How to Format a Resume

by Anya Jennings on August 6, 2009

When deciding to put together a resume, an alarming number of people open Word and use a preformatted template. Most of these come with some pretty clever formatting, shading, and font styles you should avoid like the plague. Back in the day when resumes were delivered by hand and stacked on a hiring manager’s desk, these templates were great. And if you’re applying for a job at a mom-and-pop shop, they usually still are. If you’re in the market for a job at a large corporation, on the other hand, things have changed, and lack of knowledge of those changes can weed out a lot of potential applicants. Don’t be one of them.


Today, most corporations use document scanning software and application tracking systems. Resumes are scanned into a database (often by the hundreds) and searched by keyword to narrow down qualified applicants. If your resume won’t scan properly, it can’t be searched. That means you won’t be hired.

Here are a few tips for scan and fax-friendly, easy-to-read resumes:

  • Choose a widely available TrueType font like Times New Roman or Helvetica. If you use a brand new font, Calibri for example, a font designed only for Macs (or only for PCs), or a cool font you downloaded off the Internet, digital display on non-compatible systems can have unexpected results, even if you transmit a PDF. I once tried to read a PDF newsletter displayed entirely in Jokerman font. True story. I’m fairly sure that wasn’t the author’s intent.
  • Serif fonts, like Times New Roman, are more readable for printed materials, and sans-serif fonts, like Verdana or Arial are better for digital format. When in doubt, go with sans-serif. Even if you deliver your resume in printed form or fax, it may be scanned into a database.
  • Don’t get fancy. Using a different font for headers and sections is acceptable, using more than 2 fonts – not. It screams amateur. Ditto on colors. Use black or dark gray text on white or off-white paper. Low contrast is trendy and looks nice on a computer screen, but it does not scan well.
  • Leave out graphics, shaded areas, indents, underlining, and lines like slashes or pipes ( | ). You may be tempted to include a picture of yourself, but don’t do it. Prejudice can exist against any look, and some people will reject based on looks even if you look like a model. And you probably don’t. They may also hire you based on your looks, but leave that impression for the interview. A hiring manager can’t reject your application based on the image you project before even getting to the interview if he doesn’t know what you look like. Once you’re in front of the interviewer, you can overcome stereotype prejudice with your sparkling wit.
  • Body text should be left justified. Don’t make the HR department search all over the page for pertinent information. Keep it organized and intuitive. Unless you’re e.e. cummings, structure is important. e.e. cummings is forgiven.
  • For maximum readability, make the font size of body text a minimum of 10 points, headings a maximum of 14 points, and avoid use of italics. Avoid using all caps – it’s just annoying.
  • Bulleted lists are acceptable if you choose a solid round or square style. Again, and I can’t stress this enough, don’t get cute. Replacing bullets with asterisks (*) or hyphens (-) will also scan well.

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