How do recruiters read resumes? What do they actually look out for?
There seems to be a frustrating air of mystery and secrecy surrounding how recruiters screen and shortlist candidates. You send in application after application for roles you know you were perfectly qualified for, but never hear back. Meanwhile, one by one, people on your LinkedIn newsfeed are sharing updates about their new roles. Sure, you’re happy for them—and just a little bit annoyed, if you were to be honest.
Is there something wrong with me? What am I missing?
Here it is, straight from the horse’s mouth with Singapore-based tech recruitment firm AlphaStrides.
- We zero in on the current/most recent role
- We love numbers – especially KPIs measured by dollar values, percentages, multiples e.g. 2x, 10-fold (to be sure, qualitative metrics, when well-articulated, carry just as much weight.)
- We check for red flags
- We don’t read each word; we scan for keywords, skills and achievements
You may or may not already know about these – but as is often the case, the true challenge isn’t really what you know, but how to execute on what you already know. The real question then is this: how does a talented, well-qualified jobseeker like yourself hit them right between the eyes and give them exactly what they want to see?
1) Your latest role
If there is only one hard-and-fast rule in resume writing, it’s this—work experience must be stated in reverse chronology i.e. most recent role first, oldest role last (you’d think this is obvious, but it happens often enough that it merits a mention.)
As a general rule, the more recent the experience, the more relevant it is, so put the bulk of emphasis on your last 2-3 roles: make it easy to find, crystal-clear and impactful. What this also means – experience prior to the year 2000 should not take up the same amount of space as what you did in the past 10 years. A short paragraph or 1-2 bullet points should suffice for strategic reasons e.g. to establish the fact that you were a fast-tracked high performer or have hands-on technical experience.
Next, never, EVER relegate your work history section to the second page. A common tendency especially by executive jobseekers is to front-load their resumes with a long executive “summary” that frankly, is filled with more buzzwords than specific, meaningful content, followed by an even longer bullet list of achievements, extracted from various roles.
This is not recommended for 2 critical reasons:
- The work history section is pushed down toward the bottom of the page, or worse, relegated to the second page – not ideal, given that this is the foremost piece of information recruiters zero in on.
- It creates a very disrupted reading flow. Imagine a recruiter trying to read what you achieved as General Manager at Company ABC. He would have to flip to the first page of your resume to locate what you did in that role, and then flip back and forth for the other roles as well.
2) Your remit and level of leadership
Don’t start off diving right into the nitty-gritty of your role like this:
- Defined expectations, prioritized goals and developed sales and marketing campaigns.
- Generated over $600,000 in revenue and drive warranty sales for 20% incremental growth QoQ.
Give a background of your role via a short overview paragraph before the bullets:
“Oversaw a $20M business unit and team of 65, with mandate to transform organization from 8 disparate regional entities into a cohesive national brand presence in line with global change program.”
An overview statement like this helps recruiters see your level of leadership and accountability— immediately.
3) Your achievements (both quantified and intangible)
If you’re a project manager, don’t say, “Responsible for planning, design, scheduling, execution, budgeting and tracking of projects in a timely manner and within budget.” Long on words but short on substance—this is nothing more than a generic definition of what a project manager does.
Project-managed 180km power rail replacement works over 2 years to reduce occurrence of power rail faults on Country A’s oldest and longest MRT lines.
- Developed detailed project schedules enabling 100% on-time deliverables despite limited engineering hours.
- Coordinated 400+ technicians and engineers from 4 stakeholder entities.
- Achieved zero train service disruption through careful alignment with other project teams working on sleeper replacement, re-signalling and noise barrier installation.
Specificity creates credibility. When you share concise statements such as this, backed by numbers and specific qualitative details, you don’t need to over-stuff your resume with bland, generic job descriptions that don’t differentiate you from the rest.
Another example on contextualizing achievements and giving it that extra oomph:
“Secured $1M in sales” is a fact.
