Question: “I’m not very happy with my resume — how can I take it from good to great?”

Believe it or not, even though I’ve been asked this question (or some form of it) countless times during my 15-year adventure in the career coaching field, my typical answer continues to be very unsatisfying for the people who ask it: “Geez, I’m not really sure.”

While this may seem like a dangerous admission for a job search professional to make, I can’t help myself, because I find the concept of a “great resume” to be every bit as elusive as the concept of “great artwork”or “great music” — and despite hundreds of books written on the subject, I simply don’t believe that there is a formulaic method for achieving this goal.  A good or very good resume?  Sure.  There are all kinds of guidelines one can follow (e.g. no typos, quantified accomplishments, all the right buzzwords…) to ensure that your resume presentation is well above-average.  In fact, most people probably can get by just fine — and land a terrific job — with nothing more than a “very good” resume at their disposal.  But resumes deserving of the label “great” are perhaps one in a hundred, or even rarer, and it’s as tough to pin down why they deserve this distinction as it is to replicate it.

For starters, as stated above, let’s acknowledge the fact that resumes are highly subjective documents and that there is almost complete disagreement among experts (i.e. career counselors, resume-writers, hiring managers, recruiters…) about how candidates today should format their materials.  On one hand, you’ll find top authorities such as venture capitalist Guy Kawasaki adamantly maintaining that all job seekers, even senior executives, should limit their resumes to no more than a single page of information.  On the other hand, you’ll find folks such as Yahoo’s head of HR, Libby Sartain, rebuking this advice and maintaining that resume length is completely irrelevant as long as the resume is interesting, pertinent, and well-organized.  And you’ll find other experts, still, who insist on functional formats, or chronological formats, or web-enabled layouts, or who even advise job hunters not to use resumes at all when looking for work — due to their belief that resumes often become a “crutch” that prevents people from engaging in more proactive job hunting techniques such as networking, direct contact, and the like.

Given these conflicting opinions, therefore, and the near-zero chance of success one has in pleasing everybody with their materials, I find that the goal of designing a “great” resume is often unnecessary, time-consuming, and unrealistic.  Instead, my advice for most people is to follow the more conventional path and see if they can get the results they want with a well-crafted piece that is 100% error-free and follows the more universally-accepted format/content conventions.  Try shooting for “very good” first, in other words, and see whether this level of quality is “good” enough to land you interviews.  Don’t set the bar higher than it may actually need to be.  After all, the most important facet of your entire resume is the piece that usually can’t be changed all that much — namely, the choices you’ve made over the years in terms of your employment history, education, and industry background.

Not satisfied with this recommendation?  Still bothered by the thought that your resume may be wallowing in the upper echelons of mediocrity?  Fine, then.  If you insist, you can try developing a piece that deserves to nominated for the resume hall of fame.  As stated above, however, it is extremely difficult to tell somebody how to go about this.  Perhaps you could start the resume off with a bold, creative statement about your leadership philosophy, core strengths, or personality — or could possibly grab the reader’s attention with a compelling quotation or testimonial.  Or instead, if you wanted to win points for visual ingenuity, perhaps you could come up with some wildly creative, eye-catching format that nobody’s ever seen before — and that shows off the caliber of your desktop publishing skills.

Just remember, though, the bigger the creative risk you take, the greater the odds are that you’ll alienate a certain number of hiring managers who disagree with your taste, ideas, or philosophy.  But then again, if you’ve got this much of a creative and stubborn streak in you to begin with, it’s a safe bet that you can probably live with this tradeoff — since it will protect you from getting hired by companies who wouldn’t appreciate your outside-the-box-thinking in the first place… :)

In the end, of course, it’s completely up to you how much effort and imagination you want to channel into your resume presentation.  If you’ve got the time and the creative chops, go for it.  Personally, however, I’d rather see most people strive for greatness in their job search execution efforts instead of in the development of their written materials.  Why?  Speaking from experience, I’ve found that the results tend to be much more positive, predictable, and productive!