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How to Design and Lay Out Your Resume

by John Nicholson, Resumes That Jump
Originally published: Aug 1, 2009

There is no one best way to design and format a resume. Different people with different sets of experience require different layouts and design techniques. There are, however, formatting conventions that generally make sense to follow. Sure, you might stand out by using an unconventional design, but you also risk confusing and frustrating the reader. I like to use safe formatting that is very clean, professional, and readable -- then rely on content to make the resume stand out. The steps below follow this philosophy.

Design and format should be the last thing you worry about for your resume. So before reading the steps below, you should already have created your outline, identified your achievements, bulletized your experience, and written your introduction. Having gone through all of the steps above, ideally you will have a plain text doc (.txt) with an introduction section, work experience section, and education section.

1. Get started with MS Word

My instructions below will assume you are using MS Word 2007. If you don't have Word or another commercial word processing tool, use Google Docs or Zoho Writer and try to follow along.

Under “Page Layout” set the margins to “normal” (1 inch on the sides, top, and bottom). Add your name and contact information to the top of the new document. Put your full name on the top line. Below it add your full address. And then below that add your email address and phone number(s). Now copy and paste everything from your plain text doc into your new Word doc below your contact information ... and let's get started!

2. Choose a font

Unless you have a good reason to use something else, stick to standard fonts like Times New Roman, Arial, or Georgia. The safest - and perfectly acceptable - approach is to use that same font throughout your document. If you have some design sense and think you can do it without looking tacky, it's fine to use a second font type sparingly (E.g. for headings, company names, and positions). Once you've selected your default font, select everything in your document and change the font. If you are using Times New Roman, set your default font (the font that will be used for all paragraphs and bullets) to 12 pts. If you're using Arial, set it to 10 pts.

3. Format your headings

Your headings are your name, resume title and "Professional Experience" and "Education" lines. Make all of those a larger font size (18 pts for Times New Roman is fine) and consider making your name slightly larger still. To further strengthen your headings, bold and/or center them (if you center your name, also center your contact information). Some people like to insert lines in between the main sections (i.e. above each of the headings). I recommend waiting until the end to see if lines are necessary. Don't go overboard with lines.

4. Format your intro

Your intro summary should be fine as is, unless you have career highlights bullets in which case you need to convert these to true bullet formatting. (Select the list, right click and select "Bullets"; if given an option of bullet styles, select the filled-in black circles.)

Now let's format your skills or competencies. Since skills are so critical, we want to make them easy to scan by keeping them in list form and adding bullet formatting. Since this can be fairly space-intensive, this is one of the few areas of the resume where I recommend using advanced formatting.

There are a number of ways to approach this. I'll describe two options here. If you have 8 skills / competencies or less, put them in a text box:

  • Go to the Insert tab and select Text Box and then Simple Text Box.
  • Drag it near your intro section, title it "Technical Skills" or "Core Competencies", and then cut and paste your skills inside the box.
  • Select all of the skills and convert them into bullets or check boxes.
  • Select the entire text box, right click and select "Format AutoShape". On the "Colors and Lines" tab you can add a border or a background color. On the "Text Box" tab you can adjust the margins around your content.
  • Adjust the width and height of the box.
  • Depending on the width of the box and your own preference, either put box next to or below your summary paragraph.
  • If you put the box next to your summary, add a right indent to that paragraph (select the paragraph, right click and pick "Paragraph ..." and then modify the Indentation settings).

If you have over 8 skills / competencies, use a multi-column layout:

  • Select your skills and convert them into bullets.
  • Keeping them selected, go to the "Page Layout" tab and select "Columns" and then either Two or Three depending on how many bullets you have.
  • This should appear right below your summary.

5. Format your experience

Companies, titles, and dates of employment are each very important pieces of information to readers. When formatting our experience section, make sure these components stand out from the rest of your resume's text. Also make sure that your companies and titles are easily distinguishable from each other. (A lot of people make the mistake of using the same formatting for companies, titles, and dates.) These are key to making your resume scan-able.

If your companies are more impressive than your titles, emphasize companies more than titles; and vice versa. A standard approach is to make your companies all caps (e.g. "SUN SYSTEMS") and perhaps one font size bigger (e.g. 13 pts), and then make your titles bold.

Put your job titles just under your companies. Increase scan-ability further by right-justifying your dates of employment on the same line as the company. Company locations can either go to the left of the dates, or to the right of company names. (I recommend using the default font size and weight for dates and locations.) If you have more than one position under a single company, include dates next to those positions (in addition to next to the company). If your have multi-year tenure at most companies, you do not need to include months next to years.

Everything else in your experience section is easy. You just need to add appropriate spacing between your titles and what follows. If you've been using plain text characters like * or - in front of your duties and accomplishments, replace those with real bullets.

6. Format your education

Under education, one option is to format school names the same way you formatted company names (e.g. "UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA") and then to put the name, concentration, and date of your degree on one bulleted line below the school name (e.g. "BA, Marketing (1994)").

Certifications, memberships, affiliations, and awards can generally be listed as bullets below your educations. If you have a lot of them, you may want to include a completely new section in addition to "Education", such as "Awards and Memberships".

7. Adjust spacing for scan-ability

Now go back through the whole document and increase and decrease white space to improve the flow and scan-ability of your resume. Here are two things I always like to do:

  • Add a little space between bullets. To do this, select all of the bullets, right click and select "Paragraph ...", and then go to the Indents and Spacing tab. Under Spacing change "After" to 2pt or 3pt. This is a subtle change but can make a big difference in the scan-ability and overall look of your resume. Note: do not use line spacing to try to accomplish this, because this will add space both between and within bullets, and we only want space between bullets.
  • Add a little space between companies and titles. Use the same approach above ... select the lines with companies and dates and change the "After" spacing to somewhere between 3pt and 6pt.

Now that you have a new layout and design for your resume, you probably need to do some editing of content to optimize its length.