How Recruiters Really Read Your Resume

There’s only one question they’re asking as they read your resume.

One of the most commonly questions asked of me as a resume specialist is “How do I craft my resume to increase my visibility with recruiters?”

Let’s start with the basics.

A well-crafted resume gets the applicant past 2 gatekeepers: the robot a.k.a. applicant tracking system/software (ATS), and once it’s been shortlisted, it goes to the human a.k.a. recruiter or hiring manager.

In this article, we’ll be focusing on the second gatekeeper—the human.

So what’s the recruiter looking for when they scan a job applicant’s resume? “We’re assessing for one thing—is this candidate a safe bet? Is this someone we can present to our client as a credible choice?” says my headhunter friend with a touch of wry. He’s been in the business for 10+ years you see.

Inevitably, pedigree is one of the first things they look for—where someone studied, what degrees they have, where they’ve worked and what titles they’ve held. The “right” pedigree is a common proxy for credibility, but not the most reliable one. And this is good news for most of us who haven’t worked at the “right” company or graduated from the “right” school or have the “right” degrees.

More than anything, they’re looking for proof that the candidate can perform. This means your resume has one job—to demonstrate credibility.

The right question to ask, therefore, is not “What are recruiters looking for on a resume?” but “How do I accurately convey my full value and expertise on a resume?”

Specificity Creates Credibility

The most common, most destructive mistake to make on a resume is to give generic job descriptions that are plainly stating the obvious.

For example, a project manager might say something like this:

“Responsible for planning, design, scheduling, execution, budgeting and tracking of public infrastructure projects in a timely manner and within budget.”

This is <yawn>…nothing more than a generic definition of what a project manager does—people who are going to be reading your resume are quite well acquainted with this. So why not give them something else?

How about:

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 to address 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.

That’s a lot to write—wouldn’t it make my resume too long?

No. When you share powerful stories with specific details like this, sparks fly in the mind of the reader. You don’t need to over-stuff your resume with boring job descriptions and over-used keywords. Quality over quantity.

The principle at work here: Specificity creates credibility.

How to apply the principle? Through storytelling. See how the example above tells a credible story by giving specifics about the scale and scope of the project?

Granted, some achievements are more straight-forward, like in sales which is mostly about revenue figures. And yet, there’s room for extra shine.

“Secured $1M in sales” is a fact, but “secured the company’s first million-dollar sale” is a story.

What separates a fact from a story? Context. Context gives deeper meaning to any piece of information. 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.

You get the idea—well-written resumes don’t exaggerate but emphasize, using KPIs and storytelling. This is what truly elevates your profile and sets you apart from the competition, because only true performers can make these claims.

So what if you haven’t worked at a “brand name” organization? It’s all about taking what you already have and making it shine.

The Beauty of Storytelling

Here’s the beauty of the storytelling method—it works for EVERYONE.  

I know for a fact that those who are in support functions or “cost centres” (a shockingly unfair label that is among the worst of corporate speak) often struggle with writing achievement-type bullets in the resume.

But again, it’s about specifics.

You may be an administrative assistant whose work isn’t to close million-dollar deals. But perhaps you escalated an urgent purchase order through the system that enabled a new platform to be launched on time. Perhaps you filed certain paperwork that prevented the company from incurring finance charges or regulatory fines. It’s all in the details.

What if I have nothing to show?

Impossible. How do I know that? There’s no such thing as a free lunch. Your employer will not pay you to “do nothing.” I have lost count of the number of jobseekers who tell me, “I don’t really have anything spectacular to say about my work. It’s just routine work, you know?”

Think about what happens if you don’t show up to work one day. Think about what happens if you don’t put diligence into what you do. It’s all about putting a spin on things—creatively but truthfully. If you don’t believe in yourself and what you do, nobody will. 

Easy on the Eyes

Make your resume easy for recruiters to read. Key truth: It’s not about how much you can cram in, but how much they can catch.

Make your resume so readable that even at a casual glance, they are able to pick up your USPs. Here’s how:

  1. Ensure sufficient white space. If your whole resume is nothing but a sea of text, the reader doesn’t know where to focus. White space helps the eye navigate the document. To create white space:
    • Write short paragraphs (3-4 lines per paragraph).
    • Use bullets (no more than 6 bullets at a go, and no more than 2 lines per bullet.)
  1. Make use of formatting enhancements: bold, ALL CAPS or underline. These are the “salt and pepper” of resume writing—basic but super effective for making things pop off the page.
    • As much as possible, stick with one enhancement throughout; having text bolded here and underlined there makes the document look “busy.”
    • Be very selective about what you emphasize. If you bold everything, nothing stands out, defeating the purpose.

Make it IMPOSSIBLE for the recruiter to fail to see how awesome you are.

  1. It’s all about emphasis, not exaggeration.
  2. Specificity creates credibility.
  3. Storytelling elevates even the most routine roles.
  4. Increase overall readability of your resume by ensuring sufficient white space.
  5. Make key points pop using Word formatting enhancements.

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