How important is a résumé?

I get asked this question frequently. Why is my résumé so important? Why can’t I just impress the hiring person in the interview? Why can’t people see past my rough résumé, and see me for who I really am? In this internet day and age, does a silly old, outdated piece of paper truly hold that much value?

When I get this question, I tell them that building a great résumé is the single most important thing you can do when searching for a new job. Here’s why:

It takes four basic steps to get a new job: finding the right opportunity, getting considered seriously by the hirer, selling yourself, and closing the sale. I will have a great deal more to say about the first and last of these, but right now let’s consider the middle part – the “sales process” of getting the job. It helps to put yourself on the other side of the desk and consider what it takes to make you the top prospect for the opening.

Assume for a minute that you’re the one doing the hiring. You somehow get out the news of the opening (more on that here), and sit back and wait for the prospects to roll in. They invariably come in the form of a résumé, or CV (curriculum vitae) as some call it. [Side note: why is it that the two names for this document are French or Latin? Why don’t we have a good English word for this thing?] Yes, you may get some emails, and certainly you’ll get a few referrals from friends and associates. But even these will eventually end up coming down to looking over the résumé.

Why? Because we all need some kind of shorthand way to represent who we are, what we’ve done, and most importantly, why we’re a great fit for the job opening. Certainly the hiring manager could do a long parade of auditions like the American Idol circus. But even there, some filtration happens. Some lowly producer sifts through the tens of thousands of people and decides who among the throng will get their chance to be embarrassed on national television. Simon Cowell and company simply can’t be expected to see thirty or forty thousand applicants.

The same is true for most jobs. Some level of filtration happens at every step. Perhaps it’s some HR person or recruiter who takes the first cut at the pile of applicants. Perhaps the hiring manager themselves goes through them looking to separate the wheat from the chaff. Or perhaps the software that the hirer is using allows them to do some filtration.

Building a great résumé is the single most important thing you can do when searching for a new job.

As another aside, don’t kid yourself, the use of software to filter résumés isn’t just for huge corporations. It’s being used more broadly with every passing day. If you use Monster, they filter your résumé to prevent clearly unqualified people from clogging the mailboxes of hiring managers.

When I led Microsoft’s HR world we got over 30,000 résumés a month, and we had two, sometimes three, shifts of people who did little but scan them into sophisticated software to build an extensive candidate database. There is simply no way to handle these kinds of volumes without some assistance. And as this software comes down in price and is more accessible to smaller companies, you bet they are using it.

In any case, the first step in hiring someone is filtering out the high-quality prospects from among all the candidates who apply. You have to come down to a manageable list (perhaps 5-15) that you can seriously consider, and perhaps interview. There is no better way to do that than by reviewing the résumés.

This means that, to most hiring managers, you are really little more than that one piece of paper. (Yes, it needs to be one piece of paper, more on that when I get to telling you how to create a great résumé, stay tuned.)

If you really want to be one of the people who gets that precious interview, this one piece of paper better be the best it can possibly be. It is the first step in selling yourself into the job. You can’t get to the interview, where you are so sure you’ll shine, without getting out of the pile and onto the short list. The thing that drags you out of the hoard is that lowly piece of paper.

I will carefully discuss each of these steps (finding the opportunities, getting on the list, selling yourself, and closing the sale) in future articles. But right now, get to work on your résumé.

Your résumé is probably the single most important element of your job search, and as such it deserves a great deal of your time and attention.