Keep it simple: One resume fits all

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Should I have separate resumes for different jobs?

Good news: Not everything in your job search has to mean more work.

You don’t need to change your resume every time you apply for a job. Based on my informal poll of some of this country’s best resume writers, one well-executed resume is all you need. More than that and you’re probably overdoing it, although there are exceptions. We’ll get to those below.

In short, it’s best to keep things simple. You’re probably not going to improve your chances significantly by rewording job descriptions to meet specific requirements or radically changing format. In fact, you may make mistakes or remove information that could help your candidacy. Debbie Ellis, a veteran resume writer and president of the Greenville, S.C.-based Phoenix Career Group, says job candidates spend too much time trying to anticipate what companies want. “You may cut out things that are very important,” Ellis says. “You never know what the hiring manager is looking for.”

Let’s not even consider the possibilities for mayhem when you have to track 20 different resumes. “Now, did I send the resume highlighting my volunteer work at the humane society, to the medical research company and the accounting firm or just one of them?”

Job searches are big endeavors; you have enough to track without worrying about each resume. “You have to be sensible about this,” says Ellis. “There are people who get into trouble because they have so many resumes going out.”

You are the brand

I like the way Ellis likens resumes to marketing documents that help build a corporate brand. Smart businesses stay focused on who they are. Tinker with the resume, try to be all things to all people and you risk diluting your brand. “When a resume is written well, it will capture the candidate’s authentic brand,” she says.

There’s another practical reason for sticking with one resume: More could slow you down. You’re less likely to complete tasks promptly if they require redoing work that has already been done well. Do you remember how long it took you to craft perfect job summaries with well-chosen, active verbs, not too much or too little information, just the way you learned in resume-writing class? It might be days before you feel ready to write a fresh version. Job searches don’t afford the luxury of waiting until the muse strikes. Recruiters want to move fast. “If you go in different directions, the less likely you are to send out the resume quickly,” says Louise Kursmark, the author of 18 books on career management topics, including resume writing. “It’s a complex, logistical task.”

Certainly, some folks prefer to make each resume unique and are finicky enough to churn out multiple products. They should take note: Above all, the well-executed resume makes it easy for employers to find relevant academic and work experience. Such resumes signpost each entry via attractive spacing and large, bold headlines and contrasting fonts. Depending on the font style, some resume writers may use 14-point headlines over 10-point summaries.

Customize the cover letter

There’s another place to customize your job application. That’s why you write a cover letter. It calls extra attention to parts of your resume.

In the right circumstances, it’s also OK to tweak what you’ve done to address significantly different job requirements. We’re not talking wholesale renovation here but more switching the order of one or two items. For example, you might place international background more prominently in a resume you send for a possible overseas assignment than for a U.S.-based job, but emphasize a domestic experience on other occasions. It’s easy reversing the order of things; just keep records of what you’ve done so you can discuss your resume intelligently in an interview.

A timely update or improvement is fine, too. You’re not wedded to your document indefinitely. Resumes are ongoing projects.

Los Angeles-based James Peter Rubin has written about employment and management issues for many publications, including The Wall Street Journal and The Economist.