How Do I Know What to Include in My Resume and What to Leave Out?

Word count: 2023

A woman walking into a crossroads

My phone rang. I looked at the number: it was Adrian. Again.

I knew what he’d say.

“Hi, Adrian,” I said. “What can I do for you?”

“Joseph,” he said, “Thanks for my new resume draft. Can you add one other thing I remembered? I think it could really show how I’m good at…”

Uh-oh. The resume was growing fast. It was the seventh or eighth conversation we’d had since the first draft, and each time, he had something to add.

My duty to Adrian was to contain the resume before it reached critical mass and exploded into a third page.

Adrian—an aggregate of several of my respected clients—is not alone. Like him, you may struggle to be selective about the information you include in your resume.

Or you may have the opposite problem: not knowing if something’s important enough to include. And that’s if you can think of things to say in the first place.

Either way, the process makes many people’s heads spin.

But there’s a set of helpful principles that helped Adrian and many other clients end up with a punchy, concise resume that included all the relevant information. If you apply these principles, you’ll succeed too.

The Four Guiding Principles

In helping hundreds of clients, all with different situations, I’ve found that you can boil every decision about what to include in your resume and what to leave out down to four guiding principles:

Keep these principles in mind as we go through the ways you can apply them to your situation.

To get a better understanding of the principles, we have to think about why we write and submit resumes in the first place. I mean, really, why?

The True Meaning of a Resume’s Life

Pop quiz: what’s the ultimate purpose of a resume?

a. To land you the job b. To get you an interview c. To showcase your skills and accomplishments

The key term in the question is “ultimate purpose.” Of course your resume can help you land a job if it initiates the interview process. And it better highlight your skills and accomplishments if it’s going to fulfill its raison d’être.

But the real purpose of your resume is to get you an interview.

I’ll say that again: the purpose of your resume is to get you an interview.

Once you understand that, your whole thinking aligns with what employers want to see.

When people think their resume can get them a job, they tend to do one of two things, usually in combination:

Can you imagine a TV commercial in the middle of your favorite TV show trying to sell you something by showing you every single product feature you may possibly like?

For one, it’ll mostly show you things you don’t care about, unless you’re already a fan of the product.

And worse, it’ll take you 42 times as long to finish your show.

Like you, recruiters and hiring managers have finite attention spans. Also like you, they’re busy. They have more enjoyable things to do than reviewing dozens, maybe hundreds of resumes.

Even a short resume can waste a reader’s time if it doesn’t say anything that helps her make a decision.

Make her time count. If you don’t, you’ll end up in the rejection pile.

What a Resume Is Not

Now that you know what a resume is at its core, it’s easy to see that a resume is not:

You might say your resume is your 30-second ad, not your sales presentation. It catches the reader’s attention and makes her want to learn more so she’ll invite you for an interview—that’s your sales presentation.

If you focus on getting that initial interview by conveying your true value, you’ll have an easier time remembering relevant past accomplishments.

What’s more, you’ll craft a resume that’s convincing rather than comprehensive.

Résumé, after all, is French for “summary.”

But How Do I Find My True Value?

Good question. It shows you’re thinking strategically about writing your resume before you sit down to do it. That gives you a huge advantage.

From the employer’s point of view, your value as a prospective employee is in your being able to say, “Look at what I’ve accomplished in the past. I can do the same for you.”

The more tangible your accomplishments, the more convinced they will be.

We’ve covered a proven process you can use to find your value. Follow that process and you’ll be ahead.

Then, study the description of the job you’re applying for and determine what the role and the company would value about you. Don’t skip this step. This is how you make sure you’re saying things that are relevant to the employer.

Finally, as you write your resume, stick closely to those skills and accomplishments that best show your value for that role. Don’t stray from that unless you know from experience that you have something to offer that they need but didn’t mention in the job description.

This process will help you stay focused on what matters and find things to say when you can’t think of any.


Be concise.

Okay, on to the next section.

Just kidding. See how using few words doesn’t help you if you don’t convey meaningful information? When it does help is when you’re conveying just enough.

But why do we care about resumes being concise?

The Virtues of Brevity

There are at least three reasons you must keep your resume concise.

