Is your resume format the right one for your career needs?

When you're trying to create the perfect resume for your job search needs, few things are more important than the resume format that you choose to deliver your message. After all, the goal of any resume is to ensure that employers can easily see that you're the right person for their job. Choosing the best resume format is essential for achieving that goal.

In this post, we'll examine the three main resume formats, consider their pros and cons, and explain how you can decide which format is the best option for you. We'll also offer some tips that can help you to learn how to create these different resume formats. 

Finally, we offer our opinion on which option is the best resume format overall and offer some guidance you can use for general formatting of any resume - regardless of which resume format you choose.

What are the three best resume formats?

There are three main resume format options that job seekers use. They include:

1.      Reverse-chronological

2.      Functional

3.      Combination

Each formatting option offers a different way to organize and present your resume information, depending on your overall work history and the type of job you're seeking. We'll examine each one and provide the information you need to ensure that you use the right format for your resume needs.

Reverse-chronological resume format

Also known simply as the chronological resume, this format is a favorite for job seekers and hiring managers alike - and for good reason. It's a format that allows you to present your professional experience in a straightforward, chronological way by listing ten to fifteen years of work history in reverse order. You simply begin by including details about your most recent or current job and then work backward.

The chronological resume usually follows a simple and straightforward resume structure. That structure includes several sections which each contain specific types of information. For example:

  • Contact information

  • Resume headline

  • Summary paragraph

  • Skills matrix or core competencies

  • Work experience

  • Education

  • Optional sections, such as relevant volunteer experience, certificates, and so on

Dividing this information into distinct sections will make it easier for hiring managers to quickly scan your resume and locate the details they're interested in seeing. If an employer can quickly identify those key qualifications they want to see, then there's a better chance that they'll take time to read your resume to learn more about you.

Another great thing about the chronological resume format is its flexibility. If you're seeking a job with very specific skill requirements, you can place the skill section right after the resume summary so that it receives more attention. You can even choose to emphasize the education section if you're a recent graduate and are highlighting those qualifications.

Who should use a chronological resume?

The reverse-chronological resume is widely regarded as the best resume format for job seekers who have years of consistent experience in the workforce. Typically, job seekers who use this format will have been working in the same industry for several years, with no serious gaps in that employment history. Because this format provides a clear picture of your career trajectory, it's also an ideal option when you're seeking a promotion in your field.

Chronological resume pros and cons

There are both advantages and disadvantages to choosing the reverse-chronological resume format. We've listed some of the most relevant pros and cons below.

Chronological format pros:

  • Employers are familiar with the chronological resume format and often prefer it to the alternatives

  • This format provides an easy-to-follow overview of your entire career trajectory

  • When used properly, the work experience section can highlight critical skills that the employer wants to see

Chronological format cons:

  • If there are notable gaps in your employment history, listing jobs in chronological order can make them easier for employers to spot

  • Because this format emphasizes your employment, it may not be the best option for anyone who lacks a steady job history. It can also be a tricky option for job seekers who are trying to move from one career to another

  • This format's familiarity can work against you if you're not focused on ensuring that your resume properly differentiates you from other job seekers.

Tips for writing a chronological resume

It's important to know how to write a chronological resume, since it's the format option you'll probably be using throughout most of your career. We've compiled some simple tips that can help you learn how to craft this type of resume.

  • List your employment history in reverse order, starting with your current position. Use that same chronological approach in your education section, too.

  • For each job listed, include the company name, job title, and dates of employment. Then add three or four bullet point examples of quantifiable achievements. These accomplishments should demonstrate how you used your skills to create real value for the company.

  • Highlight relevant skills. Include both hard and soft skills, paying special attention to the requirements listed in the company's job posting. Make sure that you use the exact terms from the posting in your resume, as these keywords will improve your resume's searchability. 

  • For your resume headline, include the job title you're seeking and some descriptive language that sets you apart from other candidates. For example, instead of writing “Marketing Manager,” you could write “Dynamic Marketing Manager Committed to Driving Growth and Profits.”

  • Make sure that your summary paragraph is no more than 3-5 sentences and that it includes a couple of achievements and skills that highlight your value. Remember, this paragraph is supposed to help you capture a hiring manager's attention, so treat it like an elevator sales pitch. Keep it concise and focused on earning the reader's interest.

