Resume & Cover Letter Formatting

Modern Resume Formatting

Modern resumes have evolved because of changes to how employers read resumes, the information they want to see, and the software tools used for creating, sharing, storing, and viewing resumes. Because of that, and based in current research into resume preferences by employers, this is a brief overview of how the modern resume is formatted. For more information see the Thompson Rivers University Career Text Chapter 5: Application Documents from which this section is adapted.

Genre and Conventions

The resume is a distinct genre of business writing. As with any other genre it follows specific conventions. Those conventions change over time and are different in different sectors and industries. What this means is that the resume of today may not look like the resume of twenty years ago or like the resume in the next twenty years. In the same way that you adapt your essays for the genre conventions expected by your professors in various faculties, you will need to adapt your resume based on the conventions for different industries and, sometimes, even different organizations.

Accomplishment Statements

Before we move into your resume layout we’re going to talk about the core of your resume, the accomplishment statement. These are sentences that explain what you did, why, how, or for who you did it, and what the impact of it was.

The most popular formats are:

  • Situation, Task, Action, Result (STAR)
    • Provided quality customer service in a team of six, working quickly and efficiently, which resulted in our store receiving an award.
  • Challenge, Actions, Results
    • Working in a team of six to ensure accurate and efficient service to customers, resulting in our store receiving an award from the head company.
  • Result, Action, Situation
    • Earned an award for the best franchise in the city by collaborating with a team of six to deliver accurate and efficient service to customers.
  • Situation, Action, Outcome
    • As part of a customer service team, provided exceptional support resulting in our store earning an award.
  • Action/Skill, How, Why, How Well
    • Collaborated with a team of six to deliver exceptional customer service to guests earning our store an award as the best franchise in the city.

Regardless of how you write your accomplishment statements you need to make sure that it shows what impact you had, this could be your impact on the organization as a whole, on a department you were in, on the finances of the organization, on clients or customers, or even on your colleagues. They should include specific words from the job posting if possible and should demonstrate your technical and transferable skills. Including quantifiable information in your accomplishment statements makes them more helpful for employers to understand your skills and abilities. 

Sections and Layout

The Reverse Chronological resume is the most popular resume format, and the one that most employers prefer. What is presented below is a standardized reverse chronological resume layout that can work for many types of resume. However, the order of sections, and how to title them, will depend on the conventions used by the industry the position you’re applying for is in, as well as your preferences.

The purpose here is for you to showcase your skills and abilities in a way that a potential employer will understand.


Resume Formatting and Applicant Tracking Systems

The modern resume needs to be readable both by a human being and an Applicant Tracker Software (ATS).

That means that many of the formatting and design choices that have been popular for resumes, and are built into many word processing programs or online resume templates, actually hurt your chances. 

An ATS isn’t a terrible thing that’s out to stop your resume, it’s just a way for organizations to deal with the large volume of resumes that come in. Their main function is to scan your resume and check for simple things like your contact information or if you’re using any of the key words from the posting. Some ATS’s will determine how much experience you have based on what’s on the resume, or it may assess whether you have the correct education. Sometimes it will rank the resumes, but not every ATS does that and not every organization wants it to do that.


The most advanced of them use algorithms to evaluate everything from whether your work experience meets their minimum requirements to whether your grammar is good. The information in this section is designed to make your resume as readable as possible both by the ATS and by a person.

Here are some simple formatting tips for your resume to make sure that it’s readable by both people and an ATS:

  • The standard for a professional resume is two pages.
  • Contact information goes at the top of the first page.
  • Use web-safe fonts like Arial, Georgia, Tahoma, Times New Roman, and Verdana.
  • Keep your font size between 10 and 12 pt except for your name and headings.
  • Double check your grammar and spelling.
  • Don’t put anything, especially your contact information, in headers.
  • Avoid using backgrounds, images, special characters and text boxes.
  • Try not to use columns or tables for your layout.


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