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Writing a picture

November 22, 2012

Photo by Nadir Siddiqui/

If your resume be your first impression to a potential employer or collaborator, many of you leave a bad first impression. If your resume be the story of your life, a large majority of you present it as an uninteresting and uninspiring script written in poor English.

Things happen. People get picked for reasons other than those required in the advert. People less qualified or less competent get hired or promoted over you. People use unfair means to get favourable results. People give and accept favours … it happens everywhere in the world; which is not by way of a justification; more like an explanation. Human beings do what they do in the ways available to them, wherever they are. But it doesn’t happen very often to those seeking ‘the job’.

There are jobs out there for the ‘I can do anything’ types both in the public and private sector. They do not require specific skills or knowledge, nor do they offer unusual rewards or promise upward mobility. People go for such jobs for reasons best known to them, but those involved in the hiring of ‘unskilled’ workers – people who will have to be trained and tweaked into disciplined employees who do as they are told and do it cheerfully  – feel within their ethics to let personal like or dislike reflect in their decisions. If all the applicants for a general purpose vacancy are university graduates, all are between 20 and 30 years old, half are men and half women, and none has relevant experience, why can’t I pick them on the basis of the colour they are wearing? Or their manners, or style? Or pick the friend of my brother-in-law?

But that’s not the kind of job we want for our Pappu, do we? Pappu has done some soul and internet searching to decide on ‘the job’ which requires specific knowledge, skill, talent, or a combination of these. This kind of job was best described to me by a young woman I was interviewing for a trainee journalist’s position. ‘Do you have any questions?’ I asked her at the end. She looked me squarely in the eyes, slid forward in her chair, and spoke to me in earnestness: ‘Is this an officer’s position? Because if it’s not, I take my application back’.

So to borrow the expression from her, what we are talking about here is the officer position – a job to which you bring something and which enriches you in exchange. Employers and hiring managers for such vacancies will only miss out on the best candidate at their own cost. They spend expensive man hours and utilise prime media space to attract the ‘right kind’. If they reject you, chances are they do it for their benefit rather than your loss. You failed to make them see the benefit of having you.

For every private sector job advertised in mass media the number of applicants ranges from a few scores to several thousands, depending on the package of salary and benefits. Handling large numbers of applications is however, a breeze for the human resource managers because the bad resumes are very obviously bad and the few good ones jump out of the pile. The two types of resumes do their gigs again with the hiring manager who prepares the shortlist for an interview or tests. By this stage no candidate is any closer to clinching the job but 90 per cent of the applicants have already failed. Failed on the basis of a piece of paper that is understood to have been authored by them.

Get it, your chance of getting employment is not only linked to fiscal policies, technical and vocational education, global economy, a culture of sifarish and parchi … the works. You have no control over them; if you are in Pakistan you don’t even have control over your formal education. But if you have answered an advertisement then all that is besides the point and the only factor that determines your success or failure at this stage is your resume.

Here are some of the do’s and don’ts of telling your own story on paper:

Apple A, Apple C, Apple V

It doesn’t require a lot of intellectual effort or technical wizardry to select the text, cut or copy it, and paste it elsewhere. And yet this is all some applicants are capable of. They import a resume, put their name, address and dates and send it off as their own bio data. They get caught every time … because they are all copying from the same set of templates that is in circulation since the birth of digital word processors. And also because they read and feel old, cold, random and dodgy. A copied resume is not worth the fraction of a second of a hiring manager’s time that it takes him or her to press ‘delete’ because they are looking for ‘you’ and you are nowhere in the document.

The format

Except for a very few, specialised fields and select employers, there is no concept of a standard shape and size of a resume. You need to write enough to introduce yourself and spell out the qualities you bring to the organisation with respect to the advertised job, and present it in a simple and interesting manner. If you manage it on one page or take up all of three, is immaterial. A resume longer than three pages is, however, as likely to impress as tire the reader.

Do look at the formats in circulation, but design your own. Take whatever elements you need and discard those with less or no relevance to your first introduction with your prospective employer. Put them in the order that you see fit rather than following a set pattern. I don’t really need to know your place of birth and I don’t care what your marital status or religion is. Your computerised ID card may be a prized possession for you but I don’t need its number at this point. Why volunteer information of personal nature to total strangers without any assurance of discretion from them? And yet, this is the only information in every pappu’s resume that is never missing.

You may choose the narrative form with or without bullet points; first or third person; and stylised headlines or understated captions … whatever helps you tell who you are and how you can be the person to fill the advertised position.

The objective

If there is one objective clear in the minds of both the sender and the receiver of the resume, it is the applicant’s desire to be considered for a specific job. And yet the stated objective right on top of every resume says anything but. There are words like professionalism, challenge, opportunity, dynamic, advancement … tossed around in no particular order, and making no sense at all. If you have an original objective and you can express it effectively, do include it otherwise skip this step.


If the word ‘innovation’ brings to your mind fancy images on your resume or the file saved in a format the HR person handling your application is not familiar with, stop right here. Innovate in the delivery of your purpose. Be clear about your purpose, and how to word it. Your purpose is self-serving. The employer’s purpose is self-serving too. But since he is paying, you need to put in words how your pursuit of your own purpose benefits his purpose. That’s all your resume is expected to achieve. And for this reason, a resume should not be used more than once. Each has to respond to a set of requirements and therefore, has to be written afresh.

Language is a curse for an average educated Pakistani. They can speak a bit of Urdu, a bit of English and a bit of their mother tongue if it’s different. They cannot speak, much less write, or even think fluently in any one language. This is also because they are not used to reading, in any language. Poor as it may be, but language is the only means of communication among human beings. Your objective is to paint a picture of yourself in words, and if you realise language is a hurdle, change the language not your picture.

There is no regulation that stops you from writing your resume in Urdu. What you write is important, language isn’t. Whatever job you end up with, there will be people around you who pretend to be bad at Urdu, to let you assume English is their main language. You can always beat them by pretending that you are bad at both Urdu and English because you grew up in South Africa. And then you can have easy conversations with them, in Urdu.

English is our national weakness. And it is so not because it is a difficult language, but because we are averse to learning. Whatever the advantages of learning English have been taught to us from the time of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, have failed to inspire us. If I can manage my daily routines, that’s enough of English I need to know. Why go to school to learn it? Here, you are writing your life script. Figure out what language you know best, be prepared that the answer could be other than English, and look for someone with an authority over that language to second-read your resume.

The street pappus think it’s unfair to be just out of university and straight into the world they are completely unprepared for. Guess what pappus, the world around you is just as unprepared for you. If you are not getting clear terms of reference from around you, create your own document and keep it alive, always evolving. Your resume.


Masud Alam is an Islamabad-based writer, columnist and journalism trainer. He can be reached at


The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.