Unplug from the Matrix AKA "How to Win the Resume Game"

Ah, resumes. The bane of job-seekers everywhere. But at least you know the rules of the game, right?

  • Pick that perfect template in Word

  • Make sure that all your bullets are in the active voice (but no personal pronouns!) and that your resume doesn't have any gaps (but don't go over 1 page!)

  • Save and submit

But what if I told you that those are the wrong rules? And that you’re actually playing the wrong game???

Let me explain by way of analogy:

At the risk of dating myself, think back to that scene in The Matrix where Neo first realizes that his whole world is an illusion:

Matrix scene

Well that’s exactly what happened to me when I started hiring people a few years ago. Everything that I thought was true about applying for jobs turned out to be a mirage. And when I finally woke up, the worst part was realizing that millions of job-seekers are still asleep in their goo pods, getting their professional life juices sucked dry.

This is no way to build a career!

This is no way to build a career!

So, I've made it my mission in life to help them break free. And if you’re ready to take the red pill yourself, let me be your career-counseling Morpheus and help you escape, too!

Morpheus - What if I told you no one's going to hire you for using the active voice on your resume

The Game You Think You’re Playing

When I was a student, I remember thinking of resumes as homework from the "real world." Just like academic homework, they were something to be endured, to suffer through with no real choice. But luckily, just like regular homework, resumes had rules that seemed relatively easy to follow:

  • Find a generic student template

  • Plug in all of my own details (major, GPA, clubs)

  • Make sure everything fit the conventional resume wisdom (e.g., no bullets over two lines)

Following this approach seemed like a sure-fire way to get an "A" from some corporate "teacher" out there. After all, this by-the-book approach had always served me well in school.

And now that I'm a career coach, reading dozens of student resumes from schools all over the world every month, I realize that I absolutely wasn't alone in that way of thinking. Here's a small but revealing example:

Of the 100 student resumes I've seen most recently, I'd estimate that 95 feature some variant of this bullet within the first three lines:

  • Member of the Chess Team

  • Member of the Tech Club

  • Member of the Medieval A Capella/Slam Poetry Society

So many bullets, so many clubs!

So many bullets, so many clubs!

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Hey, what’s so bad about that bullet? I had one just like it back in the day!” And I totally understand. After all, here's my own bullet from my undergrad resume:

* Member of the Debate Society and School Newspaper

Unfortunately, as I've discussed before, this bullet fails every one of the three criteria that your corporate "teacher" (i.e., the recruiter or hiring manager) is looking for:

  • Clarity - What does it mean to be a member? Did you lead 5,000 students on a march on Washington? Or did you fork over your email address at the Activities Fair to get a free lanyard?

  • Relevance - How will the skill of "membership" help you perform the job that's being hired for?

  • Distinction - While you might argue that the content of the club establishes a special connection with your desired career path ("I'm in the Finance Club so Wall Street will know I'm serious!"), ask yourself this question: "Who else is in the Finance Club?" If the answer is "everyone else applying for this same job," then this bullet, by definition, doesn’t help you stand out from the pack!

The bottom line is that the "Member of" bullet, though innocuous-seeming, actually hurts students' chances because it takes up scarce space without conveying anything useful. Given that, what could possibly compel so many students to jump, lemming-like, into the resume abyss?

There's only one answer that can explain this bullet’s total ubiquity across students, schools, and continents. And that is that they’re all playing the same game that I did:

  1. Go to school - "School will help me get a job"

  2. Get directions - "Include extracurriculars on your resume!"

  3. Follow directions - "'Member of the Drama League.' Check."

  4. Get a reward - "Good job including your extracurriculars!"

  5. Rinse and repeat - "I didn't get the job so let me send this resume out again..."

Admittedly, this is an enticing game because it removes the scary need to think about the real point of a resume. Instead, you can just put your brain on autopilot and follow the conventional resume wisdom that society gives you until your application is finally "correct." And if at first you don't succeed, you don't have to worry about changing your resume because you already know that it's "right" - you probably just need to apply to more jobs... 

Now, I've got a confession to make: Not only am I guilty of employing this exact same mindset as a student but, as a former teacher, I'm totally guilty of propagating this entire game. Indeed, there were many a day when 3 o’clock would roll around and Mr. Schifeling, on the verge of exhaustion, would bust out with “Ditto Time.” I’m sure you remember: Fill in the Blanks, Connect the Dots, Do as Teacher Says. And sure enough, the students who colored in the lines got the gold stars.

Ironic, right? ;)

Ironic, right? ;)

In other words: Instruction -> Compliance -> Reward -> Dopamine Hit -> Brain Wiring #pagingdrpavlov. Is it any wonder these kids grew up to submit resumes that look just like dittos - each one a near carbon copy of the other?