Functional resume format

The functional resume is also sometimes referred to as a skill-focused resume. Because it emphasizes skills over work history, it can be a great way to mask inexperience in your field. It's also sometimes used by job seekers who have significant gaps in their work history to hide those periods of unemployment. That latter feature is one of the main reasons why many employers view this format with suspicion. Employers are also less familiar with this format.

Still, it can be used to great effect if you take the time to present information in an easy-to-follow structure. Like the chronological resume, this resume format divides information into distinct sections. For example:

  • Contact details

  • Resume summary paragraph

  • Skills

  • Professional experience

  • Education

  • Optional sections

The skills section is typically different from the section found in a chronological resume, however. Since the whole purpose of the functional resume is to emphasize your abilities, several skill sub-sections are often used to drive those qualifications home. Those sections may include:

Soft skills: This section can be used to highlight your most important competencies. List those skills and include language that illustrates how you used your abilities to create value for employers. Basically, you highlight these skills in the same way that you'd highlight quantifiable achievements.

Hard skills: These are typically the skills that are required by the employer in order to qualify for the role. They might be technical or knowledge-based in nature and relate directly to your ability to perform the job's required duties.

Who should use a functional resume?

Unlike the chronological resume format, the functional format is less suited for those with a good deal of consistent work experience. Instead, it's a better option for people who have very little experience. As a result, it's often used by recent graduates and others who are just entering the workforce. It can also be a good option for some workers in the creative industries or those whose work history spans multiple sectors.

Functional resume pros and cons

Of course, there are some advantages and disadvantages to choosing this resume format. To help you better understand the relative benefits and drawbacks of the functional resume option, we've listed some of the most important pros and cons below.

Functional resume pros

  • By emphasizing skills, this resume format can enable you to shift focus from a lack of professional experience

  • It can provide an effective way for inexperienced or non-traditional workers to highlight their potential value by focusing on transferable skills

  • They can be a good option for veterans transitioning to civilian employment, or those who do not want to appear over-qualified for a position

Functional resume cons

  • Employers may view this format with suspicion and wonder what you're hiding

  • Because it's typically used by people with little experience, it won't help you to land a position if the employer is seeking someone with a longer career trajectory

  • It can be confusing for employers who struggle to see which skills relate to which roles and therefore how much experience you have in using a particular skill 

Tips for writing a functional resume

Writing an effective functional resume can be challenging if you're not sure how to get the most out of this format. That's why we've compiled some of the best tips available to assist you in that process.

  • Make sure that your summary statement focuses intently on the core requirements for the job. Use no more than five sentences to describe your key skills, how you've used them, and the results you've obtained for your previous employers.

  • It's easy to get so focused on your core hard skills that you forget to emphasize vital soft skills. Remember that those intangible abilities may be just the thing that separates you from the competition.

  • For your work experience section, keep things relatively concise. Include the company name and dates of employment and your job title.

  • If you're a first-time job seeker, you may not have work experience to include in the resume. Instead, you can provide information about volunteer work, internships, or other relevant activities that can illustrate how you've used your skills to create value and solve problems.

  • Pay careful attention to any listed requirements in the job posting, since you'll want to use these key terms throughout your resume. This will help to ensure that employers can readily identify those qualifications when they scan through your resume.

  • Since your work history section will be brief, you may want to bolster your education section by including more than just your academic achievements. Add listings for any other formal training, online certifications, and continuing education that highlights your qualifications.

Combination resume format (hybrid)

The third option is known as the combination, or hybrid, resume. As the name suggests, it's literally a combination of the chronological and functional resumes, attempting to combine the best elements of each. Basically, it allows you to focus on your skills and work history in roughly equal measure. When executed correctly, this resume strategy can help to remove focus from any employment gaps, while effectively aligning your most notable skills with your work achievements.

To create this type of resume, you need to use a simple structure that employers can easily follow. Again, the information should be separated into compartmentalized sections. For example:

  • Contact information

  • Summary paragraph

  • Skills summary

  • Professional experience

  • Educational section

  • Additional skills

There are a few things to note here. First, you can choose to omit a summary paragraph, depending on your resume space needs. We recommend using a summary wherever possible, however, since it can be a powerful way to capture the reader's attention and encourage them to continue scanning the document.

Second, the arrangement of your skills and work history sections will depend on which qualifications you need to emphasize. If the job requirements focus on skills, highlight yours by placing the skills section first. If work experience appears to be more important, place that section before your skills.

