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To Tell the Truth

By Martin Lieberman

You must tell the truth when you're writing a cover letter or resume. But if your experience is no different from your competitors, how do you make your resume stand out from the rest? We like to call it "spin control". Follow this advice for selling yourself on paper.

You never know the sense of humor of the person reading your resume. If that person is real stodgy, they could take offense. - Doris Appelbaum, resume expert

We're not going to lie to you: telling the truth on your resume is not optional. Many companies have policies that forbid factual inaccuracies on job applications, and some managers will fire you years later if they discover something is wrong, even if you've been a devoted and hardworking employee. But if you're competing for a job against hundreds of other applicants with similar backgrounds and experiences, how do you make your resume stand out from the rest without telling a lie?

Spin control
One key to make your resume distinctive is to focus on what you accomplished in your previous positions, rather than just listing the jobs you've had. "People have a habit of focusing solely on their educational background and the positions they have held," says Geetha Ramamurthy, who owned and ran G. Ram, Inc., a virtual accounting and IT staffing firm. "But what we are looking for as employers is how well they would fit into the company in a day-to-day situation. People need to identify themselves as problem solvers and positive contributors to companies, rather than just telling us where they've worked."

To get yourself into the right mindset before you write your resume, sit down and think about three things: what you did on your last job, what skills you needed to do that job, and what you accomplished in your position. Try to make your accomplishments as concrete as possible, by putting numbers or percentages to what you've done. But don't even think of embellishing your accomplishments. If you only raised sales by 30 percent, don't double that number, for example.

While lying is unacceptable, "spin" can be okay. If applied sparingly, spin can help you present a past job in the best possible light. 

Think about your employment history and how you can present it to maximum effect. If you have an undesirable chronology of employment -- too many jobs in too short a time, or a long period of unemployment -- arrange the information so it highlights your deeds, not the dates.

And there is some room for creativity in even the most honest of resumes: in the layout. For example, if you're applying for an artistic position, such as a graphic designer, treat your resume like it's a sample piece in your portfolio and make it look nice.

It's familiar advice, but if you really want your resume to stand out in the pool, just be yourself. "By looking at what projects a person has held and how he accomplished those projects, that's what tells me whether this person is creative, special, or just an ordinary guy," Ramamurthy says.

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