4 Steps for Writing a Stand Out Resume

Nothing is worse* than spending an hour revising and perfecting your resume, applying to a job, and then having your resume go into a black hole, with you never hearing from that organization again. A person can only get black holed so many times before the job search starts to feel futile. (I promise it isn’t!)

So how can you write your resume in a way that will ensure it not only gets read but impresses someone so that they contact you for an interview? How do you get out of the resume black hole!?

Do the following four things and you will find yourself getting black holed* far less often and positioning yourself to get picked for an interview.

1. Go into detail!

Every legal resume in the country says “research and wrote memoranda” so if your bullet point states only that, you are not distinguishing yourself. Tell me what projects you did, giving me a sense of the actual legal topics you researched. Discuss at least one legal issue you worked on in deep detail. (No matter what, always make sure your employer approves of your bullet points when you are discussing specifics.) Tell me what you recommended. Tell me why.

Researched and wrote memoranda” is bad.

“Researched and wrote memorandum discussing equal protection issues arising under the Minnesota Constitution” is good.

“Researched and wrote memorandum stating that potential client likely could challenge constitutionality of law forbidding his food truck from operating within 20 feet of a brick and mortar restaurant under the equal protection clause of the Minnesota Constitution” is great.

That bullet point gives potential employers an actual idea of what you worked on. They could read that bullet point and have a question to ask you in an interview.

That bullet point also shows that you have the potential to be a good legal writer. Distilling complicated concepts down to one easy to read sentence is the hallmark of good legal writing and because many employers do not request (or do not get the chance to fully read) writing samples, your resume is often the only chance you get to showcase your legal writing skills.

If you wrote a memo, you want your bullet point to communicate three things about it:

(1) What was the basic legal issue

(2) Why were you writing a memo on it

(3) What was your conclusion, argument, or recommendation

The first point is the one people most often get right. If you wrote a memo this summer, don’t just say you wrote a memo. State the legal issue the memo was about (“Wrote memorandum on whether the city of Philadelphia has the authority to attach a lien to property on which it has commissioned an emergency demolition.)

Often times, the second point is implied. If you are working for a prosecutor’s office and you are a writing a memo on whether the state should prosecute a given case, it’s pretty obvious you’re writing that memo because the state has that case before it and is deciding whether to prosecute it. If you’re working as a Research Assistant, often the second point is not implied so you’ll need to say why you’re doing a particular project. (Don’t just say you researched a legal issue. Say that you researched it for a professor’s upcoming book.)

The third point is what I see missing from bullet points most frequently.  See the example above: “Wrote memorandum on whether the city of Philadelphia has the authority to attach a lien to property on which it has commissioned an emergency demolition.” That is a well-written description of the legal issue the memo was about. But I can’t tell from reading it what the writer of that memo recommended. The writer can fix that easily. (“Wrote memorandum concluding that city of Philadelphia had the authority to attach a lien to property on which it has commissioned an emergency demolition.”

It is always a good idea to run your bullet points by your employer. Many issues you are working on may not be public so you might be limited in how much detail you can go into. If you are having trouble adding detail because an issue you worked on is not public, contact the CDO.

2. Don’t mess with formatting to get more on the page.

When you finish the first draft of your resume, you may find that it just barely spills on to a second page. Resist the urge to change the margins, reduce the font size, or eliminate spaces between work experiences to get your resume down to one page. You must include spaces between work experiences or your resume looks smooshed together.

If your resume spills on to a second page, you need to cut content. Period. If you have trouble knowing what to cut, that is what the CDO is for. Email a CDO counselor and ask for help cutting it down. We are resume nerds and love helping you cut!

Resume aesthetics are vital. If it is not pretty, no one will want to read it. When you mess with formatting, you sacrifice aesthetics for content. Don’t do it.

3. Never start a resume bullet point with the words “assisted,” “aided,” “collaborated,” “helped,” or any variant of them.

