A version of this post originally appeared on Tedium, a twice-weekly newsletter that hunts for the end of the long tail.
Is there anything more nerve-wracking than having to sell yourself to a prospective employer?
They don’t know you. You don’t know them. And much of the pressure of making sure that connection makes sense too often falls on the individual rather than the potential employer.
At the center of this is the résumé, a document sent to potential employers, often with a customized cover letter, that explains who you are, what you’re doing, and the references you’ve gained over the years.
But where did this approach come from, and why are job applicants seemingly slaves to this dog and pony show?
Let’s look into the history of the résumé—and analyze whether they even make sense anymore.
“Having now sufficiently seen and considered the achievements of all those who count themselves masters and artificers of instruments of war, and having noted that the invention and performance of the said instruments is in no way different from that in common usage, I shall endeavour, while intending no discredit to anyone else, to make myself understood to Your Excellency for the purpose of unfolding to you my secrets, and thereafter offering them at your complete disposal, and when the time is right bringing into effective operation all those things which are in part briefly listed below.”
— Leonardo da Vinci, in a famous letter to Ludovico Sforza, then the duke of Milan and also known as Ludovico il Moro, offering his services to the Lord. This letter, featured in full on the excellent site Letters of Note, is often cited as the first résumé or cover letter. (Some, however, cite the letters sent to guilds in the Middle Ages.) While not as sharply structured as a modern résumé, it shares much in common with the application letter, a common structural element used for job applications hundreds of years later.
Before the world of employment became obsessed with the résumé, we called them application letters
The business world is defined by its ever-changing terminology, and one sign of this is that we used to rely on a far more straightforward term to describe what a résumé effectively does.
For decades, we called them “letters of application,” or “application letters.” Written about in business correspondence books of different kinds throughout the late 19th and early 20th century, the documents slowly evolved in level of formality, and were reliant on recommendation letters from prior employers. In the 1883 book The Universal Self-Instructor, a general reference manual, it’s portrayed as serving a similar role to a simple cover letter. An example from the book, for an apprenticeship:
GEORGE S. GORDON, Esq.:
I beg to apply for the situation mentioned in the above advertisement, clipped from today’s Morning Post. I have been employed for the last four months in the foundry of Wheeler & Co., where I was bound apprentice. The recent failure of that concern and closing of the foundry has caused the canceling of my articles, and I am now anxious to obtain work elsewhere. I am permitted to refer to Mr. Charles Wheeler and Mr. Edwin Hoyt.
Hoping that you will be willing to take me on trial, I remain,
SAMUEL HENDERSON, 220 Main Street.
This type of letter would appear in books about “business correspondence,” which were a form of reference book for their day. While many books of this nature appeared throughout the first half of the 20th century, they were not written around the résumé, as many later books were.
This type of cover letter-like thing, once handwritten, eventually became more formalized with the addition of the typewriter, which allowed for some rudimentary organizing through the use of indents and tab stops. The approach became more rigid over time, the realm of bullet points and horizontal lines.
The application letter is essentially a sales letter. It is the means by which a person seeking employment attempts to market his training, his experience, and his personality. He who is successful in selling his services by letter is usually the one who has thoroughly analyzed every essential detail that goes into the writing of an application.
But the interesting thing is that the résumé, as the application letter came to be called, eventually evolved into a much more important form of business correspondence than anything else … at least for a while.
“While a résumé alone almost never earns a job for a person, a good one often serves as the deciding factor in obtaining the all-important interview.”
— Jill Smolowe, a The New York Times contributor, discussing the nature of the résumé in a 1979 article for the paper, written as part of a “Careers in the ’80s” insert, that in many ways seems to be written to introduce the concept to readers.
How the application letter evolved into the résumé
If you walk into any bookstore or library in the world, you’re going to see dozens, possibly even hundreds of books about how to write a good résumé, how to structure it in a way that maximizes what you do best—complete with a great cover letter and a minimal number of typos. Many will tell you to keep things under a page if you’re not above a certain age range; others will tell you that there’s nothing worse for making a first impression than a misplaced comma or repeated word.
