When it comes to applying for jobs, you can’t always rely on your charm to make a good first impression. In many cases, it’s up to a piece of paper.

So what makes a resume go in the “yes” pile instead of the trash?

We asked three veteran employment experts for some ideas.

1. Learn to speak another language.

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No, I’m not talking about Spanish or French — though, to career military folks, the language of the civilian job market may seem just as foreign.

When it comes to building a resume, transition specialist Chrissy Littledale of Hire Heroes USA, an organization that provides free career coaching to veterans and military spouses, said the most important thing is to translate your skills in a way that a civilian employer can understand.

“That can be a very huge hurdle and kind of a mental block, too, for some of my clients,” she said, especially those who have never had a job outside of the military.

It’s up to you — not the employer — to draw parallels between the job you had and the job you want, she said. So, aside from leaving off MOS codes and other military jargon, think about how your past duties correlate to the job description.

She gave the example of a transitioning service member who wants to be a wedding planner. While they may not have planned weddings in the Marine Corps, they may have organized hundreds of retirement, promotion or change-of-command ceremonies. They should highlight how those experiences are similar to wedding planning.

Eric Eversole, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Hiring Our Heroes program, recommends using resources like his organization’s online Resume Engine, which allows job seekers to find lists of skills associated with MOS codes.

Still, it’s important not to go overboard when trying to “civilianize” your resume, said George Bernloehr, lead military recruiter for Booz Allen Hamilton, a Fortune 500 company that devotes 70 percent of its recruiting budget to finding candidates with military ties, according to information the company provided to Military Times.

“If you are serving in the Army as a Captain, and you are a company commander of a unit, you are not a CEO, so please do not list your job title as CEO of the unit,” he said in an email. “Company commander will work just fine.”

Chrissy Littledale, a transition specialist with Hire Heroes USA, discusses resume tips with a veteran at a workshop in Los Angeles. Hire Heroes USA provides free career coaching and job sourcing to transitioning service members, veterans and military spouses. (Provided by Chrissy Littledale)
Chrissy Littledale, a transition specialist with Hire Heroes USA, discusses resume tips with a veteran at a workshop in Los Angeles. Hire Heroes USA provides free career coaching and job sourcing to transitioning service members, veterans and military spouses. (Provided by Chrissy Littledale)

2. Put the best information first.

Bernloehr recommends treating your resume like a newspaper, putting your most important information at the top. That means that if a college degree or a certain certification you’ve earned is a key requirement for the job you’re applying for, put that information toward the top of the resume.

Littledale called the top third of a resume “prime real estate.” There, you should write a professional summary of five to six sentences that includes key words from the job description. If the position calls for someone who can answer phones, for example, make it clear in the summary that you can answer the heck out of a phone.

This is still possible to do even if you’re considering a total change, she said. If you were a cook in the Navy but aren’t looking for a restaurant gig, you likely have relevant management skills to include there.

“That first part should speak to the job announcement so closely that you could get the job with just the first third of your resume, and everything else is icing on the cake as the employer keeps reading,” Littledale said.

3. Do your research.

It should be clear from your resume that you understand the job you are applying for, Eversole said.

“You have to understand what the objectives are before you can really start fine tuning that resume into something that’s going to be productive,” he said.

In other words: Do your research.

Don’t be shy about reaching out to recruiters or other employees of the company through mediums like LinkedIn or other networking opportunities, Eversole said. You can ask them questions about the position or even for feedback on your resume.

Regardless of how you approach it, your resume should be tailored to the specific job for which you’re applying, according to our experts. This is “exponentially more effective” than a one-size-fits all resume you spam to everyone, Littledale said.

While it’s OK to take a generic resume to a job fair where you are talking with recruiters from a variety of industries, make sure that in most cases your resume is clearly aligned with the job you want.

That’s true even if you’re applying for multiple jobs at the same company, said Booz Allen’s Bernloehr, who advises tailoring your resume in a way that’s conspicuous.

He offered this checklist:

  • Review a position’s basic qualifications, which are often required for you to be screened and interviewed.
  • Determine whether you meet the basic qualifications.
  • Review your resume to make sure it clearly reflects that you meet those basic qualifications.
  • If it does, go ahead and apply. If it doesn’t, change your resume.
George Bernloehr (Provided by Booz Allen Hamilton)
George Bernloehr (Provided by Booz Allen Hamilton)

4. Choose your (key)words carefully.

While the words “supervisor” and “manager” may mean the same thing in everyday speech, some scanning software may not see it that way. And since many companies, particularly large ones, use a computer program to screen applications electronically, it’s important that your resume use the same terms that are in the job description. Otherwise, there’s a chance it may never make its way to a human, Littledale said.

When Bernhloehr is reviewing a resume for a specific job, he typically scans key words in the summary and bullet points to find a match. If all the pieces are there, he then goes through the resume from top to bottom to determine if the candidate would be a good fit for the role and the company.

5. K.I.S.S.

“Content is more important than formatting,” Littledale said. “It’s more important for your resume to be interest-catching than eye-catching.”

She tells her clients to keep their resumes to two pages and to steer clear of resume templates. Not only can some of the fancy formatting get you kicked out of an electronic screening system, but templates are also big time wasters, since changing one small thing can send the whole document into hysteria.

Take it from a recruiter: “Easy-to-read resumes get read,” Bernhloehr said.

Reverting back to military acronyms for a moment, just remember the KISS principle — keep it simple, stupid.

6. Work around red flags.

If you’re a military spouse, you’ve likely changed jobs as many times as your partner has changed duty stations. But to civilian employers, that can raise a red flag.

One option is to do a skills-focused resume, rather than a chronological one, to camouflage this.

Our experts were of two minds on whether to address these gaps or frequent changes in your application package. Littledale suggests waiting until the interview to do this, unless the employer has a military spouse hiring initiative.

The good news is, many companies do have these type of initiatives. Eversole said in these cases, there are advantages to identifying yourself as a military spouse before you’re in the door.

So again, this is where research comes into play. Do some legwork up front about the company and the industry you’re interested in. Go to job fairs and networking events. Find out what they’re looking for in a successful candidate and craft your resume around that, Eversole suggested.

Hiring Our Heroes President Eric Eversole, left, interacts with job candidates at a career fair. (Provided by Hiring Our Heroes)
Hiring Our Heroes President Eric Eversole, left, interacts with job candidates at a career fair. (Provided by Hiring Our Heroes)

7. “Proofread and proofread and proofread.”

You probably spent more than five minutes working on your resume. So make sure it looks that way.

When asked what type of resumes are sure to go in his “no” pile, Bernhloehr said that the biggest red flags are errors.

“Take the time to have at least one trusted advisor to proof your resume,” he continued. “Don’t always rely on Word to find your errors. Check it and check it again.”

Eversole used the word “proofread” three times. “Make sure you don’t have typos in there and it doesn’t look sloppy,” he said.

And, while you’re at it, it may be worth having a civilian take a look to make sure you’ve passed our experts’ first test.