These words make me sad. In fact, for the rest of this blog post, I am going to refer to them as WTMKS (Words That Make Katelynn Sad).

Starting resume bullet points with WTMKS words is not effective for two reasons: (1) You are not stating what you actually did and (2) the words are weak.

Focus on saying what you did. If your resume bullet point states “Assisted attorneys in trial,” I cannot read that and know what you actually did. It doesn’t do a thing to help me assess whether you are qualified for a job. How did you assist them? Did you maintain the evidence log and cross off individual pieces of evidence in trial as they were introduced? Did you keep documents handy and then passed them to attorneys as needed? Does your supervising attorney need to hear Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger sung by one of his interns before he can successfully take a deposition and you were the Eye of the Tiger guy all summer? Then, just state that. Well, not the last one, obviously. But you get what I am saying.

For an easy example, if your job is to add the lettuce and tomatoes to subway sandwiches, you would not say “assisted in making sandwiches” because I can’t tell what you actually did to make the sandwich. You would simply say “Added lettuce and tomatoes to sandwiches.”

If you think that the work you did is not exciting enough to include as a bullet point and you are hiding behind “assisted” to mask the unexciting task, reach out to a CDO counselor. We can add some spice to your bullet point to make it interesting. Turning a seemingly unexciting task into an engaging bullet point is actually one of my favorite parts of my job.

Do not weaken your achievements. Your resume is your one chance to show the great projects you have worked on. When the first word of a bullet point is a WTMKS, it primes the reader to be unimpressed with the entire bullet point. No one wants to hire someone who assists. They want to hire people who take initiative and get the job done. The verbs you are starting your bullet points with are your first chance to show you are that person.

Do not worry that by eliminating all WTMKS that you are somehow lying about your experience.  Anyone reading your resume will know that you are a law student and did not do a major task by yourself. There are ways that we can craft bullet points to state what you did accurately but that do not weaken your experience so reach out to a CDO counselor and we will help you.

4. Be careful about listing too many undergraduate (and law school!) activities

Employers frequently complain about resumes that include a long list of undergraduate activities. Think about it from the employer’s perspective. When trying to evaluate if a candidate will be a go getter as a legal intern, it hardly helps their decision to know that the candidate attended two meetings of ten different clubs.

With limited real estate, it is better to devote space to your legal experience. If you delete a few undergraduate activities that you did not devote a great deal of time to, you will have extra room to expound upon a bullet point that for now states only “Researched and wrote memoranda”.

The same goes for law school activities. If you are a member of ten different law school organizations, listing all of them is going to take up tons of space on your resume but it is not going to convey anything meaningful about you to any prospective employer.

That said, if you devoted a substantial amount of time to an activity, such as college athletics or starting a club, or if your experience is directly related to the job you’re applying for, feel free to include it.

Always be mindful of the message your resume is conveying. If you’re preparing your resume to submit to law firms for OCI, you want to convey that you’re interested in pursuing a big law career. How will adding that you’re active in the Public Interest Law Forum contribute or takeaway from that message? On the other side of the coin, how will including Business Law Forum on your resume contribute or takeaway from your public interest fellowship applications?

Don’t know if the experience is related to the job you’re applying for? Contact a CDO counselor.

*The interview ghost is actually the true worst thing ever. Taking time to travel to the organization looking polished and professional, spending over an hour talking to them, and then never even learning whether you were rejected feels like torture. Stay tuned for a future blog post on how to deal with the dreaded interview ghost.

* Did you know there is such thing as a white hole?  There is, at least hypothetically. Whereas black holes do not let anything escape from their surface, white holes are eruptions of matter and energy and nothing can get inside them. They are expected to have gravity, so they attract objects, but anything on a collision course with a white hole would never reach it. There isn’t enough energy in the universe to get you inside a white hole! Now that I think about it, we really should call the resume black hole, the “resume white hole” if we were being true to the metaphor.

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