Expert job search advice.

What Is the Best Professional Resume Format?

Let’s say you’re vying for an executive-level position. You’ve taken all the steps to scour for relevant keywords for a particular position (tying them into your experience), including pertinent testimonials or client feedback where applicable, and, most importantly, included hard-hitting metrics to tell your career story. But you’re using an out-of-date resume template from your college years, and it’s four pages long. There are so many templates, from artsy to the basic Word document, that you are still determining what will work in your favor. How should you format your professional resume to showcase your skills best and support your candidacy?

How To Choose the Right Professional Resume Format

“If you’re applying to roles that are directly aligned with your industry and experience, use the traditional resume format,” says Rachel Wells in Forbes. “If you have little to no experience or have gaps in career history, use the functional resume, but with extreme caution and care.”

Wells also notes that, in general, the most preferred option is to use a combination resume, as it’s easy to scan, demonstrates consistency and a solid work background, and bridges the gap between where you are now and where you want to be in your career.

To help decide if you need a functional resume, here are some pointers: 

  • Are you changing careers? The functional resume could help emphasize transferable skills rather than specific work experiences.
  • As Wells stated, this type of resume is also helpful if you have employment gaps and want to direct attention away from the chronological timeline.
  • Lastly, if your key selling points are skills and accomplishments rather than your career progression, this format might be the way to go. 

It’s important to note that while functional resumes can be effective in certain situations, some employers prefer the traditional chronological format. Recruiters and hiring managers often find it easier to follow a candidate’s career progression in a chronological resume. Always consider the job and industry requirements before choosing a functional resume format.

Another type of professional resume is the traditional resume (or the chronological resume). This widely used format presents your work experience in reverse chronological order, starting with your most recent or current position and working backward. The traditional resume emphasizes a clear and linear career progression, making it easy for employers to see your work history and track your professional development.

If you have a clear career progression, standard industry expectations (industries where a chronological work history is the standard or where employers prefer a straightforward presentation), or if you are in a conservative or formal profession (law, finance, academia, etc.), you may opt for a traditional resume format. 

Building a Professional Functional Resume

The functional resume can be helpful if you have a diverse work history, as the format allows you to draw attention to transferable skills and accomplishments rather than specific industries or roles. It also de-emphasizes irrelevant roles and is advantageous because the format will enable you to organize your skills neatly.   

Regarding organizing skills, the functional resume categorizes shared skills under various headings, such as management/supervisory skills, technical skills, sales skills, or scientific skills. Work history is typically placed toward the bottom of the resume, while details about education, certifications, and special skills come toward the end.

If you have decided that the functional resume is the best choice, here are the Key features to include:

  • Skills-based sections: Instead of a chronological list of work experiences, start your functional resume with sections highlighting specific skills, such as “Leadership Skills,” “Project Management,” or “Technical Proficiencies.”
  • Professional summary: Provide a professional summary at the beginning of the resume with a brief overview of your qualifications, skills, and career goals.
  • Relevant achievements: Rather than detailing your work history chronologically, focus on specific achievements and experiences demonstrating your capabilities.

Remember, the functional resume is customizable for specific job targets. You can highlight the skills most relevant to the job you’re applying for, making it easier for employers to identify your qualifications quickly.

Building a Professional Traditional Resume

You may have opted for the traditional resume, as it is usually easier to follow for the reader. As long as your career story fits the needs of this resume design, it is a great template to follow to elevate your professional journey. 

Creating a traditional resume involves several vital steps to ensure it effectively showcases your work history, skills, and qualifications. 

Here are the step-by-step components to include:

  • Contact information: Include your full name, phone number, email address, and LinkedIn profile (if applicable). Ensure this information is visible at the top of the resume.
  • Resume summary or objective: Write a concise summary or objective that provides a snapshot of your professional background, skills, and career goals, and tailor this section to the specific job you’re applying for.
  • Professional experience: List your work experiences in reverse-chronological order (most recent first). Include the company’s name, job title, employment dates, and a brief description of your key responsibilities and achievements. Use action verbs and quantify achievements where possible.
  • Education: Detail your educational background, including the name of the institution, degree earned, graduation date, and relevant honors or achievements.
  • Skills: Create a dedicated section listing your critical skills. Divide them into categories such as technical skills, soft skills, or industry-specific skills. Make sure to tailor this section to align with the requirements of the job.
  • Certifications and training: If applicable, include a section highlighting relevant certifications, licenses, or training programs you have completed. 

In addition to these elements, it may be worth considering (depending on the job) adding sections for projects, publications, volunteer work, or memberships in professional organizations.

Remember, a traditional resume provides a clear and structured overview of your professional history. Tailor it to showcase your strengths and align with the expectations of the industry and job you’re targeting.

How To Approach Professional Resume Design and Format

It can be tempting to use an abstract, colorful resume or to include your new professional headshot on your resume. But will doing either of these things benefit your application? As with most answers, the rule of thumb is, “It depends.” 

In some countries and industries, including a professional photo may be typical. However, in others, it’s advised to omit it to avoid potential bias.

Above all, you’ll want to ensure the content can shine on its own while adhering to a consistent font scheme and document format. With this in mind, tread lightly on heavy design elements and confusing layouts, as they tend to draw attention away from the purpose of the resume — your professional story. 

For professional, traditional resumes, you should err toward a clean and professional design with legible fonts while maintaining consistent formatting for headings, bullet points, and dates. It’s also a good idea to keep the resume length to one or two pages, focusing on the most relevant information. If you have an extensive work history, you may need to cut roles you had just out of college or from over ten years ago. 

Make sure to save your resume as a PDF or Word document to ensure compatibility with different systems, and use a professional file name that includes your name and the word “resume.”

Ultimately, the best resume is the one that lets your career history, unique skills, and experience shine — while taking into account the type of professional career you have.