How to Master the Art of Reviewing Resumes

By Robert Half on March 6, 2020 at 7:00pm

You’ve been a hiring manager for a while now, so you know how to review a resume with little more than a glance, right?

Not so fast.

The reality that lies within the mass of application materials you receive is usually more complicated than you might think. There are several subtleties you can miss if you’re not careful. And that opens you up to the risk of making a bad hire, which could have a ripple effect through your entire team or even company.

When your job vacancy is posted, you should have an excellent grasp of how to evaluate a resume so thoroughly — and quickly — that you can compare candidates fairly, spot red flags and recognize potential diamonds in the rough. Here are our top tips to help get you there.

1. Quickly separate wheat from chaff

Even if you’ve written an effective job description and detailed candidate profile, you’ll likely have to review resumes from unqualified applicants. Create a checklist of the absolute minimum skills, experience and education required to do the job, and use this as a framework to efficiently sort the resumes into piles of yes, no and maybe. Then you can dig down to the more nuanced filters.

2. Watch for potential red flags

Some resumes contain warning signs of potential problems that may outweigh a candidate’s abilities and experience. These are the biggest red flags to look for as you evaluate resumes:

  • Unexplained employment gaps — As you’re reviewing an applicant’s work history, look out for long breaks between jobs. While there could be a perfectly reasonable explanation, such as military service, any serious candidate should be prepared and willing to explain these gaps in an interview.
  • Excessive job hopping — Job hopping is more common in younger generations and can be a sign of ambition. But too many employers in too short a time span could indicate an uncommitted worker. People do leave jobs quickly for good reasons, but since you’ll be spending significant resources on onboarding and training new hires, you need to know it’ll be worth the effort.
  • Static career — A resume with a series of jobs with no increase in responsibility could suggest a lack of career direction or drive.
  • Careless mistakes — Given all the online resources and books devoted to resume writing, there’s no excuse for a resume that’s difficult to read, poorly organized or littered with typos. Candidates who submit messy documents demonstrate a lack of attention to detail, a real liability in most fields.
  • Extraneous information — An interesting hobby or two requiring relevant skills could make a candidate stand out from the crowd. However, resumes that over-emphasize personal interests suggest the job seeker is looking to fill space or that they view their career as a side activity.

3. Look for tailored messaging

Some resumes may pass your initial review but fail to impress as you dig deeper. If the resume and cover letter appear generic, it’s likely the applicant is sending the exact same document to multiple employers. Serious contenders customize their resumes, emphasizing those skills and qualifications that are most relevant to the job description you posted. When you review resumes, look for ones that have been clearly crafted with that specific job posting in mind.

4. Pay attention to word choice

Some candidates use ambiguous language to camouflage a lack of experience or knowledge. Phrases such as “familiar with” and “participated in” can leave you with more questions than answers. Someone who was “part of” a team devoted to identifying cost-saving opportunities may have played a key role in the effort — or simply took up space during meetings. Also watch for jargon and buzzwords that are designed to make a candidate sound smart but may cover up a lack of expertise.

5. Get the details

Great candidates don’t just tell. They show. Rather than simply describing their duties, savvy job seekers include examples of how they added value to their company: by saving money, streamlining a process or negotiating discounts with vendors. This might be represented as data, percentages, dollars or other expressions of quantitative impact. Your mission when hiring new staff is to improve your firm’s bottom line, so don’t settle for resumes that are heavy on the right keywords but short on specifics.

6. Be rigorous but not rigid

While a checklist is helpful for narrowing down applications in an objective way, try to keep an open mind. Not everyone has followed a traditional career path, and their experience could be all the richer for it. Be sure to differentiate between essential qualifications needed to do the job and knowledge that can easily be gained in-house.

It can help to zoom out from the fine details and critique resumes in their broader context. For example, even in a tight job market, an employment gap isn’t necessarily a deal breaker. It could, in fact, disguise a candidate who has off-ramped to care for a child or aging parent, or who went back to school to pursue another career path. An applicant with that level of responsibility or inner drive, even if they aren’t yet proficient with the latest cloud software, could be a better fit for your team than someone who has a long resume but casually moves from post to post. The bottom line: If a candidate piques your interest, they might be worth pursuing even if their professional background is nontraditional.

7. Take the current hiring market into account

As you consider how to evaluate a resume you’ve received, remember the possibility that the perfect candidate may not be out there, especially during periods of low unemployment. That’s why managers should hire as much for potential as they do for skills or job history. Sometimes it’s best to find employees who fit with your corporate culture, and let professional training take care of any gaps.

While reading a mountain of resumes can feel like a daunting task that you just want to get through, don’t lose sight of the little things. Those are what could make the difference between adding a great team member and having to start the hiring process over after a couple months.

Don’t have time to review dozens of resumes? Contact Robert Half to quickly find skilled candidates for open positions in your company.

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