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After 2,000 resumes my eyes burn

My startup has been hiring lately. Over the past year, I’ve read close to 2,000 resumes.

Most of that was in the span of a couple weeks, first at the beginning of the year, and now at the end of the year.

Going through that many resumes in that short of a time left some impressions on me, and that’s what I’m going to share with you.

How do you stand out among a pool of 2,000 applicants? What does the person reading the resume actually care about, and what do they discard without a second thought?

The purpose of a resume

Resumes, or résumés, but probably not resumés, and possibly CV—why write one at all? When applying for a job, its purpose is to get you to the next step of the interview, nothing else. It shows what you can offer the company, before they give an offer to you. It shows why they should pick you out of the other 2,000 applicants. With these kind of stakes, you can’t afford a single line of nonsense in your resume.

Anything that helps you get to the next stage of the interview process stays in, and anything that could hurt you stays out.

Habits of the resume reader

What kind of habits does someone who has to go through 2,000 resumes fall into? When I open that screen, I think to myself, dear god, I have to get through another 100. How can I power through this?

I certainly get good at clicking things in the applicant tracking system that we use. That goes to show how boring it can get and how optimized it becomes.

To give some context, here’s how our job application looks like. It’s simple, with a few questions. We ask for a name, so we know what to call you, email, so we know how to contact you, a resume, and we give you a space to write anything you want.

It’s not full of questions like you may have once filled out when applying to a big corporation. We I hardly have time to glance at the name and resume, let alone sift through additional questions.

Not that they’re bad, in fact next time around I may just do that instead of a resume, but it would be too much information for this first round along with the resume.

One benefit of only requiring the resume is that it forces people to include all the links to relevant profiles on their resume, if they so choose. It also doesn’t force anything. It’s the best of both.

There are a few circumstantial factors that automatically give people a plus. For example, since many of our applicants are about to graduate from university, graduation dates that align with our needs are a plus. These kinds of things are simply out of your control as a job applicant.

Also, my company was hiring for engineering positions. Take everything with a grain of salt for non-engineering positions, though I would imagine most of it still applies.

What matters in a resume

Alright, here’s what you actually came for.

This is what matters in the five seconds I give myself to make a decision.

In no particular order, here’s what has a high chance of passing the initial resume screen.

  • Neatly formatted resumes with proper spelling and grammar (what the neat formatting comes down to is making it easy to locate decision-causing information at a glance)
  • Good grades
  • A previous school or company with a good reputation
  • A clear value proposition of what the candidate can offer the company

Went to a no name school? No problem. There’s one thing that surpasses everything else by magnitudes.

Just show that you can solve a dire problem that the company faces. That’s it.

As an early stage startup, my company has a lot, and without too much effort you can find them and then show what you can bring to the table to alleviate our problems.

There’s also one more approach.

If you have tremendously relevant and extensive experience for what we’re hiring for, in the field we’re hiring in, then there’s a good chance not much else matters.

Again, this is just for passing the resume screen.

Without those, though, I have to fall back to looking for “Harvard” and “4.0”, and hopefully both, because as I said there is very limited time for one person to look through 2,000 resumes, and even less time to do the process all over again before our startup runs out of runway.

I don’t even need a resume, just write a few lines on the problem and how you are uniquely qualified to solve it apart from the 2,000 other candidates.

That’s all you need to get to the next step.

What it’s not

It’s not a dating profile. It’s not an autobiography. It’s not a comprehensive history of every job you’ve had. Though, there are some cultural differences at play. I’ve seen resumes from many countries, and some don’t fit my expectations, but I am not too familiar with the work cultures there, so I can’t comment much.

Don’t do these things

Here are some things that give you a high chance of immediate rejection.

  • Putting anything that works against you
  • Putting every job you’ve ever had
  • Listing out university courses (this is automatically not unique since more people than just you took the class)
  • Listing out every technology you’ve ever worked with

There are a few things to say about the last one. The position we’re hiring for is a software engineer. I’ve seen resumes that list out different subcommands of CLI tools. Yes, they’ve gone that far. I would even say to not bother listing out technologies, apart from a few things that are very relevant.

Why? A lot of times, this works against you unintentionally. For example, someone that applies to a full-stack (web) developer position, but has nothing but C++ and C on their resume, is headed for an immediate reject, because I don’t have time to gamble. The same person, had they not listed those but rather focused on what they can bring to the table in a more abstract sense, would have passed.

Do this small thing

Unlike some advice, please do put hobbies and other things that make you a fun person to work with, especially if they are hobbies that require skill and effort to build up, because if you can master one technical skill, you can probably do the same for another.

Know the company you’re applying to

Those that mention even one thing that shows they took one minute to look and understand what we do, they are already in the top 5%.

Present yourself

Having your own website and good online presence will skyrocket you to 1%, not kidding. Just putting a picture of yourself on your GitHub profile is more than what most people do. This is because it shows you went out of your way to do something that you don’t have to do, but would be nice. This kind of behavior compounds a lot when actually on the job.

Other things you shouldn’t do

Don’t apply to irrelevant jobs. If you apply to a non-ML startup, your 30 academic publications actually work against you. You can still apply, just don’t list things that work against you, as my goal when going through is to see one red flag and reject, because I know there are many more applicants and I can handle a few false negatives.

Also, don’t somehow bypass our required resume upload?


Use proper spelling, grammar, a good typeface, and good formatting (easy).

List only the most relevant things you can offer this company or team/position you’re applying to (medium, because you need to do extra research).

Do things that “build up your resume” before you even sit down to write it (hard, so you better get started).

Do apply for things you don’t exactly qualify for, just don’t let your resume show it, of course.