  1. So your resume will get read. A wall of text or a monster of a document is intimidating to a reader, and it may be just the excuse she’s looking for to put the resume down and never look at it again. By trimming down, you’re trading amount of content for ease of digestibility, which leads to a higher likelihood of being considered.

  2. To make the good stuff stand out. Everything on the resume needs to be impactful. If it is, then you don’t need to say anything else. The more stuff you have, the less likely the reader is to notice the good stuff. You may have noticed that, the more fat someone trims from their body, the more their muscle tends to show. You want your resume to look like a bodybuilder at competition time.

  3. So you look focused and assertive. People who are long-winded and don’t get right to the point often make us wonder if they can get the job done on time, or at all. Don’t give that impression. Do get right to the point.

How to Achieve Conciseness

In two words: be selective.

Sometimes that means being cruel to your job history. Well, cruel in your own eyes; the reader will have no clue that you left out an item that meant so much to you but didn’t add value. If she knew, she’d be grateful.

Resist the temptation to add “just one more thing” just because it might show your capability, or because you feel proud of that particular accomplishment. Detach yourself from your history. Remember that “relevant information” refers to information that’s relevant to the reader, not you.

Try this: pick a sentence, skill, or bullet point from your resume. Ask yourself if removing that item would lower your chances of getting an interview. Often, you’ll realize that it wouldn’t.

But don’t be so terse that you end up saying nothing. Your resume should be as brief as possible while having enough information to convince your audience that you’re worth an interview.

Just remember that “enough information” doesn’t mean all the information that could, would, or might sell you.

Here’s the bottom line: if it’s relevant, include it. If it’s not, leave it out.

And how do you know if it’s relevant? Study the job posting thoroughly. Draw from your own experience doing similar work. If you don’t know, ask someone; if that someone knows something about the role, all the better.

A Nautical Case in Point

The chief of police and his bearded buddies are out at sea hunting a bloodthirsty shark. Suddenly, the chief sees the shark for the first time. It’s huge. He’s paralyzed.

He could tell the captain of the boat, “Yikes, I just saw the shark. It’s huge. Like, really huge. It’s so enormous, we’ll have to use all our strength and equipment to hunt it, and we still may not succeed.”

Or he could just say:

You’re gonna need a bigger boat.

Which one’s more powerful?

Catch Their Attention Right Away

Start off with something they can’t ignore. A well-written summary can do the job nicely. Get right into why they need you. Show your value from the start.

Make sure to pack the top third or so of your first page with high-impact information, such as hard skills, main accomplishments, and applicable background.

Now that you have the reader’s interest, you need to keep her there.

Hold Their Attention Through the End

Punch. That something that makes the audience look up and pay attention. Even when that audience has a limited attention span and distractions everywhere.

You want your whole resume to be one big punch they can’t ignore.

After you catch their initial attention, you have to hold it. And how do you do it? Why, by now, it’s no mystery to you: you give them only what they want to know about you, that is, your value, with no fluff.

The average resume gets skimmed for only 7.4 seconds. But your resume is not average. You’ve improved your chances by clearly showing your value, being selective about the information you included, and starting with attention-grabbing information.

And now, you improve your chances further by using powerful language and pouring down impactful accomplishments and qualifications one after another, in and endless stream. Every sentence, every item is impactful and relevant.

A reader can’t put that down.

Additional Considerations

Never, ever add something to your resume just because you’ve seen it done. Ever. Have a strong justification for every last detail you included—or didn’t.

Your unique situation will dictate much of what you choose to include or leave out. For example, let’s say you had a 3.98 GPA in college. Do you put that in?

So, make thoughtful decisions and realize that there’s often not one right answer. Your choice may end up being the right one just because you made it.

If you volunteer or have volunteered, it can help show you care about more than just your career. But you need to apply the same principles of selectiveness we’ve discussed to that kind of experience.

Finally, it’s okay to have only one or two bullet points for a position if those bullets are impactful and reflect what you accomplished. That’s especially true if you didn’t hold the role for very long. So don’t go writing fluff just to fill space.

Start Now

If you’ve been having a hard time deciding what to include in your resume, don’t fret. You got this. Follow these principles and you’ll have a stellar resume that traps attention and doesn’t let go.

We stand ready to help you with your career progression needs. Let us know how we can help you.