Getting your resume correct length is essential. If your resume is too short or too long, it can be a deal breaker and potentially even keep HR from ever seeing your application. So here’s how many pages your resume should be, and some tips for getting it to that length.
The ideal resume is two pages, so it fits on a single sheet, front and back. A single page is also fine, and certainly better than going over two pages.
Single page resume versus two pages
If you don’t have a lot of experience, a single page resume is fine. You just need to make sure you tell enough of a story in that single page to convince everyone who sees it that you are qualified for the job.
Some people insist on a single page no matter what. But for a senior technical role, it can be impossible to convey enough experience to be truly qualified for the job in a single page. In my field of information security, for example, there is a ton of gatekeeping. It will be difficult to cram enough into two pages to satisfy the gatekeepers after HR, but two pages is the maximum HR will accept. So two pages is your best chance to thread that needle.
The question is, how do you craft a two-page resume that gets you through all those hoops?
Entire books have been written on the subject. Most of them are only good enough to prop up a wobbly table. But here’s the process that has worked for me.
You really need two resumes
The most effective tactic I’ve found for dealing with these troubled waters is by having not one, but two resumes. One of those resumes is private. You don’t share it with anyone. This one can tell your whole story, and be as long as you need it to be. Go into a ton of detail. I found I don’t remember every relevant detail of some of my early jobs anymore, so it’s a good thing I have those things written down.
The shadow resume
Keep this resume reasonably up to date as you take on new responsibilities. For example, when my boss told me he needed me to learn Python, I needed to add that detail to my master resume. I went from not knowing the difference between Python 2 and Python 3 syntax to writing a 900 line script to automate reporting that increased my team’s productivity tenfold in less than 6 months. Will I remember that kind of detail 8 years from now? Maybe, and maybe not.
Ideally, you want enough detail that you will be able to write bullet points that answer three questions: what did you do, why did you do it, and how do you measure the impact of what you did?
One of my bullet points from my past that tends to get people’s attention is that I deployed updates to fix 800,000 vulnerabilities within 30 days of their release to meet contractual requirements to provide a clean Nessus scan at the end of every month.
It conveys a difficult accomplishment, why I did it, and quantifies the result and the effort required.
I did a number of other things at that job. It turned out I was also their best hardware technician. I administered their antivirus. When the situation called for it, I could administer Active Directory and DNS. I was their best technical writer, and their second best Unix administrator. So I also have a fair bit of detail on all of those points to use as needed.
I don’t know about you, but frequently after I take a job, I end up doing a whole bunch of things outside of what they initially hired me to do. Keeping a running log of those things helps me to craft a more detailed and relevant resume when I need one. It gives me more material to pull from when looking for experience that will help me get where I want to be next.
And since this resume only acts as source material, it doesn’t matter how long it is.
How to craft a single page or two page resume
Whenever I apply for a job, I pretty much craft a new resume from scratch. It may or may not bear much resemblance to the last resume I used. I’m not being dishonest. I’m trying to be relevant. Everyone’s looking for something different from their applicants, so I need to sell my experience as what they’re looking for.
I didn’t used to do this. But what would happen is I would apply for a job that I was absolutely perfect for only to never get a call back, or worse yet, get an immediate rejection without even getting a screening call.
You’ll never completely prevent this from happening, but to reduce it, here’s a formula you can follow. This formula at least gets me the interview about 70% of the time.
First, go back to the job you had 10 years ago. That is your cutoff point. I got my first job when I was 16. Mentioning that fast-food job today does nothing for me. My job selling computers at retail is slightly more relevant, but doesn’t really do anything for me today either. Neither does the desktop support gig I had in the late ’90s.
Only going back 10 years on your resume also helps to combat ageism. Ageism is illegal, but so is racism. They still happen. But if you only go back 10 years, it can be pretty hard to tell whether you are 28, 68, or somewhere in between. If like me, you are in the second half of your career, you can sell your earlier experience once you get in the door.
Building the skeleton for your new resume
Start with the basics of each of those jobs, starting with the most recent one first: the name of the employer, the location, your job title, and the dates you had the job. Next, take the job you are applying for, take the bullet points from that job description, and paste them underneath each of those sections. Don’t worry about length at this point.
Now go back through what you just did. Look at the new job description you just pasted in. Delete any of the things you did not do at that position. You will probably find at your current position you did a lot of those things, but 10 years ago you did less. That is okay and expected.
Now go back to your historical resume that you keep private, and locate the details that prove you met each bullet point for this job you are applying for today. Try to use the same keywords and phrasing that your job description uses, because like it or not, your application and resume is going to be graded by computer. If you have the right keyword density, you’ll get a call back. If you don’t get the keyword density right, you probably won’t.
What you are doing is painting a picture of yourself that you have been doing this job for 10 years and just didn’t know it then.
Other duties as assigned: Your magic words
Add another bullet point to every position you have held: other duties as assigned or needed. This covers for all of the detail you omit and shows versatility and flexibility without getting you pigeonholed.