But one thing that you likely will not find is a book that explains how to make a résumé that dates before 1970 or so. (Probably the first book on the topic with any long-lasting authority is Richard Bolles’ long-running What Color is Your Parachute? series, a self-help book that discourages the use of spray-and-pray tactics.) Most of them will date to 1980 or beyond, in fact.
While both the résumé and the curriculum vitae existed before then and were frequently asked for in want ads as early as the late 1940s in some professional fields, something appears to have changed in their role starting in the late 1970s and early 1980s—around the time when many service-oriented fields first gained prominence—in which the résumé, particularly in North America, turned into a de facto requirement when applying for most new jobs.
Companies started treating humans as resources around this time, and many workers traded in their blue collars for white ones. It was a big shift, and the résumé was in the middle of it.
Why the name change, though? There are a lot of reasons why “résumé” won out over “application letter,” but I think one of the biggest might come from the education field of the era. The U.S. Department of Education’s Education Resources Information Center launched in 1965, and early in its life, relied on the terminology “document resume” to refer to its bibliographic entries. This information reached schools through documents produced by the Education Department, and my theory is that the influence of this material on educators might just have touched the business world, too.
The shifting nature of work also made the need for more personalized applications more necessary. A 1962 book, Analyzing the Application for Employment, noted the overly complex nature of fill-in-the-blank application forms, and that they would often take hours for prospective employees to fill out. In the book, author Irwin Smalheiser of Personnel Associates highlights an example of one such person stuck dealing with complex application processes:
One man we know, who perpetually seems to be looking for work, has devised a neat system for coping with the application blanks he encounters. He has taken the time to complete a detailed summary of his work history which he carries in his wallet. When he is asked to fill out the company application form, he simply copies the pertinent dates and names of the companies for which he worked.
In many ways, a résumé solves this problem. While some level of modification comes with each specific job, you often can reuse it again and again without having to repeat your work—no need to repeat your references for every job opening, but a cover letter refresh might be helpful. Sure, job applications stuck around for lower-end jobs, like fast food, but the résumé stuck around nearly everywhere else.
In a slower world, it was the best tool we had for applying for a new job. The problem is, the world got faster—and the model began to show its flaws.
Five factors that made the résumé a more prominent part of workplace life in the ’80s and ’90s
- Culture. With a growing number of companies able to compete on a regional, national, or even global scale, this created additional complexity that facilitated the need for new types of hiring and employee management practices. Starting in the late 1970s, the field of personnel administration took on the name human resources management (HRM), and the role became a more significant element of many companies.
- Regulations. The 1965 creation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the U.S.—part of a general movement against workplace discrimination—along with regulations on issues such as safety, created a need for a more objective approach to hiring. This played into the need for human resources departments to ensure that the company was an equal opportunity employer.
- Technology. Sure, typewriters were nothing new, but access to them, along with the then-new computer and the growing ubiquity of the copying machine, made it easier for people to apply for multiple jobs at once. It was simply easier to apply for a job through the mail than it was to fill out an application form. (And when we got the internet, some of the earliest digital hubs, such as the free web host Tripod, offered résumé writing and job-hunting services to their users. And that was years before LinkedIn.) And when graphical interfaces and word processors became a thing, the first experience many people got with word processing software such as Microsoft Word was in modifying a cover letter template.
- Economy. In many ways, the rise of the résumé reflected a shifting role of the employee in an economy built around white collar work. “Indeed—a point to be stressed—HRM in most companies was and is primarily concerned with managers and white-collar employees, not blue-collar workers,” George Strauss, of UC Berkeley’s Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, wrote in 1991. The résumé, for better or for worse, shifted the burden of hiring onto the employee in most cases, particularly during economic dry spells.
- Publishing. I wouldn’t put it in the same category as “going viral,” but the business press had a major surge in presence during the 1980s and 1990s, with the nearly century-old Harvard Business Review being rethought for general audiences, old-guard magazines like BusinessWeek and Fortune reaching the peak of their influence, and newer players like Inc. and Fast Company gaining readership. Likewise, reference and resource books targeting business audiences—especially those about how to get a job—had a real moment around this time. The combined result likely helped reinforce the résumé’s role in the business world.
Does the résumé really work anymore? Maybe not.
