Towards the Ideal Résumé

by Bill Hosier, Assistant Director-Sponsor, Region 1

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Not surprisingly, discussion at STC chapter meetings often turns to employment and job opportunities. The résumé is the key to landing a job initially, and then to advancing in the profession. So, let's consider the elements that go towards composing the ideal résumé.

Our résumé can be one of the most important documents in our life. Isn't it amazing that many people spend more time choosing a pair of shoes than preparing their résumé? And this certainly shows! Horror stories about résumés could fill volumes; the same goes for cover letters. As a professional communicator, your résumé should be impeccable. More so than for any other profession, your résumé is a prime indicator of your potential as a future employee or as a consultant, bidding for a contract. With this in mind, let's investigate the attributes of the ideal résumé and the ideal cover letter.


A number of studies carried out in the area of résumés and cover letters have concentrated on the perceptions of the consumers of the résumé, namely the recruiters.

One of the more recent studies, carried out by Earl E. McDowell1 at the University of Minnesota, was based on questionnaires sent to recruiters for university faculties, to teachers of technical writing, and to students enrolled in technical communication programs. McDowell's paper details the method used and provides considerable discussion on the results of the study. Although McDowell's study focused on the résumés of graduating students, many of the findings can be generalized to the profession at large, since they correlate well with other studies.

McDowell also cites earlier studies carried out with different populations. James2, for example, surveyed Fortune 500 companies on the subject of cover letters. Mansfield3 surveyed the first 100 corporations in the Fortune 500 listing on their assessment of résumés and cover letters.


The findings of these three studies, given in order of importance as seen by recruiters, are as follows:

The key reasons given for rejecting résumés and cover letters, in order of importance as perceived by recruiters, are as follows:

Note that, surprisingly, recruiters rank poor organization, poor grammar, and spelling errors as their main reasons for rejecting résumés and cover letters.

Achieving the Ideal

To formulate the kernel of the ideal résumé and cover letter, take these findings and accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.

Your prime aim is a résumé and cover letter not exceeding one page each. This is relatively straightforward for the cover letter. The main attributes are relevance and focus (for example, mention the position that you are applying for). The one page résumé is more challenging. Relevance is particularly important. Carefully decide what to include. Make each piece of information purposeful. Use graphic design principles to develop an effective and readable format.

Recalling the recruiters' concern for organization, grammar, and spelling, your résumé should be impeccable in these respects. Always spell check and proofread your résumé. Use desktop publishing systems to your advantage. Most publishing packages provide near-typeset quality and most have a spell check function. You can also use page composition software for the graphic design.


1. Earl E. McDowell, "Perceptions of the Ideal Cover Letter and Ideal Résumé," Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 17:3, 
pp.179-191, 1987.

2. C.K. James, "The Cover Letter and Résumé," Personnel Journal, 48, pp.732-733, 1969.

3. C. Mansfield, "We Hear You Mr/Ms. Business...The Résumé and Cover Letter," The ABCA Bulletin, pp.20-22, 1976.

© 2001 by STC Boston, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
Originally published January/February 1992 in the Boston Broadside