Third, take note of the fact that your skills are divided into two sections: a summary of key skills and a separate section that outlines other relevant abilities. Each of these sections is a little different in layout and purpose. The skills summary should provide several bullet point examples of achievements that highlight your use of key hard and soft skills. The second skill section should be a bullet point list of other key skills needed for the job.

Who should use a combination resume?

The combination resume can offer the best of both worlds for job seekers whose career trajectory may not align well with the traditional chronological format. For example, if you've had a career that has seen you move from one industry to another, your work experience may not perfectly align with the job you're currently seeking. By balancing focus on skills and experience, you can get around that obstacle.

As a result, the hybrid resume format can be a good option for people who are applying for managerial roles with no formal experience as a manager. It can also be useful for job seekers who are trying to transition from one industry to another. Its unique structure makes it easier to focus attention on your transferable skills, while illustrating how they apply to the job you're seeking.

Combination resume pros and cons

As with the other two resume formats, the combination option comes with its own pros and cons. Before you choose this format for your resume, consider the following potential benefits and drawbacks:

Combination resume pros:

  • This format highlights your most important skills and provides an easy way to tie them to your achievements

  • Like the chronological resume, the combination format allows you to focus on demonstrating the value you can provide as an employee

  • It's a great option for candidates with steady job experience, the desire to change their career trajectory, or significant gaps in employment history

Combination resume cons:

  • It's not really a good option for entry-level job seekers who lack experience

  • This format can only be effective if you can successfully align your experiences and achievements with your skills - if your skills and job history don't mesh, the resume will reflect that disharmony

  • This format can be excessively long, as it include both skills and career history in great detail

Tips for writing a combination resume

The combination resume format can be difficult to master, since you need to ensure that everything is organized in the most efficient manner possible. That's especially true if you have experience in different fields and need to somehow bring them together to create a coherent narrative. To help you with that process, we've gathered some important tips you can use as you try to create your combination resume.

  • Don't forget to divide your skills into two separate sections.

  • Focus on your most important and relevant skills in your summary section and include several bullet point examples of achievements to showcase how you've used those abilities in the past

  • As mentioned earlier, the second section will include a bullet point list of your other relevant skills. Those skills should include abilities that round out your qualifications. Refer to the job posting to find the terms that the company uses to describe those abilities.

  • Your work history should include quantifiable achievements that align with your cited skills. If possible, focus on highlighting achievements that feature the same type of skills you'll need for the job you're seeking.

  • Always write your summary paragraph last. That way, you can refer to the rest of your resume as you select two or three key skills and experiences to showcase. If you're trying to switch careers, use part of this paragraph to illustrate how your transferable skills contribute to your overall qualifications for the job.

So, which resume format is the best?

At this point, you might be wondering which of these options is the best resume format. If we judge according to popularity, the answer is probably the reverse-chronological resume format. That's because it's not only the most popular format for most job seekers, but is also preferred by employers. Its simple structure, easy-to-follow experience section, and clearly defined sections are hard to beat.

With that said, however, there are obviously instances in which one of the other two options are better suited to a job candidate's needs. As noted earlier, someone with very little job experience may be better served by a functional or combination resume. In general, though, we typically recommend that people who cannot use a reverse chronological resume instead rely on the combination option.

But how can you decide which one is the right choice for you? After all, if you choose the wrong format, you could put yourself at a disadvantage when competing for jobs. By answering the following questions, you can get a better handle on the best options for your resume format needs.

1.     Are you a recent graduate just entering the job market?

If you're just entering the workforce, the functional resume can be an option. If you focus on ensuring that your listed qualifications match the job's requirements, that format should serve you well. Still, given employers' skepticism of the functional format, you might want to at least consider the combination option.

Since the combination format enables you to emphasize both skills and experience, you may find that its approach offers more flexibility for showcasing your abilities. You may even want to create different versions of your resume - one using the functional format and the other adopting the hybrid approach - just to compare them and see which one will work best for your unique circumstances.

2.     Do you have employment gaps or are you trying to pursue a career change?

Sometimes, employment gaps can't be helped. And while most employers are open to discussions about why you went without a job for a significant period, it's often best to avoid dealing with that issue if you don't have to. Fortunately, the combination resume format provides a way to paper over any significant gaps in your work history.

