Utilize the resume real estate between your contact information and work experience wisely.
If you're not familiar with the term "career summary," it's those few lines or bullets at the top of your resume directly under your name and contact information that tell an employer who you are. Some call it a career profile or executive summary, among other things.
Before we go on and talk about what it is, let's talk about what it's not. It is not an objective statement. There is a very important distinction between the two. If you've been in the workforce for a long time, you're probably more familiar with an objective. That's old news. An objective would tell an employer what you were looking for. Employers now receive so many job applications that they expect you to do a bit more work to tell the employer that you are what they are looking for.
Here are some examples of strong career summaries for three different backgrounds. They do not have to be in sentence format; some people prefer to use bullets and that's OK. Keep it short and simple either way, as a long career summary will likely not be read.
"Award-winning executive assistant with over 10 years of experience directly supporting senior federal government executives. Employs exceptional analytical and problem-solving abilities to deliver strategic plans and improve processes. Adept at change management and strategic communications."
"Expert project manager with 12 years of experience in health care nonprofits leading program development, community outreach and the design and delivery of educational content. Acknowledged for event management skills and ability to inspire teammates."
"Versatile statistician with 20-plus years of experience in health care, pharmaceutical and market research firms, developing creative solutions to complex research questions using SAS and other tools. Recognized for communication ability, concise writing skills and for proactively tackling challenging problems."
What are the key elements of each of these?
Description. The opening line is a summary of each person's background. It indicates their profession or role, how many years of experience they have and the industry or industries in which they've worked. If you've won awards, don't be afraid to say so right off the bat! This is not something everyone has under his or her belt, so it will help you stand out. Just make sure you also list your awards in a separate section of your resume under work experience. Even if you don't have awards to speak of, use words like "expert," "versatile" or "accomplished" to describe who you are. Depending on the job you are applying to, you can also change the title (e.g., "executive assistant" to "administrative assistant").
Demonstrate Value. Your first or second sentence should tell the employer the value you bring to them. In the second example, we understand the person has experience leading program development, community outreach and the design and delivery of educational content. The employer will immediately understand this person can use those same capabilities on the job with them.
Here's how to figure out what to include. Look at the job requirements – often called "minimum qualifications" or "basic requirements" across several job postings that you plan to apply to. What are they looking for? Hopefully there is a common thread, but if not, create several career summaries to fit each one and give you some practice. The first sentence is likely to stay the same for each, but the value you offer may change. Also, maybe instead of the term "community outreach," they use the term "external relations." Make those changes, because an applicant tracking system (ATS) will look out for specific terms. In other words, be sure to tweak your career summary to align your background with the job requirements.
Separate Yourself. In the second and third examples, you see the words "acknowledged for" and "recognized for." Another term you may wish to use is "known for." The goal of this part is to state why you are unique. In other words, what makes you different from your colleagues? Think about what you've noticed over time as well as feedback you've been given by managers or peers. This gives you a key opportunity to address some of the job requirements from a posting, as well. If the requirements state "strong writing skills," "proactive" and "problem-solver," and that describes you perfectly, you might use a sentence like the final one in example three above.
The bottom line: You need a career summary, and it should be specific rather than filled with cliched words and phrases. It should cover what you personally can bring to the employer and be aligned with a posting's job requirements. Taking these steps to build your summary will enable you to be leaps and bounds ahead of the crowd.
Marcelle Yeager has been a blogger for On Careers since March 2014. She is the president of Career Valet, a premier provider of career services that helps launch people to the next level of their career. Marcelle also co-founded ServingTalent, a recruiting agency that places military and Foreign Service spouses in jobs. Prior to starting these ventures, Marcelle worked for over 10 years as a strategic communications consultant in Washington, D.C., and overseas for over six years. She holds an MBA from the University of Maryland. You can follow her companies on Twitter @careervalet, @servingtalent, Facebook (Career Valet, ServingTalent), or connect with her on LinkedIn.