5 Top Tips for Making Your Resume Stand Out

Keith Carlson, BSN, RN, NC-BC

Keith Carlson, BSN, RN, NC-BC

For any nurse in the process of seeking a new position, a resume is a document that is still absolutely essential for the 21st-century nursing job market. When the competition is tough, it’s even more important than ever to have a resume that stands out from the pack.  

While no tool in your career development toolbox is the silver bullet that will singlehandedly land you a job, a lackluster and poorly optimized resume can truly diminish the job-seeking power of even the most highly skilled nurse. In such a scenario you may see otherwise great opportunities left on the table when you are literally passed over for other candidates who have given their resumes and their overall brand more strategic attention. Buffing up your resume isn’t rocket science, but it does take some research and mental elbow grease to make it as strong as it can possibly be for the task at hand: finding and landing that next position.  

Tip #1: Make it Readable, Digestible, and Attractive 

A resume needs to be designed, formatted, and written with a human reader in mind. If your resume lacks sufficient “breathing space” where the eyes and brain can rest and digest, the reader will have a difficult time discerning the information that you want them to see. The margins, font choices, spacing, paragraph size, bullets, and other design aspects of your resume need to work together to form a harmonious whole that showcases who you are without using too little space or too much.  

All too often, inexperienced job hunters writing their own resumes will panic when their resume goes beyond one page. A myth has been perpetuated that resumes longer than one page are automatically rejected. Cramming everything onto one page may somehow seem like a win, but if the resulting resume looks like a veritable wall of black type without the aforementioned space for the eyes to alight and rest, then that one pager is doing you a disservice.  

Bulleted lists are easy to skim, varying fonts (e.g.: bold, italic, etc) help break up visual monotony, and well-proportioned margins and spacing will create a feeling of ease and readability that may seem like a breath of fresh air compared to your competition.  

Tip #2: Optimize for Keywords for an Applicant Tracking System (ATS) 

Writing a resume for a human reader is key, but if you’re crafting or editing your resume and you haven’t heard about optimizing for applicant tracking systems (ATS) and bots, you need to wake up and smell the 21st-century coffee. Artificial intelligence has entered the job market in a big way and an ATS may very likely have the first crack at “reading” your resume. Many larger employers now employ AI-powered software programmed to scan resumes for specific keywords, and if your resume doesn’t meet the criteria it may very well be rejected and never seen by human eyes.  

While we can never know exactly what keywords an ATS may be seeking, we can make educated guesses. Reading job postings very closely, we can glean what’s most important to an employer for the position in question. For instance, if having a bachelor’s degree in nursing is required or preferred, you should make sure your resume has both “BSN” and “Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing” somewhere (after all, we don’t know if the ATS is programmed for one, both, or either).  

If certain skills are marked as being intrinsic to the position (e.g.: use of the Epic EMR, experience hanging blood, ECG interpretation), then you should include those as well. And if the job you’re applying for is for the ICU but your hospital calls it a “Critical Care Unit”, use “ICU” and “Intensive Care Unit” on your resume so that the resume parser recognizes this keyword and gives you a positive ranking for that experience.  

Most ATS software ranks your most recent experience higher than positions further in the past, so be sure to give your current and recent positions more keyword-rich attention. Your headings also matter: use common headings like “Education” rather than something like “Academic Achievements”; in this regard, “Work Experience” or “Professional Experience” are also standard usage.  

If this sounds like a guessing game, it essentially is; however, when applying for positions it’s essential that you assume an ATS will be involved. Do your research about the position and the organization, and use some of the very same language they use so that they clearly see that you have what they’re looking for.  

Tip #3: Skip the Objective and Write a Professional Summary 

Using an objective at the top of your resume is truly a thing of the past. Instead of saying, “Experienced registered nurse seeking critical care position where skills and experience can be applied as a member of a multidisciplinary team”, consider crafting a brief but powerful professional summary that captures the essence of who you are and what you bring to the table while using keywords that are essential to the position in question. For example:  

Critical care nurse with 9 years of experience caring for patients experiencing head trauma, burns, stroke, myocardial infarctions, and post-transplant complications. Advanced skill in leading multidisciplinary teams in code blue emergencies and crisis response. Expertise in the care of patients treated with ventilators, tracheostomies, chest tubes, PICC lines, midlines, and central lines.” 

Alternately, one or two short paragraphs can be followed by several columns of bulleted lists of top skills.  

Tip #4: Achievements and Involvement Matter 

The task-based skills you possess (e.g.: tracheostomies, wound care, ECG interpretation) are obviously smart to include, however you may also want to note any achievements that make the case for your skills in leadership, collaboration, and being an active and involved employee. Additionally, anything you can quantify or qualify can also be helpful in making the case that you’re the ideal candidate who goes above and beyond.  

For example, if you currently serve as the charge nurse on a 40-bed unit and you implemented a specific intervention that resulted in a 9 percent decrease in catheter-based nosocomial infections over a 6-month period, elucidate this on your resume.  

If you’ve sat on a committee, been involved in a unit-based council, taken part in research, or helped to test a new piece of bedside technology, these are significant things to enumerate. And if you’ve been a preceptor, educator, mentor, EMR super-user, or provided other forms of leadership, this also counts heavily in your favor.  

Tip #5: Make it Flawless! 

Finally, your resume needs to be absolutely flawless. Errors in spelling, grammar, punctuation, word usage, and sentence structure are crucial to avoid. An ATS may or may not be programmed to notice errors per sé (we can assume that such AI will become increasingly sophisticated), misspelled keywords may not be picked up by the system, resulting in a mark against you in the resume parsing process.  

Make sure to have at least one or two trusted people proofread your resume. Hiring a career coach or resume writer may be prudent for multiple reasons, including avoiding common errors and maximizing the potential of this document so central to your nursing career.   

Bonus Tip:

Providing some details about the facilities where you have worked can be a nice addition to the descriptions of your experience. If you work at a 500 bed Level I trauma center that is a teaching facility, Magnet-accredited, and stroke certified, make those facts known.  

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