Is a chronological résumé verses a topical résumé the best strategy?

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People often wonder if they should use a topical rather than a chronological résumé and ask if I can prepare a topical résumé for them. But is that the best strategy? Of course having written thousands of résumés, I can do so. But before I do I like to share a few insights with them.

Most people want to use a topical résumé because they basically want to hide something. They may feel they changed jobs too often. They may feel they don’t have any experience in their area of new interest. They may be unsure of what they want and wish to cover all the bases.

Nonetheless, here’s the problem. Interviewers know why people are resorting to topical résumés and they often will go to page two to find out what it is that they are reluctant to share. Statistics seem to support that most interviewers still prefer a chronological over a topical résumé. Why? They are easier to understand and don’t require mental gymnastics to get a real handle on what a prospective applicant really has to offer.

Remember when we speak theoretically, we are speaking in the abstract. When executives are looking for qualified professionals, they don’t like to operate in the abstract. They want tangible, nuts and bolts content and results. In a topical résumé, it is very difficult to be specific. For example, under a heading titled sales you may be tempted to say that you marketed diverse product lines and consistently produced record-breaking sales results. But in a chronological résumé where you have provided a one-line description of a particular company, you can be much more specific. You can speak of what product and elaborate in quantitative measures. You can describe the unique things you may have done to drive those quantifiable results. In other words, your accomplishments take on a real-life dimension as you place them in the backdrop of a particular company.

Hiding things in résumés isn’t a good strategy; neither is explaining or apologizing for our history. What I have found to be most successful is to offset the negatives with accomplishment, build meaningful transitions that can help your audience to see you doing the work you wish to be doing. It takes skill and strategy to accomplish this. There are many hidden skills required to writing a really powerful résumé.  But creating smokescreens with a hard-to-follow format is not going to win friends and influence people!
There are admittedly  a few cases in which topical résumés may be a good choice, but they are far and few between. In most cases, a straightforward, understandable approach is going to get the attention and interview impact you are after.

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