exhausting. Along with three other Dropboxers, I spent eight straight hours talking to hundreds of undergrads and grad students interested in roles at Dropbox. Every one of them dropped off a resumé. By the end of the day, I personally had collected a stack of 120 resumés.
At the end of the career fair, we packed up our booth, grabbed a bite to eat, and posted up in the hotel lobby. It was time to review all of the resumés we collected.
My eyes were opened to how resumés were evaluated.
Each of us was expected to review every resumé we received, that very night.
The recruiting team had detailed guidelines of what qualities we were looking for. There was room for discretion, but we had very clear directions that the recruiting team and the hiring manager put together ahead of time.
As a resumé screener, my job was to pull out candidates that met the bar for moving on to interviews. I had to get through 120 resumés. Think about it and do the math.
120 resumés x 2 minutes/resumé = 240 minutes or 4 hours.
Recruiters spend 2 minutes or less reviewing resumés out of necessity.
Your resumé has 2 minutes or less to stand out.
4 ways to make your resumé memorable
As I was making my way through the stack of 120 resumés, inevitably after the first 30, they all started blurring together. However, there were some resumés that distinctly stood out, even to this day.
After going through 120 resumés in four hours, I noticed patterns in the ones that stood out. The memorable resumés were very different in terms of experience, educational background, and personal interests. However, they all shared these four elements that helped tell their story.
1. What did you actually do?
A lot of resumés have fluffy language with oblique descriptions of accomplishments and responsibilities to make them sound important. Resumé screeners see right through this.
A lot of resumés have ambiguous descriptions like, “Led strategic initiatives to drive revenue growth across multiple channels.” Ok, so what did you actually do?
Instead, just say what you did. Something like,
Outperformed annual sales quota by 30% through direct sales, cold calling, and up-sells.
Using clear language is even more important if you don’t have experiences from a well known company. The resumé screener won’t have an implicit understanding of what the company does and if your own description of your experience is nebulous, you’re making it difficult for the screener to draw positive conclusions about your qualifications for the role.
2. Show quantified impact of your accomplishments.
Instead of describing responsibilties, stand out by showing actual results.
A lot resumés regurgitate phrases in the job description. This may seem like tailoring your resumé to the job, but in reality, you’re not. You’re just hoping a few buzz words will get you past the resumé screen.
If you have relevant experience, use the job description as a guide, but show tangible results. For instance, if a job description for a marketing manager position mentions email marketing, write out the results you’ve acheived, don’t just state that you, “Owned email marketing campaigns for strategic product initiatives.”
What matters is the impact of your work, not the actual day to day responsibilities.
Instead, say something like:
Drove X product launch email marketing campaign that produced 300 qualified sales leads directly attributing to over $30,000 in revenue
It’s even more important to show tangible results if you don’t exactly have relevant experience or a non-traditional background for a role.
Showing great results will demonstrate you’re a high performer and may help you make up for your lack of direct experience to get past the resumé screen.
3. Aggressively feature your strengths to drive a narrative.
You’re not going to check off every job requirement in a job posting (no one does). However, you probably have skills and experiences in a few areas relevant to the role that are stronger than other candidates. Aggressively highlight those strengths.
Let’s say you’re applying to a product manager position but most of your experience has been in engineering. Of course, make sure you round out your resumé with other types of experiences that demonstrate other skills needed for the role e.g. business acumen, design intuition, etc, but double down on your strengths.
Highlight your technical projects and the positive results you’ve achieved as an engineer. Show that you have a technical “spike,” a strength in one of the criteria you’re evaluated on. Having a spike helps craft a narrative the resumé screener can use as a reason to move you to interviews.
Make it easy for the resumé screener to describe a reason (a spike!) to move your application on to the next round. Something like,
Lisa is very strong technically, she definitely meets the technical bar for the product manager role. She also has some relevant experience working with business stakeholders. Let’s bring her in for an interview to get more signal on the rest of her experience and the other criteria.
4. Make yourself a human and not a piece of paper by highlighting a noteworthy tidbit about yourself.
Do you have a travel blog you write on consistently or a YouTube channel with your own music? Do you like to run marathons, volunteer at the animal shelter, or make flower arrangements? Do you have a side project you’re proud of?
It doesn’t have to be these exact things, but write down a few interests in your resume. If there’s a notable achievement in one of these areas, highlight it! Did your food Instagram account get featured in a recognizable publication? Put it on your resumé!
Keep this section short and it’s fine if you don’t have specific achievements you want to highlight, but at least have an “Interests” section with a few hobbies or genuine interests.
The purpose of this section is to add a little flair to stand out. Your experience is the most important section, but your Interests section, especially if there’s a notable accomplishment, even if it’s not relevant to the role, could be a tipping point.
Screeners read through so many resumés that look the same on paper.
It’s hard to be memorable, however, a unique personal detail stays in the screeners mind and provide additional positive signal. For instance, if you’ve qualified for the Boston Marathon, there are natural associations that you are disciplined and a hard worker. This detail won’t be the reason you move on to an interview, but if the screener is on the fence, it could be the difference.
If you have online evidence for your accomplishment, whether it’s the actual link to your blog or a screenshot of your marathon results, include it. This makes your accomplishment credible.
Your personal tidbit could be something your interviewer asks about.
If so, that’s a great place for your personality to shine!
Here’s a personal example. I wrote a book and it hit #1 in a category in the Kindle store. I highlighted this fact and included a link to a screenshot of it at #1. When I was interviewing for technical customer support jobs, I got asked about this in over half of my interviews!
It wasn’t the reason I got job offers, but I’m sure it helped differentiate me from other candidates and at least gave something unique for the interviewers to talk about.
Here’s that specific section from my actual resumé that I used to land a job at Dropbox:
Put yourself in the shoes of the resumé screener
The screener’s job is to look for candidates who are potential role fits in a pile of hundreds of resumés. By default, every resumé starts off as a rejection and will get rejected unless ⭐ something stands out ⭐️. Use the four elements mentioned above to leverage your experience to craft a story of how you fit the needs for the role.
Make it easy for the screener to move you on to interviews!