Résumé secrets from a former recruiter

Specific detail in the right places can help you win the job.
By Shilpa Nayyar

Though the job market is hot for accountants right now, you'll still have a better chance of getting a job with a specific employer if you stand out from the competition. To do so, you need to ensure that the three most important parts of your résumé — your professional summary, skills section, and experience section — sell you as the strongest contender for the job.

Often, though, candidates make the same mistakes on these vital sections. In a previous job as a finance recruiter for an international recruitment agency, I read thousands of résumés, and I saw certain recurring mistakes. Here's my advice for avoiding common errors and making your résumé strong and compelling:

  • Make sure your professional summary is brief and engaging.

    The professional summary is the section that determines whether employers and recruiters will read the rest of your résumé. Many of my clients' professional summaries are too long, too dull, or both.

    Think of your professional summary as your elevator pitch: it needs to be short, snappy, and compelling to entice the reader to want to know more about you. Your professional summary needs to convey four things:

    • Who you are
    • Your areas of expertise
    • What you've achieved
    • What opportunities you are interested in (make sure this is appropriate to each job you are applying for).

    If you are open to relocating, you should include a sentence to that effect in your professional summary. Anything else beyond the four points mentioned above doesn't need to be in this section. Your professional summary should be between three and four lines long.

    Here is an example of a professional summary that meets all the above requirements:

    An accomplished CPA with 10 years' experience working for government. Areas of expertise include tax audits and compliance. Possesses a proven track record of success in undertaking highly complex wide-scale tax audits with strict deadlines. Actively seeking a CPA role with managerial duties in the Tampa, FL area.

  • Optimize your résumé for applicant tracking systems.

    Many recruiters and employers use applicant tracking systems (ATS) to source candidates. These tools filter résumés by keywords and present recruiters with the most relevant ones — meaning that, if your résumé doesn't have the right keywords, recruiters might not ever see it. The skills section of your résumé is often the best place to include such keywords.

    Note that the skills section can include soft skills as well as technical skills. I suggest having a skills section that contains a mixture of hard and soft skills.

    Some of the most relevant keywords for CPAs include:

    • Financial accounting
    • Financial analysis
    • Business planning and financial projections
    • Auditing and review
    • Tax preparation
    • Problem solving
    • Communication
    • Attention to detail.

    To find out more keywords that accounting employers look for, simply read their job postings. If job advertisements frequently mention words such as "stakeholder management" or "taxation," then these are likely to be keywords employers search when they are sourcing candidates.

    Also, ensure that your keywords are naturally distributed within your résumé and that you aren't including keywords just to be recognized by the ATS, as recruiters can tell if you have tried to stuff your résumé with keywords.

  • Provide sufficient detail when listing skills and job duties.

    Avoid simply listing your skills. Most people think they have good time management or critical thinking abilities, so it's best if you can back up each statement with proof. Give concrete examples of how you've demonstrated each skill.

    Also, don't simply list your job duties. Give employers a more in-depth understanding of what you have done, how you have done it, and what skills you used. If you faced any particular challenges in carrying out your responsibilities, you should mention this as well. For example:

    Successfully led the preparation for an extensive audit within a 2-month deadline; prepared detailed financial statements, reports, and accounts and liaised with cross-functional teams

  • Be sure to include your accomplishments.

    Employers and recruiters love candidates who can show that they have gone beyond what was expected of them. Think about the jobs you have held and when you have gone the extra mile. Consider the following list. You may have:

    • Improved operations/systems
    • Undertaken a particularly complex financial or compliance audit
    • Saved an employer money
    • Utilized a particular skill to achieve a goal (examples of skills used could be leadership, strategic planning, or analytical abilities)
    • Identified and/or resolved accounting discrepancies
    • Developed or improved financial controls.

    Make sure that instead of just mentioning an achievement, you explain exactly how you achieved the outcome, so employers will know how you contributed. Aim to mention accomplishments for each of the jobs you have held, as this will portray you as someone who consistently goes the extra mile. Also, try to include numerical data when possible.

    Below is a good description of an achievement:

    Saved a client $100,000 by providing commercial and pragmatic advice that took into account recent developments in tax laws.

Your résumé is a marketing document, there to sell you in the best possible light. The best way to do this is to effectively convey what value you add to teams and organizations. Following these tips will stand you in good stead and help you get interview invites for the organizations you specifically want to work for.

Shilpa Nayyar is a former recruiter turned résumé writer based in the UK. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, a JofA senior editor, at

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