5 Ways Veterans Can Make Their Resume Stand Out During a Job Search

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(U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Benjamin Raughton)

Question: Since leaving the Marines, I’ve been in a job hunt. One recruiter told me my resume was a dead end. She said nothing I’d listed in my experience made me sound like someone the company would be interested in. What did I do wrong?

Answer: It sounds like you may have missed several of the key aspects of a resume that make a recruiter (or hiring manager) want to learn more. Let’s unpack those here:

1. Tailor to the Job, Company and Industry. 

Did your resume speak directly to the job that you were applying for? If you aren’t using keywords and key phrases that the job description indicates are important, highlighting your values as shared with the company values and describing your experience in their industry, you risk looking like a generic job applicant. 

Recruiters want to know why you’re interested in this job at this company at this time. In my 2020 Talks at Google, a senior recruiter from Google mentioned this as a key element she looks for. While she recognizes that Google is an attractive employer to candidates, she’s hiring for a specific job to perform specific functions. If your resume isn’t specific, recruiters can be turned off. 

2. Speak to the Reader (Even if It’s a Computer).  

Did you write your resume (and cover letter, if applicable) in the tone, language and style of the company? While you shouldn’t act like someone you’re not, if you see the company website highlights personality and is upbeat and cheerful, ensure your resume and other materials are equally as positive.

If your materials are stoic and standoffish, they could immediately be discounted as not a “cultural fit.” You don’t need to be playful in your materials, but matching the tone of the reader is important.

Most job applications are filtered first through some form of an Applicant Tracking System (ATS) to help recruiters with workflow. The ATS scans for keywords, required skills and certifications, and other criteria before sending the resume onward. Did your resume highlight the keywords and phrases that are important to this employer? These are identified on the job description, website and other career pages the company promotes. 

Use the keywords they care about, not the ones you like best. 

3. Sound Excited About the Job.  

Did you mention anywhere in your application that the job they’re advertising is one you’re excited about? When you list your experiences in your resume, make it obvious to the reader that this position would be an ideal next step in your career path. You can lead the reader to believe that everything you’ve done to this point has led you to this moment, and it’s a dream job for you.

Even if you aren’t afforded the chance to add a cover letter, you can make your resume read like a story that is pointing toward your fit for the job. To an employer, this would be exciting to read.

4. Use Action Words. 

What kind of story does your resume read like: An action story or a bedtime story? Ensure you use action verbs and clear terms when describing your past experiences and accomplishments. Consider exchanging words like, “ran,” “worked with” or “ helped” with “directed,” “advanced” or “resolved.” Action words are more specific and exciting than their more tedious counterparts.

Whenever you can, ensure the words on your resume are focused, specific and impactful. Using cliches or jargon can make the reader feel ill-informed. Words and phrases that are non-specific, like “challenges the status quo” or “big-picture thinker” can be more clearly defined with, “constantly pursues non-obvious solutions,” or “able to clearly see strategic implications.”

5. Sell Yourself.

Yes, as uncomfortable as it may be, you’ll need to promote yourself and your candidacy in your resume. The reader wants to see you as confident and clear about why this role is ideal for you, given your experience, skills and goals. When you are sure about how this opportunity aligns with what you want, you help the recruiter see the same. 

Resist the temptation to veer into arrogance or overconfidence by focusing on how your past lines up with the potential success you could achieve in this new role, and the benefits the company would enjoy. Remember, the recruiter and hiring manager are thinking about what’s best for them and the company. As you sell yourself to them, help them see how hiring you helps meet their goals.

The author of "Success After Service: How to Take Control of Your Job Search and Career After Military Duty” (2020) and "Your Next Mission: A personal branding guide for the military-to-civilian transition" (2014), Lida Citroën is a keynote speaker and presenter, executive coach, popular TEDx speaker and instructor of multiple courses on LinkedIn Learning. She regularly presents workshops on personal branding, executive presence, leadership communication and reputation risk management.

A contributing writer for Military.com, Lida is a passionate supporter of the military, volunteering her time to help veterans transition to civilian careers and assist employers who seek to hire military talent. She regularly speaks at conferences, corporate meetings and events focused on military transition.

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