“Secured the company’s first million-dollar sale” is a story. You’ve effectively signalled that you not only achieved a sale but a breakthrough for the company.
Or try this—“Surpassed target by 30% with $1M deal.” Again, you’ve just told a one-line story here about being someone who exceeds expectations.
As we’ve seen in the earlier point about giving the big picture at the beginning of each role, context provides deeper meaning for any piece of information. This is what truly elevates your profile and sets you apart from the competition, because only true performers can make these claims.
What separates a fact from a story is context. Well-written resumes don’t exaggerate but emphasize. Well-written resumes are not just about keyword-stuffing but storytelling.
4) Red flags
By far the biggest “red flag” to a recruiter is a seemingly disconnected career story e.g. where progression is more lateral than vertical, multiple moves across different industries, or a series of short tenures. All these spell r.i.s.k for recruiters, whose goal is to present a “safe bet” to their client i.e. the hiring organization.
Sure, at the end of the day, there’s only so much you can say on 2 pieces of paper, but it doesn’t hurt to help recruiters understand your career choices—whether the role built on your experience in an adjacent sector, a similar function, or you were invited by a former superior to join him/her at a new company. Understanding builds trust. Trust lowers perceived risk.
How to say it:
“Recruited to company ABC on the strength of large-scale program management experience and technical background.”
Or, if you were referred for a role:
“Tapped by former CEO/superior/MD to join company ABC.” This is a great opportunity to indicate that people of standing who have worked with you want to work with you again.
Sometimes, the most valued employee can look like a serial job-hopper on paper…this was the case when a client of mine was retained by the incoming management team each time his company was acquired or restructured, 3 times in 5 years. Whenever a merger happened, it was reflected as a new job title and company on his resume, making it look like he had changed jobs. So don’t leave room for unwanted interpretation that wrongly disqualifies you; state the truth of the matter right up front and center:
“One of 5 executives retained post-merger of company ABC with company XYZ to stabilize and lead new business division.”
What if you just wanted to try something new? You don’t owe anyone a justification for how you run your life, but at the same time you don’t want people to think your career choices were arbitrary. It’s a fine balance that can be turned into a selling point when you connect the dots for your reader:
“Took on the challenge of growing a consumer tech start-up, leveraging retail management experience at Fortune 500 FMCG companies.”
This not only shows the logic of your career choice but demonstrates boldness to step out of your comfort zone—a prized quality in leaders.
Now that you have the right content, you want to make sure it’s well-presented. Take a look at your resume. How scannable is it? Does anything jump off the page or is everything just a sea of text? What would be 2 or 3 key points the recruiter catches in 6 seconds?
Make your resume so visually friendly that even at a casual skim, something STICKS. It’s a known fact—recruiters don’t read every single word on your resume, they scan. And we’re not talking about using snazzy graphics, pictures or company logo—In fact, don’t use these. These break the flow and make the document look “juvenile,” especially when your image is low-res!
It’s not about how much you can cram, but how much they can catch.
Here’s how to do it instead:
- Bite-sized text: Break up chunks of text using short paragraphs (3-4 lines per paragraph) and bullets (no more than 6 at a go, and no more than 2 lines per bullet.)
- Bold it: Use formatting enhancements such as bold, ALL CAPS or underline to draw attention to critical achievements. These are the “salt and pepper” of word processing—basic but super effective for making key points stand out.
Caution: Stick with one enhancement; having text bolded here and underlined there within the same paragraph or list of bullets makes the document look too “busy.” Also, be very selective about using enhancements. Too much and nothing stands out, defeating the purpose.
“It’s ok if the resume is 3 or 4 pages—as long as it’s scannable and I can easily find the key skills and achievements,” says the recruiter from AlphaStrides. Sage advice for those with technical resumes or working in project-based roles who find it hard to capture everything in 2 pages.
- Put emphasis on your most recent role.
- Give the big picture for context and clarity.
- Quantify achievements for impact.
- Neutralize risk factors.
- Make it easy to scan.