How to make your resumé awesome

Hi there,

Welcome to the first issue of this newsletter!

Each week, I’ll be answering questions from you about how the hiring process actually works and how to help optimize your college years to begin your career, drawing upon some of the things I learned through my experience running a recruiting software company.

Before we begin – I think this will be more useful to all of you if there’s some structure to the conversation we’re about to have, so here’s how this will basically work:

  1. Each week, I’ll answer a question or two from one of you about preparing for or searching for work (or anything else, tbh). Feel free to send any questions you have to my email at [email protected] and indicate if you’re cool with being featured on here or if you’d like to submit a question anonymously.
  2. I’ll also send over a few articles/links that I find interesting/that I’ve been reading and would love to hear your thoughts on.
  3. Finally, whenever I hear of cool job opportunities here in the Bay Area or elsewhere that I can connect y’all with, I’ll post links here or offer to make intros. A lot of my connections are in the startup world, but roles at larger companies come across my desk as well, and if they do, as my subscribers you’ll be the first to know!

But, before we begin…

I wanted to chat a bit about why I’m writing this and air some grievances, if you’ll indulge me for a sec.

As an undergrad, I was always really frustrated with what I saw as the “achievement gap” between students who went to highly prestigious institutions or who were highly connected and those who weren’t. That wasn’t to say that all the students who went to awesome colleges and were really active on, say, the hackathon scene didn’t deserve the awesome roles they got — to the contrary, most I met were 100% some of the most deserving, hard-working, and kind people I’ve met to date.

The frustration I had was more with knowing plenty of students who were alsohardworking, also talented, but who I didn’t think got all they deserved. I was frustrated with a hiring process that I thought was stacked against the students with the fewest resources or connections, where personal referrals and little resume tricks could lead to vastly different outcomes.

I’m hoping to shed a light on how the process of hiring actually works because I want to do my part to close the information gap between the well-connected/well-resourced and those who aren’t, because while I was really lucky to make a few friends in this industry who helped me get to where I am, I don’t think luck should determine people’s outcomes nearly as much as it does.

That’s why today I want to discuss something that’s really crucial to getting noticed by employers, and frequently misunderstood by students: the resumé.


Question: How can I optimize my resumé to make myself more attractive to companies?

I get this one a lot, and there’s a lot of content to cover, so I’ll focus on some core themes today and we’ll discuss more tactical things in another email.

First off, there are a few things you should probably know about the role resumés actually play in the recruiting process. The average recruiter looks at a resume for around four seconds on first pass and three minutes total across the whole hiring process. That said, resumés do matter a lot because they’re a door-opener for you that helps you advance to the next stage of the hiring process, the phone screen.

It might be helpful to look at what criteria most recruiters are using to determine if you’re a good fit for a given role to better understand how resumés factor into this.

At my last company, we claimed that candidate-job fit had to do with four factors:

  1. Mission Fit, or alignment with the core mission of the company (as an example, Duolingo’s mission according to their website: “Our ultimate goal is to give everyone access to a private tutor experience through technology”).
  2. Culture Fit, or alignment with the way teams operate and organize themselves. My friend Brandon Wang, the founder of Conduit Analytics, wrote in his company’s interview prep doc that the ideal Conduit candidate “has passion and interest”, can “see big and little picture thinking”, and is “trustworthy”. I think Brandon wrote one of the best interview prep docs anywhere, so it’s worth a read — he goes in-depth on how he assesses each candidate.
  3. Critical Skills, or abilities relevant to processing and filtering information. At SolverIQ, we broke down candidate fit into 100+ of these skills, but a few examples might include developing objective measures and believability weights while making business decisions, staying organized under pressure, or effectively representing complex ideas to peers.
  4. Finally, Skills Fit, or your actual ability to do the job required – if the job description is looking for a frontend dev who knows JavaScript, are you a frontend dev who knows JavaScript? This is the technical interview part.

What we found in our conversations with recruiters, which I found pretty interesting, was that the order I read these factors off was actually the order of importance.

Given that most recruiters don’t have all that much confidence in university CS programs or the skills of a junior developer anyhow (😢), they operate under the assumption that someone will need to mentor whoever they hire regardless – and even in that case, what matters more to them is that the person can work effectively with and learn from others than the person’s specific technical expertise.

To be clear: this isn’t true with all recruiters and companies, and there’s definitely tons of exceptions to that generalization, but we found it generally true across most of the recruiters/engineering leaders we talked with from startups and large companies alike.

So, let’s recap what recruiters are looking for:

  1. They want to know that you align with the mission and culture of the company, because if you like the problem the company’s solving, the assumption is that you’d be more likely to excel there.
  2. They want to know your approach to problem solving, because regardless of what you know today, that approach will dictate how quickly you learn new things.
  3. They want to know what you’re capable of doing today, because if you don’t know anything, that’d be a problem.

Given that, here’s the problem with most students’ resumes:

They focus almost immediately on the third thing and totally disregard the first and second.

Let’s take the typical resumé’s header, for instance. Most students include their name, location, email address, etc.

If that’s all you include, you’re missing a massive opportunity to add something that’ll drastically change how your resumé is viewed: a subtitle with a ‘statement of purpose’.

When I did debate competitively, one of the most important lessons I was taught was that in any debate, one of the easiest ways to make the round work to your advantage was to “write the judge’s ballot,” or offer the judge a means by which to evaluate your claims.

In debate, that meant setting some sort of framework for the round (e.g. “Vote for the side that proves that human life is most often protected”), because when you set the ‘rules of the game’, you can set rules that make it easier for you to win.

The same goes for resumés and cover letters. In the hiring process, those of us reading applications want to standardize as much as possible, putting your stats, GPA, or accolades against others in an apples to apples comparison. But, if you make an argument for why you align with the company’s mission or culture, then I begin to view your achievements as merely evidence of that commitment to the company’s mission. If I believe your argument for why I should hire you, I’m more likely to advance you to the next round.

So, how should this look on a resumé? Here’s the header I used on my own resumé, way back when:

In retrospect, that header was actually a bit weak – rather than writing something so vague, I probably should have written something like “I enjoy using technology to enrich and empower students with the information they need to achieve their goals”, or “I believe technology can solve socioeconomic inequities through closing information gaps”.

Even looking at my existing subheading, though, it gives a recruiter glancing at my resumé a ‘framework’ to evaluate my previous work; I’ve worked on some large-scale problems before (education, public policy, hiring and recruiting), and I have a bias towards large-scale solutions. Both of these things actually says a lot about who I am, in part because it would be totally acceptable to have an opposite view. It’s totally fine to care more about solving small-scale problems, or solving large-scale problems with smaller-scale, more targeted solutions.


Part of the reason I’m stressing this so heavily is that I see the focus on purpose as a major aspect of the “information gap” between the students who do well in the hiring process and those who don’t.

Those who focus on developing a solid purpose have more effective cover letters, better resumes, more genuine interviews, and even have a better time searching for jobs (because they limit their search terms to genuine interests). Those who don’t feel overwhelmed, try to construct a fake persona for interviews (which doesn’t work well), and lack the sort of compelling personal narrative that drives recruiters to care about their application.

Despite what some think (and what I’ve heard at countless student career advising events), it’s not always necessary to change who you are to fit some ‘mold’ you’ve been told is the ‘ideal candidate’ – actually, it’s often more effective to just be yourself.

Over the next few newsletters, I’m going to talk a lot more about the details of what that means, since it’s way easier said than done.

Thanks for reading, and see you soon!

Phil