Unsolicited Resume Advice from an HR Outsider


Our last junior job posting brought in over 300 applicants for one position. These unfortunate statistics put everyone’s odds of success less than 0.3% right out of the gate. It was honestly a bit of a heart-wrenching reminder about how the last few years of Alberta’s economy have impacted the job prospects for our valuable new graduates.

Under an “It’s the least I can do” motivation, I kept some notes as we worked through some of our recent hiring processes. As a disclaimer, I am nowhere near an HR professional but I am a technically bent professional who is directly involved in hiring technical people. We are classified as an SME in Canada and while I can’t speak to the hiring practices of large enterprises, SME’s make up 88% 1 of employment in Canada.

A Resume Gap

If you finished your education within the last two years and you have not worked in a related field, considering the current job market, this is typically not an issue. We understand that opportunities have been scarce and exceptional candidates are still out there and unemployed.

If you finished your education more than two years ago and you have not worked in a related field since graduating, you have an unfortunate hurdle to overcome. In these cases, you should look to highlighting any skills upgrading, at any academic level, just to show that your mind is still in the game.

Resume Format

Resume formats evolve from time to time and as a resume reviewer, I will get lulled into a sense of what the current ‘typical’ is after going through the first few. This ‘typical’ will become aesthetically neutral to me and if you’re not following this format, your resume will fall into either aesthetically interesting or aesthetically off-putting. This is entirely subjective to the resume reader but you should understand there is a very real risk/reward curve for straying from the current standard format or template.

As impartial as the reviewer tries to be, their immediate sentiment towards your resume will either be working for or against you. If my sentiment is neutral to the format, it’s all about the content. If your content is limited with respect to your peers, you may want to pursue a format that stands out as interesting. When you attempt to capitalize on the reward side of this curve, please get some impartial feedback on the format before you run with it.

Resume Content


The classic sections of your resume include education, experience and interests. For junior applicants, my preference is to see education show up as the first of these but once your relevant experience breaks 5 to 7 years, flip experience to appear before education.

However, before any of these sections – hopefully – is the content that will introduce you to the reviewer and, like the aesthetic, will cement their sentiment towards you as a candidate. The first half of your first page, between your name and your education, is your primary vehicle to swing the odds of success in your favour and help you stand out.

Do not assume any solitary person is going to read your entire resume from start to finish until near the end of the screening process. Follow the inverted pyramid arrangement 2 used in sound journalism to sell yourself as the ideal candidate for the job within the first 20-50% of your first page. Typical headings for these introductory sections include:

  • Professional/Technical Skills
  • Professional Summary
  • Profile
  • Introduction

I’m not fussy about which headings you use with these sections so long as you use the content to portray yourself as competent and interested in the specific job I’ve posted. Even better than competent and interested would be exceptional and passionate and if you’re light on one, emphasize the other. Put most of your effort and all of your spelling and grammar skills into this initial part of your resume.


Whether your resume is first processed by an algorithm or a human, keywords are important. This shouldn't be daunting; I’ve already provided you with all of the keywords I’m looking for when I wrote my job posting. If you understand the position, you should be able to throw in a few ‘bonus’ keywords directly related to what I’m looking for. That said, any keyword around a skill you highlight in your introduction must be backed up by something in the supporting content of your resume (education, experience, projects, interests). Anything that makes me question the authenticity of your introduction will likely knock you out of the hiring process.


I’m generally not a huge fan of this section as an opener in resumes. It often comes across as uninspired and dry and a waste of your valuable introduction space. That said, I will look to this section if a person has experience applicable to their education but adjacent to what I’m specifically looking for. This helps me determine if you’re looking to switch paths or you potentially don’t fully understand the position you’re applying to. If you are going to include this section, make sure it is carefully tailored to each position you are applying for otherwise leave it out.

Cover Letter

More than 60% of you do not submit a cover letter or take the opportunity to fill out any of the ‘additional information/comments’ sections as part of the job application process. This is free space to augment your valuable introduction and sell yourself before anyone even opens your resume – use it. Come up with one or two (max) paragraphs that tie you, as an individual, to the specific job posting or company. Make this more personal than your resume introduction content and lean more on selling your interest (or better yet, passion) around the job and company. Don’t make this obnoxiously formal, write the way you would speak, and follow the mantra of clarity, simplicity, brevity and humanity 3. If the job portal doesn’t allow for this to be entered as part of the application process, turn it into a cover letter and submit it with your resume (unless expressly forbidden by the application instructions).


I’m pleased to see this section show up on more and more junior resumes. Capstone projects have become integral to formal education and have grown in complexity and employment relevance. By all means, highlight the projects you undertake as part of academics or even as hobbies, so long as they carry relevant components to the job posting. Keep this in mind if you're still in school and considering what to do for your capstone project. This could be one of the only differentiators you have when you first enter the job market.

Resume File

I’m not printing out your resume unless you’re coming in for an interview and even then it’s unlikely. I can’t speak to how other companies work but if your resume is in PDF format, I can read it directly from our HR portal just by selecting your name. If it’s in Microsoft word format, I have to download it. This is an extra step for me (remember sentiment?) and you have no insight into what I use for word processing software or how it’s going to butcher up your carefully formatted word file. I might even be doing my first screening from my phone or tablet. Unless the job posting portal specifies otherwise, submit your resume as a searchable text PDF (i.e. not an image). If you can’t get your resume from a DOC/DOCX to a PDF, I’m counting that as a strike against you. If you don’t work in either of these formats, nobody is looking at your resume.

junior controls resume wordcloud

The above wordcloud was generated from the pool of resumes for our recent Junior Controls Engineer/Technician posting.

  1. Government of Canada SME Research and Statistics - 2019 Data 

  2. Wikipedia - Inverted pyramid 

  3. Zinsser, William. On Writing Well: the classic guide to writing nonfiction. Harper Perennial, 2016 

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