“Is there truly such a thing as a great resume — or are there only great candidates?”

Some may disagree, but I think this simple question has a lot of important layers bundled up in it, as well as some profound implications for today’s job hunters — many of whom continue to hold (in my opinion) an unhealthy and unrealistic view of the role that resumes play in the job search process.

So again, I’m just going to throw the question out there.  Have you ever seen “greatness” in a resume?  Have you ever hired somebody BECAUSE their resume was so wonderfully creative, attractive, or well put-together?  Or was your positive impression of a candidate mostly due, instead, to things like the relevance of the person’s employment titles to the job at hand, the reputation of their previous employers, and the impressiveness of their achievements to date?

I raise this issue because I’m constantly coming across job hunters who complain that “their resume isn’t working” or “their resume must not be very good” because it’s not generating very many (or any) interviews.  As a result of this concern, many frustrated professionals end up spending tons of time, and money, endlessly tweaking their resume in the hopes of improving their job search results.  Making matters worse, they often fall prey to the countless resume-writing services on the web that fan these flames and apply fear-based selling techniques to convince people they’ll never work again unless they pony up $399…0r $599…or $799 for a complete resume overhaul.

As a matter of fact, I received an e-mail recently that illustrates this very point.  After writing the resume for one of my outplacement clients several months ago, this person submitted her document to the website Jobfox.com and received a lengthy “complimentary critique” back from them that basically said her resume stunk and that she’d be a fool not to hire them to fix it.  Below are a few choice snippets from the 2,000-word formulaic critique they sent her.  I’d be happy to share the full review with anybody who might be interested in seeing it, but frankly, I suspect all you’d need to do is send Jobfox your own resume and you’d have a carbon-copy sent to you almost immediately.

Jobfox Review: “My first impression of you is that you have an impressive array of skills and experiences. You’re a qualified Executive Assistant Professional with a lot to offer an employer.  Now, here’s the bad news: your resume does not pass the 30 second test and the content is not up to the standards one would expect from a candidate like you.”

[Matt’s Comment: Oh really?  If the content is “not up” to current standards and the resume doesn’t pass the 3o-second test, then how exactly did the reader arrive at the impression that my client is such a “qualified” professional with “a lot to offer” an employer?]

Jobfox Review: “We’ve all been told that looks don’t matter as much as substance, but in the case of your resume this just isn’t true. I found your design to be simplistic. The appearance is not polished, and it doesn’t say “high potential Executive Assistant Professional.”

[Matt’s Comment: There’s that phrase “Executive Assistant Professional” again, which, when you think about it, doesn’t even really make sense or sound like proper English.  Hmmm.  Is anybody else starting to get the feeling that this might be an automated template where they just mail-merge a phrase from the top of each person’s resume into the letter, every once in a while, to try and make the critique sound more personalized?  Shame on my client for not working in a more mainstream field like Sales or Finance where the cookie-cutter template could just add “professional” after the phrase without it sounding silly!]

Jobfox Review: “The ideal resume design is airy, clean, and uncluttered…with the effective and strategic use of white space.”

[Matt’s Comment: Wait a minute.  Didn’t you just say, a moment ago, that my client’s resume was too “simplistic” to be effective?  And now you’re saying the best resumes are “clean and uncluttered” with lots of white space?  I’m struggling to understand the distinction here.  Should a good resume be long, complicated, and fancy-looking — or should it be simplistic?  I mean, my client is already using a one-page resume with plenty of white space and short phrases of bulleted text.  How does one get much more clean/uncluttered than that???]

Jobfox Review:”In conclusion, your resume is selling you short, and I recommend that you make the investment in having it professionally rewritten.  If your resume is not as strong as the top 10% then your chances of getting the interview are slim. In spite of your skills and experience, your resume will not compete well against a professionally written resume.  I hate to see a strong person like you being underserved by something that can be fixed.”

[Matt’s Comment: Lord, give me strength.  Did this “expert” reviewer really just wrap up the critique by informing my client that she’s a “strong person” and that she’d “hate to see her” not be more successful in her search?  Sorry, not buying it.  I think it takes a little more than an unsolicited resume review conducted via cyberspace to form such a deep emotional bond.  And by the way, how does this reviewer know that my client hasn‘t already had her resume professionally-written?  That’s a pretty bold (and in this case, wrong) assumption.  It really doesn’t matter, though.  It’s evident that nothing (not the truth, not rational thinking, not professional ethics) was going to stand in the way of this reviewer getting to the final pitch, where she hit my client up for $399 to re-do a perfectly good document.]

All ranting aside, though, the piece of the final critique section above that relates directly back to my original “burning question” is the part where the reviewer says “If your resume is not as strong as the top 10% then your chances of getting the interview are slim.”  This is the part I want my readers to think really hard about.  What does the phrase “top 10%” resume actually mean?  Does it mean that the resume layout is among the 10% most beautiful in existence?  Or that the copywriting of the piece is more compelling than that of 89% other resumes floating around out there?  Or does it suggest, instead, that the candidate herself is actually among the 10% most qualified people in the market for the specific types of jobs she’s seeking?

From my standpoint, it’s the latter factor that job hunters should be most focused on, not the former two.  Sure, you need a nice-looking resume that doesn’t have any obvious mistakes and that doesn’t undersell you by leaving out lots of the wonderful accomplishments you’ve realized over the years.  But beyond that, how much more room for improvement is there, really?  Perhaps the reason you’re not getting more interviews is not because of your resume format itself, but because you’re not sending out enough resumes to the right places, or following up assertively, or networking hard enough to find unpublished opportunities.  Or maybe it’s just the sheer competition level out there — or that you’ve allowed your skill sets to get a bit dusty compared to what employers are currently looking for in your field, in which case you’d be better served by taking that $399 and investing it in a professional development class of some kind.

Long story short, it ain’t usually the resume that’s the problem, folks!  You want to have a good one, for sure, but a great one?  I’m not sure a roomful of resume experts, recruiters, and hiring managers could even agree on what that definition means, exactly…