One of the worst things I ever did was mentioning Macintoshes on my resume. I applied for a job as a Windows NT network administrator, and thought that was the job I was accepting, only to find out on my first day they intended to use me as a Macintosh specialist. I had no interest in fixing those things on a regular basis, and being stuck in that role really hurt my career. Had I used other duties as assigned, I might have gotten the Windows NT role, or my application might have gone straight into the trash. Either way, my career would have been much better.
Just make sure that you can quantify what you did and what value your employer received from it. That proves you didn’t just make things up to get the job. I have worked with people whose resumes claimed all sorts of experience that they clearly didn’t have. I can claim that I fixed 800,000 vulnerabilities, but that is an odd thing to claim if I didn’t actually do it. They can ask some additional questions during the interview to get a better idea of whether I am telling the truth. But it’s a compelling enough claim to get me in the door to defend it, which is the point of the resume.
Looking at your past jobs through the lens of the job description you want next should help a lot in getting your resume down into the 1 to 2 page range. And if your resume ends up shorter than you would like, you can go back further than 10 years. Or try my next trick.
Padding your resume if it’s too short
Sometimes you have the opposite problem. You don’t have enough job history to fill a full page, let alone two. But that’s fixable.
Include any education and memberships in civic organizations you may have. Also, if you have any certifications that are relevant, mention those. Be sure to mention any details about your education, extracurricular activities, or memberships that may prove useful to your employer. Early in my career, people used to get more excited I had been in National Honors Society than they were about my experience.
My experience on the board of directors at two different churches is arguably useful experience for most employers. While they cannot, and should not consider my religion in hiring decisions and cannot solicit that information, it is okay for me to volunteer that information. But I should only volunteer the part that is potentially useful.
If I wanted to reinvent myself as a marketing specialist, I would absolutely mention the video production work and website development I did for my former church in the early 2000s. Having done zero sales and marketing for several long stretches of my career, I would need to mention that experience to prove I was qualified. I would also mention my journalism degree, and might even dredge up my high school student journalism experience.
Reason for leaving
Some resumes include a reason for leaving as a bullet point for each position you have held. The thing is, your job application may also ask for that information. If you need to waste space, that is one way to waste another line. Be professional. I have never left a job while I was happy with it. Even when I was laid off, I wasn’t happy there and would have left on my own accord had the opportunity presented itself first. There’s nothing fun about going down with a sinking ship. But there is no reason to put things like that in writing.
Usually when I left a position, it was to get more responsibility, a raise, or both. Those are perfectly valid reasons to leave a job. Getting a shorter commute is another valid reason. Focus on what was better about where you went, not about what was wrong that made you want to leave. Otherwise you sound like a first date who does nothing but talk about past relationships all night.
What if you didn’t leave on your own accord? It happens. Be ready to explain it. If it was a layoff, that’s all you need to say. If they told you it was a financial decision, adding that doesn’t hurt. But there’s no reason to say any more than that.
What if you were fired or asked to resign? Sometimes expectations aren’t clear and we make mistakes in the moment. Accept your fair share of the responsibility, and cite the factors that were beyond your control if it strengthens your case. But above all else, focus on what you learned and how that will help you to avoid making the mistake again. If you’ve handled the situation better in the time that’s passed since, cite that as an example.
Covering gaps in employment
If you have gaps in employment, that’s really a whole other discussion, but generally speaking, there are things you can do about it. One thing is to not mention specific dates, but just months and years. When I talk about 2013, I mentioned leaving a position in April 2013 and starting my new position May 2013. Some people will read that as me ending April 30 and starting my new job May 1. Others will read it as me ending April 1 and starting my new job May 31. Both will be wrong, but it forces them to ask if there was a gap, rather than advertising a gap.
And typically, I end a job on a Friday and start on a Monday. Does that weekend count as a gap? By not giving exact dates, I can minimize the anomaly. It keeps the focus on the job and past accomplishments and how they are relevant to that job, not on HR matters.
Besides that, short gaps are okay and sometimes even expected. Anytime I leave a position, someone asks me how much time I’m taking off before starting the new job.
If you have a longer gap and you can’t minimize it, that is not a deal breaker. Life happens, and if you took a few months off to care for an ailing family member and that is a deal breaker for a potential employer, you didn’t want to work for them anyway. You want to work for an employer who sees you as a human being who has a life outside of work, not as property that they own.
There is another good reason not to worry too much about condensing your entire career to just two pages. Any hiring manager with an IQ of two or more digits is going to search for you on LinkedIn. And you can elaborate there as much as you want.
I do recommend tailoring your profile similarly to how you tailor your resume, so you don’t get typecast. But you can talk about as much or as little of your career as you want there and not worry about the page limit.
I used to not worry about my LinkedIn profile, and I suspect that probably hurt my job search. Because for the last 10 years at least, my hiring managers looked at my LinkedIn profile, sometimes during the interview. Most didn’t even try to hide they were looking at my profile.
And while I got some rejections in my last two job searches, I had multiple parties interested both times, and two offers one of those times.
The reason for that was because I was exactly what each of them needed at that point in time. And my resume and LinkedIn profile made that very clear.