So shame on me! But the least I can do to amend for my educational sins is to pull back the curtain on the real game these students are stumbling into…

The Real Game

If the resume game we've been trained to play is disconnected from reality, how do we know what's actually real? The only surefire approach is to unplug all the filters society gives us and take a hard look at how hiring works. After all, being forced to hire others was the only thing that woke me up from my own illusions.

That said, as someone who's now hired in both companies large and small, I can tell you that hiring is basically like looking for a needle in a haystack. You need to sew up a giant hole in your pants (i.e., the pain of not having enough people on your team to get the work done) but every time you look at that huge pile of hay (i.e., the endless pool of potential candidates), you feel like finding the needle (i.e., the right candidate) is hopeless.

Where the f*** is that needle???

Where the f*** is that needle???

That's where the resume comes in. Much like an SAT score for a college admissions officer, it serves two purposes:

  1. It standardizes candidates across different backgrounds so you can compare them apples-to-apples

  2. It packages information extremely efficiently so you can quickly sort through a large candidate pool

Thus, the whole point of requiring resumes is to rapidly whittle that giant haystack down to a few small piles with the best chance of finding the needle. Which means that the resume game is ultimately about differentiation - not sameness. Let me repeat that another way because it's so critical:

  • Conventional wisdom tells you that the key to a winning resume is to follow the same recipe as everyone else

  • But hiring managers actually need distinct resumes in order to filter a giant pool of applicants

So differentiation is the true resume game. But what are the rules?

It turns out that this particular game is often played in two parts: Machine + Man. And each part has its own set of rules. So let's tackle them one at a time:

How to Win the Machine’s Game

Some employers' haystacks are more like hay mountains. For instance, Google gets 3 million applications each year for just 7,000 jobs. In this case, it would be too expensive to hire an army of recruiters to read every single resume. So, as companies have been doing since the Industrial Revolution, they bring in machines to help out.

Unlike the Matrix, I’m happy to report that your computer “opponent” is actually not a super-intelligent AI hell-bent on the destruction of mankind (as much as those automated rejection letters might make you think so…). Instead, it's much more like another cinematic bit of geekery: Mr. Spell from Toy Story.



That’s right, before your resume even gets read by a person, it may well be screened by a relatively simple text search. Because employers want to focus precious “human time” on qualified candidates, the computer algorithm first looks for keywords that indicate you’re worthy of consideration by its humanoid overseers.

So how do you find these keywords that the algorithm is looking for? The easiest place to look is in the job description itself. And, specifically, focus your attention on the words that are distinctive to THAT job.

This means don’t worry about the stuff that every job calls for - and that are really too fuzzy to judge from a resume: Teamwork, Communication, Leadership, Organization. Instead, zoom in on the things you’d only need for this kind of role: Product Marketing, SEO, Social Media Marketing, A/B Testing.

Job-specific vs. generic keywords

You can even see for yourself how important specific keywords are by testing out Monster's screening tool:

Monster's Resume Screening Software


Once you understand the importance of specific keywords to the Machine's game, make sure that they’re covered in your resume. Not in a spammy or fake way (remember, you still need to pass the human test next), but in an authentic way that represents what you actually did.

Take that useless “Member of” bullet from before. While “Member of the Chess Club” won’t pass muster in either game, “Member of the Chess Club; used SEO and social media marketing to promote club website” will definitely make your computerized recruiter “beep” and “boop” with delight (OK, that was definitely more Jetsons than Matrix). And most importantly, it will earn you a ticket to the next game…

What beautiful keywords! Be still my electromechanical heart...

What beautiful keywords! Be still my electromechanical heart...


How to Win Man’s Game

While we may yet still develop Matrix-like AI, your truly toughest challenge is the flesh-and-blood human reading your resume. That’s because, unlike the computer whose cold, hard logic can easily be reverse-engineered, our species’ fuzzy decision-making is difficult to nail down. For example, even some of the best recruiters I know have a hard time explaining what made them choose one resume over another. "I just know a great candidate when I see one" is a common refrain.

So let me try to at least verbalize how I looked at resumes as a hiring manager at LinkedIn and elsewhere:

1) In the midst of a busy day, I’d carve out 30 minutes to look through about 50 resumes - allowing time to open and score resume files, this meant about 15 seconds of reading per resume

2) With such little time, I'd quickly scan each resume looking for phrases that triggered my attention - specific skills I wanted on my team (“email marketing”), big numbers that caught my eye (“increased CTR 30%, driving 50,000 new visitors to the site”), signifiers of quality (“featured in The New York Times”), or just interesting stories (“convinced my 200-year old company to invest in social media for the first time”)

3) Finally, with time up, I'd put the applicant on my interview list if I could answer "Yes" to two questions:

A) Could this person do the job? - based on their prior experience, skills, and ability to learn quickly

B) Am I excited about them? - based on whether they seem like a rising star who’s consistently overachieving or someone who’s merely completing their basic responsibilities

Now, the ironic thing here is that, contrary to all the claims of a "skills gap," I never found a shortage of people who could do the job. Especially since the computer had already screened for qualifications.

