The Right Way to Read a Resume

January / 2021
Authors: Dr. Josh Cotton, George Randle and Mike Sarraille

The following is adapted from The Talent War.

“You’re not hiring a resume; you’re hiring a person.”

That was the tagline of a 2019 ad campaign from Indeed, and it’s very true. A resume shows a limited perspective of a much more complex individual.

Someone who sounds great on paper could end up being a disaster in the office, and someone with a lackluster resume could become one of your top performers.

Resumes are a valuable source of information, but only if you read them the right way. Instead of using resumes as a superficial screening tool, you need to dig deeper and read between the lines.

What the Facts of the Resume Really Tell You

One of the most common mistakes people make with resumes is drawing conclusions that seem logical but are inaccurate. 

For example, hiring based on IQ is a scientifically valid method of hiring for success. But resumes don’t include IQ scores, so companies often look at GPA instead. They assume a high GPA means a high IQ and a low GPA means low IQ. It’s a reasonable conclusion, but like much of what you see on a resume, what you are inferring is not always reality. 

What GPA really shows is how good of a student someone was, and you’re not trying to hire a student. Boston University researcher Eric Barker found that most valedictorians gain only moderate amounts of success, not wild amounts of success, like becoming millionaires. Barker argues that the traits that make successful students—like complying with rules—are not the same traits that make innovators and millionaires. 

So a high GPA probably means the person is smart, but a low GPA doesn’t mean the person is not smart. See the difference?

As another example, if you see a candidate has X years of leadership experience, you might assume that they have strong leadership skills. But there are plenty of bad bosses in the world who have still managed to accumulate many years of experience.

Years of experience tells you only how long someone has held a certain title. It is not necessarily a strong predictor of success. Instead, look at what the candidate has actually accomplished—how they have contributed to the success of the company. It’s not about simply doing the job; it’s about how well someone does the job.

The Deeper Story of the Resume: Silver Spoons and Scrappers

The “facts” of the resume—a person’s education, the companies they’ve worked for, the jobs they’ve held—tell only part of the story. To get a fuller picture, you want to know more than just what they’ve done; you want to know how they’ve done it. 

In most cases, a candidate won’t be doing the exact same thing at your company as at their previous company, so you want to unearth the fundamental character attributes that enabled them to accomplish what they’ve accomplished—things like drive, resiliency, adaptability, humility, and so on. Those are the building blocks that predict performance, and they are constant and translate from role to role.

Regina Hartley has a fantastic TED Talk, “Why the Best Hire Might Not Have the Perfect Resume,” about the need to look at the story a resume tells. 

As she explains it, some people go through life without facing many obstacles. These people—the “silver spoons”—are the ones with the perfect resumes: Ivy League school, 4.0 GPA, good industry experience. 

On the other end of the spectrum, those who have faced a lot of adversity in their lives—the “scrappers”—often have imperfect resumes: a degree from a state school, a lower GPA, but a history of overcoming obstacle after obstacle.

If you read resumes on a superficial level, you will choose more silver spoons than scrappers. Silver spoons can be fantastic employees, but so can scrappers. Scrappers are often the ones with the most resiliency and drive. They’ve faced obstacles and overcome them. They’ve had to fight and work so hard and so often that accomplishment is like muscle memory for them. 

But too often, scrappers never even get the chance to interview. That’s a loss for you as well as them. You could be passing over great talent simply because you’re not digging deeper into the resume.

Investigate the Resume

Talent doesn’t fit a mold. When you get an imperfect resume that looks different, you need to investigate further. 

A candidate may have a lower GPA because they had to work through college, or they may have an unusual job history because they had to do whatever it took to make ends meet. That person may have more drive, resiliency, adaptability, and humility than the candidates with seemingly perfect resumes. 

The “perfect” resumes must be investigated too. A high GPA at an Ivy League school could indicate someone with intense drive who is willing to put in the work to excel in a competitive environment. Or it could mean someone who is used to always succeeding. A person with a perfect resume might crumble at the first sign of pressure.

By learning how to better read resumes, you can avoid mistakenly eliminating talented candidates and gain an insightful look into candidates’ character.

For more advice on building an effective hiring team, you can find The Talent War on Amazon.

Mike Sarraille is the CEO of EF Overwatch, an executive search and talent advisory firm, and leadership consultant with Echelon Front. He is a former Recon Marine and retired US Navy SEAL officer with twenty years of experience in Special Operations, including the elite Joint Special Operations Command.

George Randle is a Strategic Advisor to EF Overwatch, former US Army officer, and Vice President of Global Talent Acquisition at Forcepoint, a human-centric cybersecurity company. George has more than two decades of experience in talent acquisition at Fortune 100 and Fortune 1000 firms.

Dr. Josh Cotton is an expert in talent assessment and employee effectiveness. He has designed scientifically valid candidate selection practices for the US Navy SEALs and Fortune 100 companies and has advised leaders at DuPont, Omnicom, CSX, and Flowserve.