Career Advice To Improve Your Resume – The Summary Section

Jan 12 2011 in Featured, reCareered Blog, Resumes by Phil Rosenberg

job search information, job search advice, job search help, job search tips, career advice

The summary section of a resume is another example of traditional career advice that doesn’t work well in today’s job market. While the purpose of a summary section is to differentiate a candidate while forming the reader’s first impression, these worked wonderfully on paper. Then the employment world changed … along with it, the effectiveness of summary sections changed when resumes went digital, read on screen in an average 15 seconds or less and pre-screened by databases and rookie HR/recruiters.

In a digital resume world, summary sections fulfill only one of the two goals and fulfills the wrong goal of the two. A summary section still makes your first impression on the reader, but it doesn’t differentiate the candidate well. When read digitally, it almost always makes the first impression of a generalist – which is not the impression you want to make, even if you are applying for a generalist or management position (possible exception: entry level positions, depending on the position).

Today there is a much more effective technique to show an employer your core skills, what makes you unique, and the skills that only you bring to an employer. Keep reading, I’ll describe more effective alternatives further on.

First, let’s examine why summary sections don’t work well and don’t differentiate candidates today. I feel the doubters and traditionalists out there, firing up their keyboards ready to comment “But Phil, summary sections are the way a resume has to be structured – every candidate I know uses one, it’s how I was taught to write resumes, it’s been reinforced by career advisers/recruiters/friends/resume writers/other articles.” As a candidate trying to differentiate yourself in a rotten job market, how would doing the same thing everyone else does help you make a unique first impression – compared against the huge competition numbers you are up against?

When you review hundreds of resumes a day, they all start to look the same, especially in the afternoon. The ones who stand out are the resumes that visually appear to be different. The ones that really stand out seem to give exactly the information you’re searching for, presented so it grabs your attention.

Summary statements don’t accomplish this well – here’s why:

  • Summary Sections are WIFM by their nature: The traditional summary section list the items that the candidate is most proud of, which isn’t interesting to the employer … these items describe WIFM (What’s In it For Me). Employers want to know the opposite or WIFT – What’s In it For Them (
  • Summary Sections make a first impression, but most give the impression of a generalist: Summary sections give this impression either because they describe broad skills instead of subject matter expertise (they summarize).

    Few hiring managers hire candidates who give a generalist first impression, even for generalist positions. There are so many candidates who give a generalist first impression, it becomes impossible to differentiate. In addition, since employers can micro-target skills, employer hiring processes pre-screen for subject matter expertise, and employers determine generalist skills during the interview. Even for a generalist position, the winning candidate is most likely the candidate whose resume demonstrated the specific skills required to solve current issues and secondarily demonstrated the strongest generalist skills during the interview.

    Candidates who first try to give a resume-based impression how great a generalist they are, most often remain buried in the database, because they have such a low likelihood of matching the specific criteria being searched for. The odds are random and low. This is why ”Subject Matter Experts Rule!” (see

  • Here’s an example of a summary section that gives a generalist first impression:

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  • Summary sections also can give the impression of Jack-of-all-trades, master of none: Many summary sections list so many skills, in bullets or paragraphs or both, that each one of them are watered down.

    From back in the days of paper, we’ve been taught to make all-inclusive resumes, rather than highly targeted resumes – since they were written on paper, we printed a single version at Kinko’s and they had to include a laundry list of skills.

    Today, a more effective choice is to identify the one or two most important skills to that specific opportunity/manager/department/employer, by doing more up-front research. In this way, you’re able to make a first impression that clearly tells your reader WIFT.

    Here’s an example of a Jack-of-all-trades summary section:

    job search information, job search advice, job search help, job search tips, career advice

  • Seller’s Fluff: Hiring managers are typically responsible for buying decisions also and are used to vendor pitches. When you hear a vendor pitch you something, do you make decisions on “seller’s fluff” or on features and benefits? Do you believe “seller’s fluff”? Why should hiring managers act any differently?