But I always, always had a scarcity of exciting candidates. Why? Because of the exact game that I alluded to at the outset. So many potentially inspiring candidates cloak themselves in a garb of conservative, boring language (i.e., playing by the resume "rules" we learn early on) that it was just impossible to be certain.

And not even a cool, Matrix-y cloak...

And not even a cool, Matrix-y cloak...

And yet, that gut-instinct positive impression is so critical. Not only did I need an all-star to handle the sheer amount and complexity of work my team faced but, on a more basic human level, I - like any other living, breathing non-robot - am attracted to success and charisma. It's that same primal magnetism that make us want to spend time with smart, interesting people. Especially because if I’m going to spend more waking hours with this person everyday than my own wife or child, I want to make sure that time will be well-spent. Life is just too short to work with mediocre, dull teammates!

OK, but how do you cast off that boring cloak and really play this game the way it’s meant to be played? 

There are two steps:

1) Make sure that your bullets are super clear.
Too many bullets are either way too vague (“Member of the Chess Club” - again, what does that actually mean? Were you the next Bobby Fischer or the timekeeper???) or way too specific to a world the recruiter knows nothing about (“King of Gambits, Chess Club; ” - huh? Is this a Game of Thrones thing???).

So for our bullet, let’s ditch the member language altogether and just say exactly what our student did in plain English:

“Served as the webmaster for the Chess Club; used SEO and social media marketing to promote the club’s website”

Now, we’re getting somewhere. This bullet actually tells me something useful and I’m getting a sense that you could be a good candidate. Now if only I was a bit more inspired…

2) Make sure that your bullets pop.
Because I’m scanning so quickly, you’ve got to work hard to catch my attention. So let’s try putting all four attention triggers to work:

1) Specific skills - Check.

2) Quantified results - You actually got the club's site onto the first page of search results.

3) Signifiers of quality - You didn't just do it for some niche search engine, you did it for Google.

4) Interesting stories - You did it all with no marketing budget.

Plugging these triggers into our story, our humdrum bullet becomes:

“Served as the webmaster for the Chess Club; used SEO and social media to get the club’s website onto the first page of Google results with no marketing budget.”

Wow. Now that definitely catches my eye. Again, in real-time, it will come across more as a gut feeling than a rational thought. But if we could see inside my brain as I read, it’d probably look something like this:

  • "Webmaster" - OK, I get what you did.

  • "SEO and social media" - Hey, that’s what I need.

  • "first page of Google results with no marketing budget" - Woah. Total. Baller.

What it feels like to read this bullet...

What it feels like to read this bullet...

The bottom line: You just turned a waste of space into a game-winner for both man and machine. Not bad for a humble "Member of" bullet... :)

Next Up: Crush the Game

So that’s just one example of how to play the true but invisible resume game. Now it’s time to rip out the tube for good and escape the goo pod. You can finally see with clear eyes, so let's completely crush this new game:

1) Don’t think of your resume as a collection of random stuff you’ve done that fits into the format that society's handed you. Instead, see it for what it really is: An incredibly limited opportunity to win a hyper-competitive game. Just like if you owned a block of Park Avenue, you wouldn’t put up a strip mall with a KFC and a Pizza Hut. Instead, you’d make sure that precious real estate was home to the most beautiful, profitable buildings in the world. So apply the same filter to your precious resume real estate.

The real estate equivalent of a resume with lame bullet points...

The real estate equivalent of a resume with lame bullet points...

2) This means that you’ve got to be utterly ruthless in attacking every single bullet. Bust out your inner Agent Smith and apply this same treatment to every line:

  • Are there any keywords that would make the computer happy?

  • Would it be clear to a non-omniscient human who didn’t go to my school/work in my company?

  • Does it hit at least two of our human attention triggers?

  1. Relevant skills

  2. Quantified results

  3. Signifiers of quality

  4. Interesting stories

If it doesn't win at least one of the man/machine games and ideally both, rework it until it does. And if you can’t, get rid of it. Your 15 seconds of allotted human attention is too short to waste on even one generic, boring bullet.

"Goodbye Mr. Weak-Sauce Resume Bullet..."

"Goodbye Mr. Weak-Sauce Resume Bullet..."

3) Then, once you win the game, start spreading the new rules. Because too many people all around the world are still stuck in the pods, just like I was. And their careers are stuck in there with them. So let's start busting 'em out!

It's time to start a...

It's time to start a...


PS: Two more things. First, get a free checklist to make sure your resume is hitting these points.

And once you do, then please share it with others!

Want the Perfect Tech Resume?

To help you craft the best possible job application, I've created an online course that walks you through every step towards landing your dream job - including designing the perfect resume:

  • I give you the perfect resume format that recruiters love

  • All the keywords to get found

  • Real bullet examples for every section

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