Most people assume that their resume has to be a complete summary of their work and education history for future employers. Therefore, the only way to order the information is as a reverse-chronological history from the most recent, working backward.
While it is true that the chronological format is the most common, the concept that a resume is a historical summary is false. Your resume should look forward. It is a marketing document, selling your potential to fill the role you are applying for. It should include the information that is most likely to impress future employers, and you should arrange it in the order that puts your candidacy in the best light.
For example, in our recent article on involuntary termination – being fired – we explained how a functional resume might be more effective when applying for jobs after being let go.
Let's take a closer look at the more common formats you can use for your resume and when each might be the most appropriate choice.
Common Resume Formats
The most commonly used resume format is the classic reverse-chronological. This is where you list your employment history and education, starting with the most recent and working your way backward in time. This is the most common format because it works. Employers like to see whom candidates have worked for, what they have been doing recently, and how their careers have progressed.
So, the reverse-chronological resume should show them at a glance how your work and accomplishments have impressed employers over the course of your career as you progressed to roles with greater and greater responsibility.
Even though this seems like a straightforward work history, it is still a marketing document. How you describe your past work and your on-the-job achievements should still be tailored to be as relevant as possible to the needs of the employer you wish to work for. This begins at the top. Your resume title should be the job title you are applying for. Then, open the content with a career summary that highlights your top selling points to be hired for that role. Follow by using your work and education details to back up that summary.
The reverse-chronological format looks like this:
Education and credentials
While this format has the advantage of presenting the information employers most want to see in the places they expect to see it, it does have some disadvantages as well. If you have been fired from your most recent job, you might want to leave that position off your resume, since it's hardly a selling point for your candidacy. This can create an obvious gap in employment on a classic reverse-chronological resume. If you are changing roles, applying for a job in another sector, or re-entering the job market after some time off, a functional resume may be a more effective way to showcase your abilities to potential employers.
Rather than following the timeline of your career, a functional resume is designed to highlight your skills for a particular job. This can also be a useful format for first-time job seekers who don't have much work history to begin with.
Here's how it works. Much like the reverse-chronological resume, a functional resume begins with the title of the job you are applying for and then opens with a professional summary of your key qualifications for that role. All modern resumes should start this way. It lets the employer know what job you are after and why you would be a great person for it right off the top.
Then, rather than listing your work history, follow your opening statement with the professional skills you possess that are most relevant for the job. Describe the career achievements that you have accomplished using these skills in a professional capacity. For entry-level candidates, these can include volunteer, personal life, or academic achievements. This way, as employers read through your application, they see all of the abilities that you bring to the table and what you have done with them.
Simply bullet-point your past work and education underneath the skills summaries. There is no need to go into lengthy descriptions of what you have done in each job in this format.
The functional format looks like this:
Essential skills descriptions
Work history and education bullet points
This format can mask recent career setbacks, gaps in your work history, or a general lack of work experience. See: Explaining that COVID-19 gap in your resume. It can also be a useful way to highlight transferable skills for career-changers.
The drawback is that it might annoy hiring managers. Employers may want to see your work history at a glance, and this kind of resume makes that more difficult for them. Also, many employers use Applicant Tracking Systems, software to pre-screen resumes so that recruiting staff only have to read the most relevant applications. Using a functional resume may put you at a disadvantage in getting past these filters. See: How to optimize your resume for applicant tracking systems (ATS).
Still, if your chronological work history isn't likely to impress employers for the role that you are trying to be hired for, a functional resume can be an effective way to showcase your skills and ability to do the job.
If you can't decide which of these formats is the best for your job hunting situation, there is another option available. The hybrid format combines elements of the reverse-chronological and functional resumes into a single document.
Once again, your combination or hybrid resume begins with the job title and qualifications summary for the target job. Then, use the content of your resume to focus on both your essential skills for the role as well as your work experience.
This is the format to use if you have a great deal of experience and are extremely skilled in one or two specialized areas that would make you a dream candidate for a very specific position.
Focus your skills section on just those few highly targeted abilities for the job to show that you are an expert practitioner. Then, use your work history to detail the professional experience you have had to develop and demonstrate those skills on the job.
The hybrid format looks like this:
Essential skills for the role
Education and credentials
While this format wouldn't be right for all job applications, there are certain instances where it would be the best resume to impress potential employers. These include people changing career paths, as this format focuses on your most relevant abilities and job accomplishments rather than descriptions of every job you’ve had, many of which may not be related to the targeted role.
Similarly, a mid-career professional who is applying for a leadership position in their areas of expertise could find that a hybrid resume is the most effective way to showcase their potential.
The key takeaway is that your resume is a marketing document. It should be designed to sell your potential to excel in a role to future employers so much that they want to meet with you to discuss your qualifications further in a job interview. Chose the resume format that best highlights your candidacy for that target audience.