Resume Tips and Slips

Recently, I participated in an APA Webinar entitled "Planning Skills and Thrills." One of the questions was: "What do you look for in a resume/portfolio?"

Because there was a lot of interest in the topic, I thought it would be helpful to summarize the points for blog readers. The following "tips and slip-ups" are the result of my many years of reviewing planners' resumes and portfolios, as well as being a participant at a number of the Resume Clinics put on by APA at the National Planning Conference.

Avoid Common Pitfalls

Classy and Clean

Your resume should be "easy on the eyes." By this, I mean that you should lay it out carefully, use white space for visual relief, choose a few pleasing and harmonious fonts, and don't cram in too much information.

Unfortunately, many planners let their inner dweeb prevail by squeezing massive amounts of jargon-ridden details on every square centimeter of a single page. There are no margins, spaces, or any organization to the thing.

I can't read it. I won't read it.

It would be far better to prune your information carefully, organize it coherently, and give it a decent visual appearance. If it takes one and a half or two pages to pull this off, so be it.

Just as annoying are planners who let their arty, off-beat side prevail by splashing on a bunch of unrelated jarring fonts, using oddball characters instead of simple bullets, not following a linear format, using too-clever color schemes or infographics, or employing obfuscating techniques — such as bragging about your awesome skills, without actually revealing where and when you worked, and what you did at a particular job.

I just want the facts, folks — but not too many of them.

Hierarchy Rules

Going hand in hand with a classy and clean look is deciding which informational bins to provide and make sure you dump the right stuff into them. I don't think there is any one best selection or order of categories, but a common grouping might be something like:

  1. Name and contact information at the top as a letterhead
  2. Career Objective. Consider this optional. But if you include one, make sure it is compelling and jibes with the positions to which you're applying.
  3. Education. List the most recent first, with the exact degree title, name, and location of institution, and year of your graduation.
  4. Professional Experience. Include subheadings for each important position, the most recent first, with dates of service and a brief description of major duties and responsibilities.
  5. Honors and Awards. These can be hard to come by, but if you've got it, flaunt it.
  6. Service. Here is where you describe all the great professional and civic service you've provided, like being an officer for your APA Division or Chapter! Give the organization name, dates of service, and title of service.
  7. Certifications and Affiliations. Here is where you spell out what the letters AICP stand for; that is if you're a member, which I heartily recommend.
  8. Skills. Speak another language or two? Know some special software? Awesome GIS? Let us know. Your familiarity with Microsoft Office and other standard software should already be a given.
  9. Presentations and Publications. Depending on who you are and where you are in your career, you might include a list of these. But if you're publishing a lot, you're probably doing a curriculum vitae (CV), rather than a simple resume, which is a different animal altogether.
  10. Interests. This is optional, but it can be a great opportunity to set yourself apart, especially if you have an interest that is impressive or uncommon, like being a champion speed skater, or an expert in antique fountain pens.
  11. References. These are best saved for the job application and follow-up contacts.

Consistent with the classy and clean look, make good choices when it comes to distinguishing your hierarchy. I prefer a simple hierarchy like Bold Lowercase, With The First Letter Capitalized for the primary level, and Not Bold Underlined With The First Letter Capitalized for the secondary level.

I make further distinctions using spacing and indents. Make sure to add spaces in between categories. This will help make your resume more readable and understandable, with the bonus of adding valuable white space.

Aim for a Good "Bombing Pattern"

Anyone who has spent any time hiring and supervising people, or who consorts at all with human resources folks, knows that the name of the game is "risk reduction." Sad but true.

The worst thing about management is that a very small percentage of the time things go wrong and you must fire (or seek "separation from") an employee who is not working out. Once you've experienced this, you will do anything to avoid having to go through it again. Hence, the suspicious mind sets in and you stop looking for the best planner and start looking for the safe planner.

To combat this syndrome, the job seeker is well advised to plot a good "bombing pattern" for your resume; that is, show a nice, steady progression of jobs, ideally where you stay three years or more in each place, and certainly at least a year in any one position.

Having an employment pattern with too many one-year or shorter gigs can hurt your chances of landing the next position because employers will figure you'll likely be a short-timer at their place of employment as well. It is also good to show growth in responsibility through your progression of positions or at least a diversity of experience.

In addition, make sure you don't raise red flags, like trying to awkwardly explain away a short gap in employment or a job termination. Just have a positive, plausible explanation ready in case you are asked about it.

Letter Perfect

Once you've managed to compose a clean, well-laid-out resume that looks professional and is inviting to read, you need to make sure there are absolutely no misspellings, inconsistencies, funky punctuations, or poor word choices.

I have an eagle eye. I will catch misspellings, unexplained acronyms, confusing abbreviations, and details that don't match or add up. I will conclude that you are not detail-oriented and that your written work in the position will be similarly sloppy.

If it's letter perfect, I'll smile and then take a closer look at you. So, make sure your English major roommate or your mother proofs your resume.

Critical Cover

An essential accompaniment to any resume is a nicely written cover letter. It cannot be emphasized enough how important this document is. It is your chance to show that you can play by the rules and prepare a thoroughly professional and convincing letter.

Once again, you need to be classy, clean, and error-free. Keep your letter to one page and provide those pleasing margins and paragraph breaks. The letter should be in business format. If you don't know what that means, look it up and follow a standard template.

Back in the old days (before texting), the art of writing business letters was taught in something called a "typing class." I know you have no idea what I'm talking about, but there's a good chance that the person doing the hiring will be expecting this.

Your letter should employ just the right tone, which is to say — professional. It should be formal, but not wordy or pretentious. It should convey interest and capability, without bragging or trying too hard. It should simply say that you are responding to a particular opportunity (and get the name of the company right, while you're at it), who you are, and why you're interested.

In this letter, you are demonstrating rather than simply suggesting that you are a good match for the position. Your letter should give the reviewer confidence that you're able to communicate appropriately and well.

Extras — On the Side

To accompany the main entree of the resume and cover letter, should the planner also try to offer up a portfolio of work samples on the side? If you've got some cool-looking stuff to show, why not? But I'm not thinking of one of those unwieldy oversized leather jobbies that architects tote around. Unless you're an urban designer, your portfolio can simply be some visual examples or indications of the types of work you've been involved in.

Examples might include a copy of a short staff report, a photo of a development project you worked on ("before" and "after" shots are very effective), a newsletter or flyer you put together, snapshots of your latest visioning workshop (hopefully, with people actively doing things, not just the backs of their heads), a few map exhibits, some charts and tables, or a relevant news article — you get the drift.

Your portfolio should not only show that you've done a bunch of different things with some nice-looking materials or results, but it should plant an idea in the employers' mind — that you could also do something like that for a project they need help with.

Hmmm. Can you start in two weeks?

Top image: Thinkstock photo.

About the Author
Elizabeth "Libby" Tyler, FAICP is the Community Development Director for the City of Urbana, Illinois.

April 25, 2017

By Elizabeth Tyler, FAICP