Photo by Bram Naus ( on Unsplash.
Photo by Bram Naus ( on Unsplash.

Last time I threw a few thoughts out there about creating a job posting. In this month’s post, I share some notes on the next stage: reviewing those resumes you got in response to your job posting.

As you go through the resume review process keep reminding yourself of this: you are looking for good people, not good resumes. If there is an art to reviewing resumes, it is lost on me. I do have a process and some practices I can share to help keep you in the right frame of mind, but this is frankly the worst and most fraught part of the process. You will second guess yourself. Is the applicant you reject actually good but has a bad resume? Is the great resume the work of a great wordsmith instead of a great worker?

If you have a lot of applicants than chances of you finding a good set of candidates to interview is high, so do your best to put aside the fear of missing out.

Reread the job description

Now that time has gone by, go back and read the job description for the position once more. Try to put yourself in the mindset of an applicant who knows nothing about your organization. Without any internal knowledge of your organization, what did they see when they applied? What key words and phrases would they have seen?

This is also a good time to remind yourself that you are looking for good people to hire, not clones of the people you already have.

Let go of your opinions

Do you have an opinion on what the best format is for a resume? Do you like a nice plain black and white, single column format? Or do you like multiple columns with info boxes and some color to make it pop?

Maybe you think a resume should refer to the applicant in the third person (“Pat implemented Starksoft’s IronBase in record time while Chief Widget Officer at Yeardley Industrial Group.”) or vehemently hate it and prefer first person (“I implemented Starksoft’s IronBase in record time while Chief Widget Officer at Yeardley Industrial Group.”)?

The format and style of the resume is all subjective preference. I have my preferences, you have yours. Our preferences irrelevant because the applicant will not know what they are. There is no official guide blessed by anyone with actual authority on what format a resume should use, so the best practice when reviewing is to ignore the format. Remember that you are hiring a person, not a resume, so focus on the content and substance.

If the applicant is coming to you through an outside agency, what you are reading may not even be their own words. Many recruiting firms will edit and reformat the applicant’s resume to “fix” them or make sure that something that you put in the job description is highlighted. The extra edit is good unless the outside agencies alters the resume without notifying the applicant, especially if they end up altering the applicant’s skills. This happens more often than I care to think about. If you do move forward to the interview phase with the applicant, always ask if the resume you have is the one they submitted. Do not penalize an applicant because an agency pulled a fast one.

Hide the applicant’s name and apply other bias removal techniques

Before you start reading, remind yourself about the things you cannot ask about or discriminate on. Hopefully your HR department got you some training here. At the federal level in the US1, questions such as race, color, religion, sex, national origin, or age are illegal. Questions about disabilities are also off limits except under very strict circumstances and timing of those questions matters2. Keep your focus on the candidate’s ability to do the job and not about “them as a person”. I will go into this more in a later post about interviews.

There are plenty of studies that confirm one unfortunate fact: perceived gender and perceived culture/race have a measurable impact on whether an applicant even gets a call to interview.3,4

You say it doesn’t matter, but unconscious bias is a thing. Reduce the chance of unconscious bias creeping in by asking the recruiters to anonymize the resume before it gets to you and only reveal candidate names when you get to the interview stage.

Also consider asking recruiters to remove any irrelevant “interest” items. They will only add to bias. If the applicant is applying for a software development job and participates in the local developer’s meet up for their primary development language, then that’s relevant and a good thing to keep in. The fact that they are president of their weeknight rugby league is not, nor is the fact that they volunteer at the local pet shelter. Do you really want to know that they spend their weekends at haunted houses hoping to see a ghost or that they are an avid collector of Bay City Rollers albums and merchandise?

Now read the resume

My first pass through the resume is not an in-depth read. I scan it looking to get a general feel for the applicant. Is this an experienced hire? Does it look like they have their complete work history or just more recent history listed? How about their education? Are they coming to us mostly self-taught, with structured education, or something in between?

This is more than a cursory look, it is an attempt to get a feel for their career without getting in the weeds.

Highlight key words and phrases that were in the job description or sound synonymous to those key thoughts. Are they looking like they line up to the job description? Or is this likely to be a stretch or something of a skill set switch? Remember that skills can be learned. Attitude and general aptitude are much harder to change.

Now that I have a general feel, I do the in-depth read. At this stage, I’m looking for nuance in their experience and any extra nuggets that may differentiate them from another candidate. If the recruiters sent me a resume and did not leave it in a pile on the floor, then I assume there is a nugget worth mining even if the candidate looks “odd”. If I never see that nugget, then I will not move the applicant to the interview round, but I take my time to form a judgement before skipping on them entirely.

Good people = bad resumes

Right at the top, I said to keep reminding yourself that “you are looking for good people, not good resumes.”

This is not just a a pithy phrase. There is a particular dynamic to keep in mind - good candidates often have bad resumes in terms of format. Why? Because they do not need to use them that often! They get offers quickly so they stop agonizing over their resume. If they are a referral from an existing employee instead of a person who is applying in response to an internet posting, then they may not have even had much time to put that resume together. They dusted off an old resume, made a couple of quick updates, and sent it.

For that reason, forgive a few typos or a clumsy sentence or two. We all have made a quick edit and missed that it knocked something out of alignment or the pluralization is no longer in agreement. If it really is a mess, then reject it because poor attention to detail is a requirement for most roles and they could have found someone to proof-read it for them. Just don’t ding them for a single there/their/they’re error.


While you should skip the bad resumes, the correlation between a great resume and a great interview is low. I have hired plenty of people who turned out to be good team members whose resumes were not that great. I have interviewed and even hired people who underwhelmed me despite impeccable resumes and credentials. Aim for “good enough” in the resume review process and put your main efforts into the job description and interview process.