Your Resume Should Tell a Story

by Christopher D. Lee, Ph.D., SPHR


Like a good Hollywood script, your resume should tell a story. A good movie has clearly identifiable characteristics such as a beginning, middle, and end, and tension, resolution, protagonists, and antagonists. A curriculum vitae is designed to be the whole story, likely a TV mini-series or a movie with multiple sequels, and a resume is an abridged or adapted version of a larger body of work. In this case, that body of work is your career.

Like the theme in a good book or the storyline of a great movie, one should know the impression that one wants to make with the reader before curating the content of one’s resume. In an earlier blog post, I suggested that everyone should have three resumes, each tailored to a specific employment objective. For example, a biopic might emphasize the private life behind the public persona of a great woman, her career successes, or the struggles and triumphs of her crowning achievement. If a scholar’s goal is to secure a named professorship, a dean’s position, or to win a grant, he or she should include, exclude, or highlight different elements of his or her academic background.

Including the right elements helps to ensure that everything comes out right. Here are four suggestions for delivering a potential blockbuster script (resume).

Know Your Audience and Context
It seems that every other month I am relearning the Aristotelean lessons of my undergraduate political science studies. His wisdom about knowing one’s audience remains as simple and as profound as it was when first uttered. In our case, the audience is a search committee, review committee, or senior administrator who is reviewing our application materials vis-a-vis other candidates. What would make our materials stand out? A “just the facts, ma’am” approach will not make the best impression. The context matters as well. Resumes are almost always reviewed in comparison to other candidates. The aim, then, is to tell a compelling story in a clear, succinct way that leaves a lasting impression on the reader.

What would a search committee member want to know about when choosing finalists for a named professorship? Is the audience different for a deanship or grant review committee? You bet! The deanship is likely to have a vice president or two on the committee, as well as peer deans and faculty. The prestigious professorship review committee will undoubtedly include a majority of other accomplished faculty and possibly an advancement professional who is representing the interests of a donor. How might you communicate your materials differently with each of these distinct audiences? Remember that there is an art to telling a compelling story.

Tell Me A Little About You
A touch of your personality can be included in materials. It is plain to see that you have an MBA, nine years of professional experience, and have worked at two reputable institutions. But who are you? It is clear to see what you have done, but have you explained what makes you different, unique, or special? What makes you tick? The story you tell should include information about you, the person, as well as you, the professional. Instead of writing “increased the pass rate of Analytical Chemistry by 27 percent by incorporating Mastery Learning principles into my lectures,” you could write, “My commitment to student success is evident in my continued experimentation with teaching methods which have increased the pass rate in Analytical Chemistry by as much as 27 percent. The latter tells the reader, among other things, that you believe in innovation, continuous improvement, and student learning outcomes.

The cover letter is a prime landscape upon which to showcase personal qualities that complement one’s employment objective. In seeking to transition from a scholar to an administrator, one could draw parallels between their approaches to teaching and leading. Discussing why administrators should not take their work too lightly due to its import and impact would give a search committee a window into the person behind the credentials. This insight could help them make an informed selection decision.

Picture Perfect
Careful curating is required to put one’s best face forward and showcase the competencies, characteristics, and qualities that match the position being sought. There’s a reason why the Academy Awards give Oscars for movie editing. There are usually a lot of good scenes left on the editing room floor because the typical movie length is fairly fixed. Not every committee one has served on should appear on the resume. Some judiciousness is in order. What story are you trying to tell about your involvement? Select the scenes (experiences) that tell the story that match the interest of the viewer (reader). While drama may not be your goal, some intrigue might. What can you showcase to make the reader want to talk with you — ie invite you for an interview — in order to learn the “rest of the story?”

Closing Scenes
Creating the right impression with one’s resume, cover letter, philosophy statements, or other application materials can be enhanced by keeping four ideas in mind. Knowing the audience and the context is always a good start in any communication. Being clear about your goals and how they marry up with the employment objective you seek provides needed clarity. This clarity enhances one’s ability to curate application materials that tell the right story. Humanizing materials by giving the reader some insight about you, the person, also leaves a good impression. Showing the best picture and telling the best story about you takes time and effort, as well as deliberate action to optimize one’s job seeking success.

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