Why you should customize your resume for each application

A custom resume can mean the difference between getting out your suit for that final interview, and never even getting a phone call. Here's why you should customize your resume for each job application.

In conversation, we treat resumes like passports—something to be updated every ten years or if you change careers.

But of course, that’s not how it works anymore. Even the most comfortably employed professional knows to drag out their resume for some review and tweaking a couple times a year. But, in the modern, frenetic job hunting world, even that is far from enough.

In reality, you should be creating a custom resume for each and every application you send out. There’s lots of great reasons to do this (that we’ll get into in a moment) but if you take away one fact from this read, it’s that an astonishing 36% of hiring managers will simply throw out resumes that don’t seem personalized for the particular role.

In other words, a custom resume can mean the difference between getting out your suit for that final interview and never even making it to the phone screening.  

Impress the hiring manager with extra effort

Hiring managers ought to be looking for the person who is the best fit for a particular job. But, you can bet that the “ideal” person in their minds is extremely enthusiastic about joining their company.

So, anyone who’s been to a few job interviews knows to pump a little extra exuberance into the conversation.

A custom resume is a great way to communicate that excitement about joining a particular company. Fill it with plenty of references that tell the reader it was crafted specifically for their eyes, and they’re sure to pass you on to the next round.

Don’t believe us? You should know that for every position you apply for, the company is likely to receive at least 250 other applications. So, standing out is always critical.

Plus it’s important when you consider that your resume will almost certainly be going through an Applicant Tracking System (ATS). These tricky little pieces of software are used by up to 66% of large companies and almost a third of smaller companies.

That’s important to know because ATSs automatically look for proper keywords in your resume. Tools like Jobscan will rate your resume for relevance to the job post before human eyes ever land on it. These systems overwhelmingly reward custom resumes.

But what does custom resume mean? How can you communicate that the one-pager any given hirer is seeing was tailor-made for them?

So glad you asked...

You need to focus on adding references and relevant keywords to the particular company and role you’re applying to into the text of your resume.

Let’s use an example

For an extra-obvious example, consider adding a heading to the top of your resume that says something like “Seeking [Position X] at [Company Y]”.

These will attract the eye of a human reader. Plus they’ll also tick some of the boxes that those ATSs are looking for.

But you can go more subtle too. Under your work experience bullet points, for example, emphasize the ways that a particular project taught you skills that will be useful in the new position you’re targeting.

For example, “Managed a team of seven accountants, which taught me the time-organization skills I’ll need to meet and exceed your expectations for a Project Manager at Acme Corporation.”

Prevent downward resume creep

Like a new puppy, a resume demands love and attention—sending it out, unchanged, with an endless stream of applications is the best way to make sure that you’re passing around out-of-date information to all potential employers.

One major benefit of customizing your resume for each individual application is that it gives you a great excuse to give it a once-over a couple of times a week.

There are three great reasons to do this.

Continual resume review

First, I think you’ll find very quickly that you’ll have the chance to add items to your resume far more frequently than you might think. Every new class, certificate, volunteer role, freelance project, and personal learning exercise is an opportunity to lengthen your resume. Or, bump some of the less impressive elements off the bottom.

It’s easy to miss these chances because, let’s be honest, the first thing you’re likely to think after finishing your final project for a new certificate course is “time for a nap,” not “let’s run home and add this to my resume!”

Remove outdated information

You’ll also be much quicker to notice pieces of your resume that just don’t fit anymore. Far from having some monolithic set of rules, hiring manager’s preferences for resumes change over time.

My bet is that you’ll find pretty much right away that your old resume is filled with old information, missing helpful experiences you’ve had since you wrote it, or contains spelling and grammar errors. Watch for chances to trim the passé pieces (these are some great examples) and you’ll always look like you’re a modern professional in-the-know.

Mstakes Mistakes

And unless you’re a top-tier copywriter, I promise you there is at least one typo on your resume, right now. Maybe it’s something big like a misspelling, or small like a strange grammar tense, but reading and re-reading your resume will help you spot these.

And that’s important because 58% of hiring managers will throw out a resume with a typo.

“Not me!” you might be saying, “My resume is perfect, Strunk & White themselves would fall to their knees in praise of such a flawless document.”

To that, I say you should let a couple of close friends take a read before proclaiming yourself the second coming of Shakespeare—they’re far more likely to spot mistakes that you’ve been missing for years.

Helps you prepare for the interview

The best advice I ever got on improving my performance in an interview (other than the hiring manager who needed to explain to me that white athletic socks don’t work with a suit and black loafers—19 was a fun age) was to turn every answer into a story.