When I wrote about my desire to research the history of the résumé on Twitter the other day, something interesting and surprising happened: The result attracted a few business types that complained about the ineffectiveness of this tool and the problems it surfaced along the way.
Initially, this bothered me, because it seemed like it was getting away from my main reason for researching this history. But having thought about it some, it makes sense—it hints at the fact that we’re stuck with this outdated research tool, that nobody seems to be happy with, because it fails in a lot of subtle ways.
For all its success in the 1980s and 1990s, the rise of the résumé creates brand new issues.
While they generally do not include photographs, they can allow for latent discrimination, as prospective employers can judge a worker’s eligibility not on the quality of their work or their potential for success, but their implied background. Even a name is enough to throw off a potential employer.
Then there’s the ease of being able to make stuff up, something that has caught up some big-name companies over the years—most famously Yahoo, who lost a CEO, Scott Thompson, after it was revealed he lied about his education.
There’s also the factor of investment: It's often a game of who has the most polished result, not who has the most qualifications. Around 1988, Reagan administration White House staffers ran to professional resume-writing firms to get a layer of slick polish to their job history in an effort to get hired on with then-President George H.W. Bush. Good for them, and anyone else who can pay a lot of money for a professional resume rewrite—but what about people who don’t have the resources to play that game?
And as with things like standardized testing, they put a focus on surface issues that will not correctly tell the story of a person’s true potential. In many ways, work experience matters less in a world where modern technical skills won’t stay the same even five years after the fact.
Too often, many experts note, they focus on the wrong things. Speaking to Fast Company, Carisa Miklusak of the algorithmic hiring firm tilr notes that prior experience matters far less than current abilities and skill set. As a result, results have been pushed off to the side quite often.
“Employers are interested in skills and the results someone can generate, rather than titles or previous employment,” Miklusak told the magazine. “Focusing on skills provides a fuller understanding of the candidate’s experience and capabilities, and opens up more opportunities.”
Some of the most recent startups in the employment space largely eschew the résumé approach entirely. Triplebyte, for example, offers a really challenging quiz intended to find the best technical employees out there for equally technical jobs, leaning on a skill-based referral over a good cover letter in helping to fill a potential dream job. Likewise, other parts of the tech economy are leaning on abilities over degrees.
Is that strategy going to play out long-term? Who knows. But let’s just say that the CV, or whatever you call it, is really starting to show its age.
Building a good résumé is often a challenge, because the rules keep changing.
As a designer, it was only one part of my portfolio, and I had to combine everything together, cover letter and all, while making it look well-designed and clever. That often meant it was a little less straightforward, because that was the field I was competing in. (No templates here.) As the web came into play, that portfolio needed a digital element. And it also needed to live in other contexts.
As a job seeker I had a pretty decent track record, barring that time I interviewed at a newspaper on the day Pope John Paul II died. (That’s not made up. It was an odd situation that probably cost me a job, but one I don’t blame on the newspaper itself. Plus, it earned me an opportunity at an equally good job a couple of months later.)
For a while, I would update my résumé and portfolio every year, even if I wasn’t looking for a new job, just to keep in the habit, because the ground is always changing. But increasingly, I sort of feel like the approach had grown out of date—it especially doesn’t hold up well to career changes. For the last job I legitimately applied for, roughly eight years ago, I sent over a design portfolio and a one-sheeter about a website I ran. My current position didn’t even have very much to do with graphic design, but it was what I had been doing, so that was what I sent along.
I feel challenged to explain what I do today in this form. I feel like, if you care, you’ll find me—because that’s what the “gig economy” is all about.
In a way, this philosophy isn’t all that far off from the thinking of one of the earliest innovators in resume writing, an English land surveyor named Ralph Agas. During the 16th and 17th centuries, he used a variety of methods to market his relevant skills to the public, and one of those was by creating flyers that told the public of his sizable skills as a surveyor. He was advertising at a time few other people were, and it stood out.
Often, this is cited as one of the first cover letters, but I think it’s something else: This might be the first Facebook Page, and he might be the first influence marketer, beating out Bob Vila by 400 years. (Sorry, Bob.)
Maybe that’s the problem: Getting a job means standing out—and because the résumé has gotten so old and staid, it’s not doing that anymore.