Get Rid of Excessive Clutter in your Résumé and Cover Letter

September 10, 2012

There is a common phrase, “you can’t see the forest through the trees.” This applies to résumés. In job hunting, this phrase means that, by loading your résumé with information of secondary importance, your most critical skills and accomplishments – those most important in winning you an on-site interview trip – become obscured in the welter of information filling your résumé. The same is true for your cover letter.

How can you be sure this doesn’t happen?  Editing your résumé and cover letter

To identify your most relevant skills and accomplishments, carefully read all the information describing the job opening. If you don’t have a job description, define one of your own but make sure it is relevant for each employer to which you send your résumé. This requires reading information about the business unit of the employer to which you are applying.

After you identify this information and make sure it is in your résumé, you need to ruthlessly edit your résumé to remove each piece of information that doesn’t advance your prospects of receiving a job offer. Doing so reduces the résumé clutter that obscures your accomplishments and skills most relevant to the job opening. However, this is usually emotionally difficult. Everyone is proud of their achievements and you will be tempted to leave this information in your résumé in the hopes that it will be relevant to some readers.

If you are writing a chronological résumé describing your accomplishments in each job or position you held starting with the most recent first, you need to be ruthless in editing job information more than several years old. For example, in doing hundreds of résumé reviews for mid-career job hunters as an ACS Career Consultant, I have noticed a strong tendency for these job hunters to devote as much detail (a high word count) to jobs, post-docs and graduate research early in their career as to their most recent two or three jobs. And I was doing same thing!

If information from substantially earlier in your career is highly relevant to your job-hunting goal, then a chronological résumé probably is not the best format to use. A functional résumé format will let you group similar and highly relevant achievements and skills together regardless of when they actually occurred. The functional résumé format allows you to emphasize your skills and accomplishments most pertinent to the job opening. By grouping similar skills together rather than scattering them through your résumé in a chronological order, you can increase your focus on these skills and shorten your résumé by reducing repetition.

Information to definitely remove

Included in the information you need to remove from your résumé are: details about your personal life, details about jobs you held many years ago, photographs of yourself, confidential information about previous jobs, salary expectations, why you were laid off or terminated from a previous position, exaggeration of previous accomplishments and job responsibilities. Omit an Objective statement unless you are a new graduate or post-doc and instead replace it with a summary of your qualifications.  It is important to note all the above discussions were written from a U.S. perspective. Certain things such as including a photograph in your résumé or describing hobbies and outside interests is common in other countries but not in the U.S.

Your cover letter

Your cover letter should provide added information and not just repeat what is in your résumé. A good strategy is to take some information in your résumé that you think is highly relevant to the employer and discuss it in more detail. By using complete sentences rather than the phrases employed in your résumé, you may also be able to do a better job of setting your information in context.


All this sounds like a lot of work, and it is. However, this work enables you to customize your résumé for each employer and each job opening. In today’s job market, it is well worth the effort to make sure the vehicle that is your personal marketing tool helps you land the best job matching the skills you have worked so hard to achieve.

John Borchardt is a chemist and freelance writer who has been an ACS career consultant for 15 years. He is the author of the ACS/Oxford University Press Book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers.” He has had more than 1200 articles published in a variety of magazines, newspapers and encyclopedias. As an industrial chemist, he holds 30 U.S. and more than 125 international patents and is the author of more than 130 peer-reviewed papers.