    Your summary section is seller’s fluff, while the bullet points within your work experience are the features and benefits that employers really examine to make their decisions. By putting a traditional summary section at the top, you’re concentrating the reader’s attention to the fluff, rather than the features and benefits.

  • Resume Real Estate: Remember, your audience gives your resume an average of 15 seconds to decide if you’ll get an interview, or go in that “other” pile. In 15 seconds, you’ve got to make an immediate strong impression within the top ½ of your first page – that you should get an interview over the hundreds of other applicants. The top half of your first page has to interest your reader enough to spend more than 15 seconds … and scroll down.

    Since summary sections are comprised of low believability “fluff”, why have them comprise most if not all (or more) of the first ½ of your resume’s first page? It’s your most valuable real estate – don’t you want to use it for the top features and benefits that solve your specific target manager/department/company problems? If your reader might only see the top ½ of your first page, have them see what they are really looking for.

    To learn more about Resume Real Estate, see ”10 Ways To Manage Your Resume Real Estate” at

  • Summary statements increase ageism: They are traditional and look like everyone else’s – amplifying perceptions of not using new techniques, sticking to the old school tools that are comfortable and less willing to change/adapt. These are the very things that give readers the perception that senior candidates can be out of touch with today’s business challenges.

More effective career advice than a summary statement – Personal Branding Statement and Skills Inventory

Personal Branding Statement: Rather than brand yourself as a broad skilled generalist or jack-of-all-trades, consider a personal branding statement as the title of your resume. A personal branding statement is a very succinct, crystal clear, single line stating the job you seek, and one (or two max) specific areas of subject matter expertise that help solve the hiring manager’s priority issues.

Learn more about personal branding statements in “How A Personal Branding Statement Can Help Job Seekers” at

Skills Inventory: Rather than brand yourself a Jack-of-all-trades, try a skills inventory – a listing of 30 – 50 three word sound bytes (50+ for technology, engineering and science) in a three column format, at the end of the resume. For most resumes, I include a skills inventory as an addendum after the resume … it’s usually the third page. Here’s what a skills inventory does that a summary statement can’t:

  1. Doesn’t make your first impression: Since it’s at the end of your resume, it doesn’t form your reader’s first impression. Instead, it offers additional info to support the reader’s first impression – big difference.
  2. Allows you to list even more skills: You are less space constrained at the end of your resume.
  3. Forces you to be brief: You can be detailed in your experience bullet points yet also demonstrate you can communicate succinctly because you’re forced into a 3 word sound byte format – to fit all of your skills inventory onto a single page.
  4. Give you a chance to match changed criteria: Most job descriptions are written at the time of approval, months before the job is filled. Things change in the meantime – old problems solved, new problems arise, people move from the department, others are hired, priorities change. The business doesn’t sit still, waiting for you … the hiring manager’s needs often change. A skills inventory gives you a better chance to meet changed job descriptions, criteria and needs.
  5. Nice to haves: Often there’s only a slight difference between the winning candidate … and everyone else. These slight differences are often the “nice to have’s”. These are the extra skills the hiring manager didn’t think of as criteria, until it was seen on a resume making the hiring manager think … “We’ll need someone who can do that for that upcoming project/issue/opportunity in 6 months”. A skills inventory gives candidates the chance to match “nice to haves”.
  6. Better chance to match keyword searches: A skills inventory is less obvious than just a keyword section, because it provides value to the reader – rather than just gaming keywords.

For more details about skills inventories, including how to incorporate them into your resume, read “Resume Ideas – Add A Skills Inventory To Get Noticed For More Jobs” at

Suggestion – Try this for a month and compare results. Readers give feedback of noticing a noticeable increase in response, calls and interviews when this strategy is combined with no (or 2 line) cover letters and employer value statements.

If you’ve tried this for a month – please give share your experiences in comments below.


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Author: Phil Rosenberg

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