Great Resume Beginnings: Objective or Summary?

The stiff competition for jobs right now means employers face a daunting pile of resumes for each open position.

“You’ve got a few seconds to tell your story,” said Leslie Griffen, director of client services for Enrich Careers, an OI Partners company in Kansas City, Missouri.

This means the top of your resume is critical. Should you lead with an objective? A summary? Or do you plunge right in with your work experience?

There are no hard and fast rules about how to start your resume, but there are pros and cons to each solution. Experts offer this advice for choosing the best opening for your situation:

Start With: Work Experience

Pros: This may be the easiest way to begin, but that’s about the only point in its favor.

Cons: You’re making the reader do the work of summarizing your career. “That’s the least effective way to go about it,” said Mary Jeanne Vincent, a career coach in Monterey, Calif., and owner of WorkWise. “It just assumes, ‘Figure out for yourself what’s important and what’s not important.'”

Tip: If you go this route, take extra care with the accomplishments you list after your first job. For example, if you’re applying to be an HR manager, make sure your accomplishments show your management skills.

Start With: Objective

Pros: A clear objective — perhaps just the name of the position you’re applying for — helps the person sorting the resumes see where you fit. This is helpful especially if you’re a recent college graduate or a career changer, for example, and your experience doesn’t make it obvious what you’re looking for.

Cons: Despite what you may have been told, “it’s not a requirement to put an objective on a resume,” Vincent said. An objective uses valuable space and doesn’t really sell your skills.

In addition, “sometimes stating an objective will pigeonhole you,” Griffen said. “You might fit in several areas.”

Tip: If you use an objective, make sure it’s short and to the point. Saying you want to “work in a corporate setting for a company with a great track record” is “an empty statement,” Griffen said. “You’ve just taken up three or four lines of very important storytelling and you haven’t really given them any information about you.”

You should also avoid objectives that are about your goals rather than how you can help the employer, Vincent said. Don’t say you want a position where you can learn more about a certain industry, for example.

Start With: Summary

Pros: Summarizing your skills and experience in several lines — under a heading such as “Professional Profile” or “Executive Profile” — helps people see at a glance what sort of work you do: Are you a database administrator? a marketing manager? It also lets you highlight your accomplishments and skills, ensuring that people will see what’s most important.

“That summary is your mini-commercial,” Vincent said.

Cons: These summaries can be difficult to write. You want to make the strongest case you can without overstating your accomplishments.

Tip: “Highlight your skills, your areas of expertise and a little bit of personality,” Griffen said. Make sure to mention communication skills and other so-called soft skills. “I like a summary statement that tells them, ‘I need to read the rest of the resume.'”

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