There are thousands of veterans leaving the military and transitioning to academia and the private sector, and while overall the employment outlook has been improving gradually, veterans often lag behind the national average by a percentage point or two. One of the biggest points of friction for many vets is translating their skills and expertise to a resume. Since leaving the Army two years ago, I’ve helped dozens of my transitioning friends with resumes for both the private sector and academia. Over this period of time, I’ve seen a certain number of common mistakes that are extremely simple to fix.
1. This is not an OER, NCOER, or counseling statement:
Depending on your specialty, you probably didn’t do much writing in the military. However, you likely did receive periodic counselings and annual evaluations. While these types of evaluations can be a good place to start, do not simply copy and paste these bullets into your resume. Military evaluations and counselings are structured in a specific way and are speaking to a certain audience. Hiring managers and school admissions committees will likely be unable to truly grasp your achievements if they’re full of technical and jargony phrases. If you do nothing else but avoid this copy-paste trap, you’ll be much better off.
2. Keep it to one page.
“But I have so much experience! I’ve done so much!” These are usually the reasons that vets cite for needing a two-page resume. Unless you’re transitioning with substantial military experience (read: senior noncommissioned officer or field grade officer and above), you can certainly get everything relevant on one page. I always like to start bigger and then cut things that are less important. Create a resume document with everything you’ve done, call this your “I love me” resume, but never submit it to an employer. Think of it as a big piece of wood, from which you’re going to whittle down a specific resume by trimming pieces off of it depending on the position you’re going after.
3. Don’t reinvent the wheel.
In my unit we would joke that nobody had written a completely original document since Microsoft Word was first introduced to the Army, but that first document had been saved and passed on and used as a template ever since. The same can be said about resumes. There is no one perfect way to format a resume, but there is also no reason to start from absolutely nothing. There are many free templates online (including mine) that are easily downloadable. This will save you time and ensure that you’re not creating something that is totally abnormal from what employers are accustomed to looking at. You shouldn’t be looking to have your resume stand out due to its fancy fonts and beautiful colored headers. Your resume needs to stand on the strength of your experience and the best way to convey that is by having a simple and straightforward format.
4. Quantify, quantify, quantify.
Quantifying achievements, responsibilities, and experiences is probably a veteran’s largest asset when building a resume. In the military, soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines are often given enormous tasks and responsibilities at extremely young ages. Don’t be afraid to show this off a bit by highlighting how many people you were in charge of, the millions of dollars worth of equipment you maintained, or the hundreds of hours of training you received. On a resume numbers stand out, and you should do your best to highlight them. As a note: you also have a responsibility not to exaggerate these quantifications. This is a form of lying, something that our values strongly condemn. You also never know if a veteran could be screening your resume. Oh, you claim to have managed 30 people as a private first class? I don’t think so, high speed.
5. Avoid jargon.
The military has it’s own language. Each of the services speak different dialects, and specific units have unique accents (Think Airborne community versus Strykers versus a heavy mechanized unit). You wouldn’t write your resume in Spanish, and similarly you don’t want to write in Army, Navy, Air Force, or Marines lingo. To start, avoid using acronyms. If the acronym is absolutely necessary, make sure you write it out on first use instead of simply plopping it down in the middle of a sentence and confusing the reader. (What the heck is an OSRVT?) This alone will go a long way. Other buzzwords that are commonly used and can be avoided are “executed,” “target,” “strategic,” “and setting conditions.” Did you execute the mission or did you accomplish it? This isn’t to say that these should never be used, just be sure that if you mention your “strategic planning” background, it wasn’t being conducted at the platoon level.
6. Know the sector you’re applying to.
Every sector of the job market and each admissions committee is looking for something a little bit different. Your resume should be tailored as much as possible for the job or school you’re going after. Going back to my second point, if you have a cache of accomplishments in a “I love me” resume, you can take that baseline document and whittle it down to something that highlights the skills and experience you want to convey. If you’re applying to a technical job, you’ll highlight all of the communications training you received, or if it’s a business school, you’ll underscore your management and leadership skills. This type of tailoring actually has double the advantage. It shows your employer or school that your skills and experience match what they’re looking for, and it also shows that you’ve done your homework and you know what they want. The people vetting these resumes have looked over so many that they can tell instantly when they get a completely generic resume, and they’ll similarly know instantly if you’re informed about what they want in their candidates.
7. Get a second opinion.
Send your resume to a loved one, a friend, or just someone you trust. Before you submit it, you absolutely must have a second pair of eyes look at it. After you’ve read something more than three times, it’s nearly impossible to give it an objective look. If possible, have someone from outside of the military read it. After they do, ask them, is there anything you don’t understand? You may be taking something for granted based off your experience that a civilian simply doesn’t understand. If you’re unable to find someone or are in a pinch, at the bare minimum print it out and look it over. We live in a digital age, but there is just something about holding a piece of paper in your hand and whipping out the red pen that will force you to focus on what you’ve written.
Just remember, your transition is a process and will take some time. You may send out dozens of resumes and get completely rejected. It’s all right; you’ve failed before under more difficult circumstances. Just pick yourself up, learn from your failures, and keep getting after it.