When an interviewer asks about your biggest weakness, you don’t tell them that sometimes you wig out if the coffee machine is broken, you tell them about a specific time you wigged out when the coffee machine broke, how you realized that smashing mugs on the ground wasn’t helping resolve the problem, and how you use meditative practices to avoid the same problem arising in the future.

But I digress...

Not only do interviewers prefer memorable stories as answers, but this tactic will also help you avoid rambling on and on.

But here’s the problem: if you’re a normal human, you’re probably feeling a bit stressed when you sit down for an interview. Science has shown that stress sabotages your memory and ability to think on your feet.

In other words, winging it is not a formula for success.

But if you take the time to go through your resume for each application and connect your work experience section to challenges you expect to face in the job you’re applying for, you’re giving yourself a great opportunity to run through potential answers ahead of time.

With practice, you might even find yourself lining out a dozen or so canned stories that you can tell for common questions based on the contents of your work experience section.

My advice? Keep a printed copy of your custom resume by your side for your next phone interview. When your interviewer asks you about a time that you overcame a difficult challenge at work, you’ll have a whole list of examples to pull from, with the connection to that particular role already thought out!

Maybe avoid the coffee mug smashing story!

The start of great organization

People spend more than half a billion dollars at the Container Store every year and, at least in America, the vast majority of people wish they had more organization tools in their home.

So it seems strange that so few professionals organize their job search in a serious way. Sure it’s a pain to set up a solid Google sheet, but you’ll be missing some serious opportunities if you’re just firing off resumes left and right without any sort of record keeping.

For example, many hiring managers love follow up emails after applications and interviews. But, if you’re applying to a lot of jobs, it’s difficult to remember when you applied to each, what the name of the hiring manager was, and many more of the little details that could be the difference maker in your application.

That’s another reason that I strongly advocate building a custom resume for each job application—it’s the starting point to a good organization system.

Whereas before you could have been sending out barrages of applications with a couple clicks. Now, you’re already sitting down to take the time to review your resume and create a separate file.

So why not take the extra five seconds to write down some of the details on the application into a spreadsheet?

Don’t like spreadsheets? That’s okay—there are a cartload of great ways to organize your job search. Just pick one!

Okay, but how?

Okay, you’re probably thinking, this all sounds great. But how do I customize a resume without spending all my time hunched over a keyboard?

I apply to literally hundreds of jobs a month, are you saying that I need to be building a resume from scratch for every single one?

Of course the answer is NO, although it is always worth underlining that famous maxim, “looking for a job is a full-time job.”

The good news is that there’s no need to commit three hours to each and every resume you build—at least not if you spend some time setting up a template to start. Your objective should be to have a few standard resumes that you can customize for a particular role in five minutes or so.

I’ve seen two great ways to do this.

The mergetag route

Some job seekers prefer the mergetag route. By that, I mean that they build themselves a resume template with a few well-chosen spots to insert a company name or the title of the position they’re applying for. Something like:

I’m extremely interested in the [POSITION] at [COMPANY] because I hear that your coffee machine never breaks.

Notice that I bolded and underlined the places where custom data needs to be entered. That’s to avoid the embarrassing faux pax of sending a resume with the name of a different company on your next application.

You must go to extreme lengths to make sure this doesn’t happen. Check it five times if you have to. A resume that’s customized incorrectly is a death sentence for your application.

Building blocks

Another common tactic used by job-seekers who apply for many different kinds of jobs is to split a resume up into building blocks that they can mix and match in different ways.

Rather than keeping a unified template resume, they have a page with the right heading, and then they paste in pre-written job experiences and certifications as they see fit. Think of it as a good way to avoid filling your resume with references to your time as an underwater welder when you’re applying for a job as a customer service agent.

Or, there’s this...

Customizing your resume for each application may be a lot of work, but it will be worth it in the end. Duplicating resumes, making edits, testing designs, and staying organized is key. You can spend a lot of time doing this in a document builder or speed up your process with a tool like Resume.io. Either way the time you invest to customize your resume for reach application has a huge impact on the outcome of your job search.

Whatever system you decide to use, I hope you’ll start thinking of each resume you use as a custom tool designed to do one job. At worst, you’ll save yourself from those 36% of aggressive hiring managers who will toss generic resumes straight out the window. You’ll also help to make sure that more humans read your resume when you pass the initial ATS screening. And you may even find yourself approaching the whole job application process in a new, more strategic way.

Once you put a little effort into making sure that your metaphorical wrench matches the size of the bolt you’re trying to loosen, you’ll find the whole process to be oh-so-much easier.

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