What's the Best Résumé Format for You?

Business people talking at desk

By Marcelle Yeager

Not all résumés are created equal – and they shouldn't be. There are different formats out there that are accepted by recruiters. Consider your professional history carefully before deciding which one to use. Use the guide below to decide if you are using the right type of résumé for your background and career goals.

Chronological Format. The traditional chronological résumé presents employment history from the perspective of time. This is the format to use if you have a consistent employment history without gaps, and you are trying to land a job similar to the one you have now. You can't go wrong with a chronological résumé, since it's the most common and widely accepted.

If you have a short period when you were a stay-at-home parent or went to graduate school, you should include that in the résumé rather than leaving a gap. Holes mean questions, and if the questions aren't answered on the paper, it's unlikely the recruiter will take the time to call you for an interview to find out why you weren't working during a certain period. If you held many jobs for a short period and are worried about perceptions, you might consider including a brief and diplomatic explanation for why you left each company.

Functional Format. If you have a minimal work history, gaps in employment or have frequently jumped around to different jobs types, this might be the right layout for you. It also works well for career changers. The functional format is set up to demonstrate your skills through your accomplishments. For example, if you've employed customer service skills at several jobs, you can use this as one of your skill headlines. Below the headline, include bullets that point to your key achievements related to that skill. It's important to not use cliche phrases in your bullets, because your intention should be to show how you've exhibited the skill rather than tell.

You should also include a professional or work experience section, in which you list your place of employment, job title, location and dates. However, bullets with your achievements will fall under each skill headline at the top rather than below each job.

Combined Format. The combined format can be useful for those who are switching careers, especially those in more senior positions or with longer career histories. As the name suggests, it is a blend of the functional and chronological résumé. This format allows you to translate your skills to the language of the new job or career field. You want to focus the recruiter's attention on your skills relevant to the job at hand.

Below the skills and accomplishments, as with the functional résumé, you should include a professional experience portion where you list basic information for current and prior jobs. With this format, you can also include bullets below each position that reflect achievements that didn't fit in to a specific skill category above. Even if you are a senior executive, you should still avoid including every single piece of information. Only use the most pertinent facts to keep it concise and readable.

Visual Résumés.Nontraditional résumés have become popular recently. These types of résumés use graphics and other media to present information about the job applicant. While this is a way to stand out from the candidate crowd, many companies still want to see a traditional résumé. A story résumé might make sense for a person in a creative field, such as advertising, social media or communications – but probably not for an attorney. It's worth researching a company's culture before you send your résumé, and it's always a good idea to include a traditional version.

No matter which format you choose, make sure you include your name and how to get in contact with you. Education is another must. Other information, such as professional affiliations, volunteer work, languages and technical skills should be included if they are appropriate for the job you're applying to. That information can also be helpful if you need to fill out your résumé more, like if you are an entry-level candidate.

In all cases, you should think about including a brief career summary at the top. This should be restricted to a few lines that tell the recruiter you fulfill the required (and possibly preferred) qualifications. The way to do this is to write how you meet the most essential credentials, which are usually listed first in a job description.

Choosing the right format is important, because your résumé is your chance to get your foot in the door. The traditional format might be hurting rather than helping you. If the person reading it cannot understand why you are applying to a job in the retail industry after spending 10 years in accounting, she is not going to take the time to reach out to you to find out why. Make sure it's clear in your résumé why you are a good fit, which may require highlighting your skills up front instead of burying accomplishments under each job.