That same format is also a great option when you're in the process of changing careers, since it allows you to redirect attention to how your skills and experiences qualify you for that new job role. Just make sure to include relevant transferable skills that align with the job's needs. Note also that you can use the reverse chronological option here if your prior employment experiences are relevant to the position.

3.     Is your work experience consistent and in one industry or field?

When you have several years of consistent experience in one industry, there's only one real choice to consider: the reverse-chronological resume format. For most job seekers, this format will provide everything they need to craft a resume that effectively highlights their key qualifications and value-added proposition.

How to format your resume layout

Even after you've selected the right format for your resume needs and plugged your information into the various sections you've outlined, you're still not done. Remember, you want to ensure that the resume you submit is as professional as possible so that employers can read it without any confusion or difficulty. Most employers only spend a few seconds glancing at each resume, so your document needs to pass that initial scan if you want them to take a closer look.

That's why it is vital to properly format that resume. Of course, we're talking about a different kind of formatting here - something that's quite apart from the resume format choice you had to make when you decided which resume option to use. This formatting involves all the little things you need to do to make sure that your resume is clear, readable, and easy to scan. The following tips can help with that process.

Choose a professional font

Don't be one of those job seekers who assumes that hiring managers will be drawn to resumes with interesting layouts, fonts, and graphics. Trust us - most will dismiss those resumes out of hand. The average hiring manager wants to see a clear, traditional layout that's easy to scan. If you're using non-traditional fonts or other creative approaches, they probably won't take you seriously.

So, which font to use? The good news is that there are some clear favorites that you can rely on when choosing your font. They include:

  • Arial

  • Calibri

  • Cambria

  • Garamond

  • Georgia

  • Helvetica

Each of these fonts is generally considered to be easy to read in both print and online presentations, so they're likely to appeal to the broadest possible audience. If you're struggling to select one, just pick either Arial or Calibri. You really can't go wrong with either one.

Select the right margins

For a well-balanced and brief resume, a one-inch margin on all sides of the document should enable you to make the most effective use of your resume space. However, feel free to reduce that margin to 0.75 inches if you find that you need more space, to avoid an excessively long resume. 

As you're creating your margins, make sure that your text alignment is considered as well. Your contact information and job headline can be centered on the page, but all your other information should be aligned to the left. That makes it easier for hiring managers to follow, since most people in the United States are accustomed to reading from left to right.

Pick your font size

You also want to ensure that your font size is correct. It needs to be big enough for most people to see it, but not so large that it seems unprofessional. We recommend a font size somewhere between 10 and 12 points. That range should provide you enough flexibility to adjust as your resume space needs require. For example, if you find that a 10-point font leaves too much empty space on the page, adjust to 11 or 12. If a 12-point font causes your page to run long, lower the font size accordingly.

Use bullet points

Remember that your resume is not an essay. It's a collection of relevant details designed to highlight skills, experiences, and achievements. The best way to do that is through the judicious use of bullet points. Lists of bullet point information can be used to showcase your skills and notable achievements.

Edit to make your document more concise

Sometimes, you may find that your resume runs longer than you expected. If it's just over one page and reducing the font doesn't shorten it enough, you may want to edit and refine the language to make it more concise. This could mean omitting irrelevant ideas, using shorter sentences, or eliminating unnecessary words.

Clearly identify your section headings

Your skill, experience, and education sections all need clear heading labels. To make these headings stand out from the rest of the resume, you could:

  • Increase their font size by two points (so, if the resume text uses a 10-point font, increase the heading font to 12-point)

  • Bold the entire heading so that it stands out from the other text

  • Underline section headings

It is also a good idea to use this same approach to your name at the top of the page, to ensure that employers can easily find it.

Get a second or third opinion

Once you've written and formatted your resume, there's one last thing you should do to ensure that it's easy for other people to read. That's right: ask other people to read it! Have a friend or someone else you trust review the entire document so that they can give you their opinion about its effectiveness. Make sure to tell them what you'd like to know, though. For example, ask them to critique the spelling, grammar, and formatting choices, as well as its overall appearance.

Choosing the best resume format can increase your odds of job search success

The resume format you choose can set the tone for your job search success. By selecting the right format for your situation and needs, you can ensure that your information is organized and structured in a way that reinforces your broader career narrative. By using the tips and recommendations in this post, you can create the compelling resume you need to land more interviews.

Want to ensure that your resume format aligns with your career needs? Get a free resume review from our team of experts today.

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