How to Update Your Resume After a Career Break

When you are searching for a job, especially if you haven’t been out in the market for a while, the words “Send me your resume” can be terrifying. If you haven’t updated your resume, your heart sinks as you think of the work in front of you. And even if you have, your heart sinks because…well, because sending anyone your resume is terrifying!

So let’s start with something basic: Everyone feels this way, to some extent. The killer resume you saw recently and thought, “Ah, man, look at that!”? Yeah, the woman who wrote that is secretly thinking “Is this any good?” So give yourself a break.

There are reams of advice on the internet about resumes. Most of it is conflicting. But there is good information out there and it’s worth reading as much as you can. My intention with this post isn’t to try and be the be-all, definitive guide to resumes for relaunching your career. I can offer you my top three pieces of advice when it comes to resumes:

Create custom versions: I know this is the advice no one wants to hear, because it means more work. But I so strongly believe in it. It rarely means you have to write a new resume for every situation, but you likely need a few different versions that highlight different skills and experiences. I especially think it’s important for anyone who’s been out of the workforce to have a few versions – at least one that emphasizes the volunteer work and skill-building you did and one version that doesn’t. It’s a sad fact that in some circumstances that information will be harmful to you by highlighting your time out of the workforce. But in other circumstances – like applying for a Path Forward returnship – the opposite will be true.

Follow a consistent format and cut out anything irrelevant: The need to customize is partly important because research consistently shows that recruiters spend seconds – at most, minutes – “reading” a resume. They are actually just skimming, so it’s important to follow a standard format for resumes. Deviating from convention will just make it harder to break through. And, for the same reason, less information is better because it allows the recruiter to focus on the important parts. Help them do that by eliminating the irrelevant parts.

Include a “cover letter”: I know this is going to be another unpopular piece of advice (more work!) and may even fly in the face of what you’ve heard about modern job searching. That’s why I put “cover letter” in quotes, because I don’t mean a letter the way you may remember from when you were looking for your first job and typing up a formal document (“Dear Sir or Madam …”). That you definitely don’t need. But you DO need to tell the story of you – what you’ve done, what you want to do next, why you are uniquely positioned. This is really hard to do within the standard resume format.

A cover letter – which today is usually an email or an open textbox in the ATS system – allows you to put all of your skills and experience into a cohesive narrative. A story format allows you to highlight the aspects of you that don’t fit on a resume but that often make the difference between the “let’s give her a call” pile and the circular file. Especially for anyone who’s taken an unconventional career path, the ability to tell that story is crucial to succeeding. The hardest part is figuring out what that story is. The good news is that once you do, you can use that same story in lots of different ways – to network, to ask for support and feedback and to apply for positions.