How to Read a Resume

green-bookMary Clare McCarthy was very, very, very smart.  But, like many very, very, very smart people, Mary Clare was also very, very, very weird (sometimes).

She was a classmate in high school, a parochial school taught by Notre Dame nuns (which Garrison Keillor aptly parodies as Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility).

While the nuns were always angling to see if we had “a vocation,” they assumed if we weren’t going to join them, we’d probably end up as English majors in college. So, there were lots of books to read, mostly classics, in the curriculum.
And here is how Mary Claire would read a book. She would read the first chapter.  Then she would flip to the end of the book and read the last chapter.  Then she would proceed to read the book from Chapter Two to the end.

When I asked why, gently suggesting that she might be “spoiling the story” for herself, she gave me her reasoning.  “I read the first and last chapters, then I like to see how the author fills in the story.” Simple as that.

I was never even tempted to employ the Mary Clare methodology (MCM) to my book reading. Not then and certainly not now.  I can’t imagine reading the last chapter of a mystery – that’s the ultimate spoiler alert!

But, I must admit, just the other day I smiled to myself as I realized that I have been reading resumes the MCM way for the past twenty three years!  What Mary Claire called “filling in the story” is exactly what I try to do when I read a resume.  I try to get a sense of who the person is and how they’ve developed in their career in order to determine if they may be a fit for my job.

So, (drum roll please) here is how I read a resume . . .

  1. I read the first section of page one – name, address, etc. and then whatever preface there may be to the listing of chronological work experience, such as an objective or a summary.
  2. I then turn to the last page of the resume and read the end of the document – the education, training, volunteer activities, etc.
  3. Then, staying on the last page, I start to read the work history in chronological order, starting after education.  I take the first job listed (in most cases the first one out of college) and continue reading up to the current employer.
  4. In the left hand margin, I make a note of how long each term of employment lasted.  I tend to be a visual learner and this gives me that clear picture of the person’s tenure in jobs. (15 years of work history with four jobs is better than 15 years of work history with fourteen jobs. You get the point.)

Importantly, reading the resume this way gives me a clear vision of how the person has progressed in his or her career.  I can usually tell from their titles what that progression has been. Here’s an example of job titles that, when read in chronological order, shows good career progression:

Customer Service/Inside Sales Representative

Outside Sales

Regional Territory Sales

Regional Sales Manager

VP of Sales

Global Sales Director

The opposite is also true. By reading chronologically, you can easily spot if the person’s career has not had a straight trajectory.  Entries might look something like this:

Customer Service/Inside Sales Representative

 Sales Executive

 Regional Sales Manager

Inside Sales Executive

Account Manager

Inside Sales

I wouldn’t necessarily rule out interviewing a person based solely on job titles that may look confusing (especially if there are other elements of their experience such has industry knowledge, technical capabilities, etc.)

But, reading the resume this way, combined with a good visual of the person’s tenure in jobs, not only makes the interview/no interview decision easier, it makes you better prepared to ask the right questions if and when you do speak with them.


I also interview people chronologically, whether by phone or in-person.  I like to see how people tell their own stories, explaining their career moves, strategies, etc.  It gives me a much clearer idea whether they can do the job and also who they are as a person.  I’m always looking for a skills fit and also a cultural fit.  That’s the ideal situation.

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