Resume Formatting: How to Improve the Visual Appearance of Your Resume

Resume Formatting

Resume formatting includes the way you manipulate text size, fonts, margins and other aspects of the text on the page in order to highlight sections, headings, and information on your resume. Solid formatting is critical to creating a document that conveys your seriousness as a candidate and your overall professionalism.

In addition, formatting can make a big difference in terms of the overall readability of your resume. Ideally, the formatting decisions you make will help highlight the information that show your strong fit for the position you are applying for.

Follow Formatting Instructions

In some cases, you will be given specific guidelines for formatting your resume. This is particularly true if you are submitting your application materials over an online job portal. Instructions may detail file format, margin size, font size, and even word length.

It is imperative that you follow any formatting instructions, otherwise your resume may never even make it past the first stage of review, often performed by a computer. It doesn’t matter how qualified for the job you are if your resume doesn’t make it into the hiring manager’s hands!


In general, when career experts discuss “resume format,” they are referring to the style of resume in terms of the types and order of different sections on your resume. There are three basic resume formats: Reverse chronological, functional, and hybrid styles.

Deciding on the right format is usually a matter of how to best showcase your most important strengths relative to the job you are applying for. To learn more about which format is best for your situation, be sure to read our guide on resume formats here.


When choosing fonts for your resume, it is recommended that you stick to those that are easy to read. The most traditional font for resumes is Times New Roman, which comes standard with virtually any word processing software.

Times New Roman (TNR) is one of the oldest fonts in popular use today. It was standardized in 1929 for use in the newspaper the Times, in London. Because it was originally designed with readability in mind, and because of its extremely popular usage, TNR has an enduring “classic” look that is hard to beat when it comes to professional looking resumes.

That being said, TNR can look a bit “old school.” This is not always an advantage, particularly in highly competitive fields outside the liberal professions (doctors, lawyers, etc.). Many employment sectors, such as marketing, information technology, and education have a little more wiggle room when it comes to selecting resume fonts.

Other popular font choices that bring a slightly more modern look include:

  • Helvetica
  • Arial
  • Calibri
  • Cambria
  • Georgia

When choosing fonts for your resume, be sure they are first and foremost, very easy to read. Font sizes should range between 10-12 for most of the text. Headings can be larger, ranging from 14-16 where needed to add impact.

Secondly, choose one font and stick with it, using bold, sizing, italics, and underlining where necessary to draw attention to section headings. Choosing a single font helps to create a consistent overall look to your resume, adding to the visual sense that you are an organized and clear communicator.


In some countries, it is standard and even required to include an image of yourself on your resume. However, if you are applying for jobs in America, the rule of thumb is to not include an image unless specifically instructed in the job advertisement or application instructions.

Concerned about discrimination lawsuits, most human resource professionals argue that images introduce the potential for race, gender, and age discrimination into the hiring process. As such, some companies make it standard practice to toss resumes with photographs of the applicant before they are reviewed by the hiring team.

The exception to this rule is for jobs such as the performing arts or modeling where it is standard to include a professional image (usually with very specific guidelines) along with other application materials.


In most cases, you should use equal margins on the top, bottom, and sides of your resume. Typically, .75” – 1” is preferred. However, you can go down to .5” if it offers you a significant advantage, such as fitting your resume to a single page rather than having a few lines of text carrying over to the next.


Many people want to know the best resume length to use. However, there is no one-sized-fits-all answer to this common question. A few important context dependent factors will determine the ideal resume length in each case. They include:

Employment Sector: Different types of work have different standards and expectations when it comes to resume length. For example, it is not unusual for academics to write 3-5 page curriculum vitae style resumes that include extensive lists of publications, presentations, and other academic achievements. On the other hand, if you try to submit a 5-page resume for an entry level marketing job, it probably won’t even get reviewed.

Experience Level: The further you go in your career, the more experience you have to boast about on your resume. On the other hand, if you are applying to your first or second job, a single page may be enough to adequately convey your skills and work history.

Fit for the Job: The most important determination of the length of your resume should be to use the space you need to convey your most relevant qualifications, skills, experience, and talents for the exact job you are applying for. This may mean that for one job, you may only have a single page, while for another job, you may need 2 pages, depending on your relevant qualifications.

Avoid Fillers: It is important to edit your resume to delete irrelevant details that the hiring manager for the job you are applying for doesn’t care about. In addition, avoid duplication, using synonyms where possible. If you find yourself repeating the same skills over and over in your job history section, consider adding a Summary of Skills section to say them only once, at the top of your resume where they will get noticed.

File Format

The last formatting consideration when it comes to your resume is the file format you use. Increasingly, it is standard practice to submit your resume via an online job portal or even email. Many times, automated Applicant Tracking Systems will be used to screen the applicant pool and decide which candidates will make it through to human review from the hiring team.

It is vital that you use the file formats specified in the application instructions so that your resume can be scanned, otherwise it may go right in the discard pile. In some cases, you may need to paste your resume into a .txt file format. Note that it will take some time to adjust the text to look organized in this minimalistic form.

If a file format is not specified, use .doc or .docx files which are usually handled well by such systems.

If you are emailing your resume, then .pdf is usually the preferred option because it absolutely locks all of your visual elements in place, ensuring that it will be read the way you designed it to be read.

Resume Layout

Regardless of which resume format you use, the proper layout will help to convey professionalism. A resume layout refers to the space that you devote to each section of your resume and how you make use of the total area on the page.

Although layout can take on practically infinite different forms, use the following principles to make sure your resume format is working in your favor.

Balance Negative Space

Artists learn very early in their training that negative space, that is, all parts of the canvas that are not devoted to the primary subject of the painting, is just as important as the subject itself.

In terms of your resume, negative space is actually all of the space other than the textual and design elements of your resume. For example, if you print your resume on a white sheet of paper, the white parts make up the negative space.

The easiest way to get a good look at the negative space on your resume is to print it out and place it 3-6 feet away, enough so that you can no longer read the words on the page. What you are looking for here is a sense of balance.

Is there too much negative space in the upper right corner or bottom half of your resume? Does it look completely lopsided, as if the text is ready to teeter off the edge and spill over? If so, consider moving text and sections around so that they create a more balanced look with the negative space evenly distributed between each section and on the page overall.

Carefully Choose Design Elements

Design elements are ways to make the layout of your resume pop. When deciding which design elements to include it is important that you contribute to the overall balance of your resume, bring a consistent visual theme to the page, and add clarity, not confusion.

In addition, every design element should draw attention to your most important qualifications. If a design element does not achieve that goal, you should probably do without it.

Design elements that almost all resumes will make use of include:

  • Bullet lists which allow the reader to skim through dense information quickly.
  • 3-5 sections to organize the information on your resume into clear categories.
  • Bold and underlined text to make section headings pop.
  • Standard fonts that are easy to read, in sizes 10-12 for main text, 14-16 for section headers.

Optional design elements include:

  • Light use of boxes and shading to highlight sections.
  • Icons, for example, to accompany your skills section.
  • Infographics, to highlight quantitative information, such as quarterly sales figures.
  • Color, best reserved for printed versions of your generic resume to hand out at job fairs or other networking events.

When in doubt, particularly if you lack design experience and the jobs you are applying for do not require creative skills, go with a more traditional design that focuses on text that is neat, balanced, and well ordered. Or, use a professionally designed resume template to take advantage of the skills of professional resume designers.

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