Education Career Services

August 4, 2009

First Impressions on Paper

First impressions can make or break your interview; it can also make or break your resume.

A first impression is so powerful and therefore difficult to overcome because it is irrational.   You allow your gut free rein upon first sight; it’s often an unconscious evaluation of sight cues and we do it fast.  We may not know why we aren’t impressed with someone, or why we instantly have a negative reaction, yet it shapes our decisions nonetheless.

Obviously, in an interview we want to be just-so about what we wear, how we smell, and how we sound.  We should even be aware of our body language.  On paper, though, how do we control the first impression of our resume?

The key is in knowing how people read a document, especially a document being read under stress or in a hurry (which elevates the power of the irrational first impression).

People read – or more accurately, skim – resumes in layers.  Some layers are a second or less and most depend on whether the reader has a problem they need to resolveThe problem may be a personnel requirement or it could be a strategic/operational problem that a person may be able to solve – either a gap in current coverage or a new skills set to resolve an issue.  If they have a need, they are hunter-readers, looking for something specific.  If they do not have a need, they are a passive reader.

The first thing a reader unconsciously does is glance over the document in soft focus; they aren’t reading the words, they’re quickly judging the balance and layout of the document and, believe it or not, determining their reading strategy or even if they want to read it.  Big blocky paragraphs or long unbroken lists are a turn-off.  Concise sentences, short lists of quick bullets,  consistently used headers, bolding, and alignment formatting suggest an engaging, quick read.

Next, their eyes drift upward to almost the top.  For now they will likely ignore your name and contact information because it isn’t yet relevant.  They don’t care who you are, they want to know what you can do for them.  A passive reader will most often start reading the objective or branding statement.  The hunter will first slide down the left margin looking for something interesting, usually bold text, the first word(s) of sentences, and whatever is on the left side of the page in your career history.  If you lead with the company you worked for rather than your title, your story isn’t told when a hiring manager reads “down.”  Place your job title first, in bold, and hunter-reader has a thumbnail of your job history and a context to see if you can solve his/her problem.

AT THIS POINT, YOUR FIRST IMPRESSION IS COMPLETE.  If you nail it, they will read on; if you don’t they may read but you’ll have a lot of ground to recover.

As the hunter-reader’s eyes drift back to the top, her attention can be “grabbed” by bolded statements with active verbs, or by big dollar numbers or percentages.  If something does snag her, she won’t be reading the document as a whole, she’ll bounce around and read what grabs her fancy.  Do you solve her problem?  If yes, she’ll look over your job history with a bit more attention to confirm her assessment and you get a call; if no, she’s on to the next resume.

The passive reader has a short attention span.  Long sentences won’t be finished, so put your results at the start of the sentence or bullet.  Make everything compelling and brief.  Fluffy language or flabby verbs will be passed over.  He will read just enough to get your story and nothing more.  Passive readers are hard to win an interview from since they don’t have any real need.  BUT, if your resume is successful, they are likely to talk to you if you follow up.  They may or may not have a job for you, but they become a contact in the company.  Curious how to handle that follow up call?  Check back here for the next post.

No matter the kind of reader, first impression is made in the soft scan and the drift down the left side of the page.  Your resume must read powerfully and compellingly “across” and “down.”  How does yours measure up?

Rob Swanson – Managing Writer, Career Services Internation – and Education Career Services,



  1. Fantastic site and would like to receive permission to place an active link on our career services website. What do I need to do to share with my students and fellow peers?

    Comment by Robert — August 7, 2009 @ 8:29 pm

  2. Hello, fellow Robert,

    Thank you! You have our permission and gratitude. Simply add as a link on your site. We highly encourage such links on educational and career sites of all kinds. We look forward to your involvement and comments!

    Rob Swanson

    Comment by careersi — August 7, 2009 @ 8:39 pm

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