Reimagining Résumé Writing in Adult Education

There’s probably a whole slew of reasons that you don’t love résumé writing. As a real-world imperative, it can be stressful, frustrating, tiresome work, and it doesn’t generally coincide with the best times in our lives. Do I want an objective or a profile? Which should I cut, my intermediate proficiency in Esperanto or my passion for ornithoscopy?  Once you’ve worked out the content and sorted out your duties and responsibilities from your accomplishments, then comes the typographic tedium of formatting it all: Do I bold the workplace and italicize the title or bold the title and italicize the workplace? Gah! how do I turn off strikethrough!? Is Times New Roman really the sweatpants of fonts? These bullets are boring; where do I get a webding!? Attached please find my…rèsume? Résumè? Resumé? CV!?

So what sadistic impulse, what pedagogic perversity would possess me to inflict this awful process on my students any more than is necessary, especially when half are housewives whose goals for their English don’t relate to career advancement? Well, if we approach résumé writing not as a mind-numbing process in and of itself, but as a series of distinct, transferable writing exercises, it becomes a whole lot more appealing for teachers and students alike.

In this post, I’ll talk first about the context that led us to take a second look at résumé writing, then about a model of résumé that is inclusive of all learners, then about the subskills of résumé writing and how they generalize to other writing tasks, and finally about some possible affective benefits of this whole process.


I never used to do this. In fact, we only reluctantly started looking at in-class résumé writing at my program when we recognized the inevitable march toward college and career readiness in the United States, especially with the passage of WIOA. Faced with new career-related performance measures, we looked at activities that would both satisfy those mandates and benefit our students, including those overlooked by the new legislation. It was through this lens that we came to reconsider résumé writing and to recognize some significant unrecognized benefits.

A Reimagined Résumé

With adults learners, I’m a big believer in a transparent, explicit presentation: “We’re going to do x because it will help you with y.” This is especially important with activities (like this one) whose contribution to language development isn’t immediately apparent. As I said, many of my students aren’t interested in career advancement. Just saying “Now we’re all going to make résumés” leaves many students feeling excluded and less invested in the exercise. But if we show students how, say, bullet points are useful not only in résumés but also in emails, we can boost engagement and retention.

Not only should we talk to students about the transferable subskills that constitute résumé writing, but we should open up the definition of a résumé and encourage students to build a résumé that suits the objectives of their own lives. This could mean an objective statement that looks like this:

To take an active role in my child’s education, speaking with his teachers independently, helping with his homework, and being involved in school events without a translator.

The rest of the résumé could be a compilation of the life skills and life experience that this parent can leverage in pursuit of her objective.

We have also found it valuable to open things up in terms of formatting. The average résumé is a sterile, rigid affair that’s not a ton of fun to put together. Some teachers in our program have had a great deal of success by encouraging students to make handwritten, colorful résumés. Incorporating other media, such as collage, could be another step toward a more welcoming process that embraces multiple learning styles.


What is a résumé but a hyper-concise, hyper-formal, persuasive description of the subject that we know best: ourselves? Let’s take a look at some of these résumé writing skills that are one in the same as common writing skills.

Organizing Information
Effective functional writing, be it of informational emails, instructions, or argumentative essays, often hinges on how well the writer organizes information. This skill comes with practice and feedback, and involves weighing options and making informed choices on the part of the writer. A résumé is a great way to practice, and to draw students’ attention to the factors that guide these choices. Should your education or experience come first? Consider which will be more powerful to your audience. Should each line lead with the workplace or position? Consider how having multiple positions at the same workplace will affect that.

Inconsistencies—of style, tone, mechanics, narrative person, etc.—can distract your reader, but maintaining consistency requires a command of the language that many students have yet to reach. It also takes practice to develop an eye for these inconsistencies in editing. Résumés can provide a great opportunity for that practice: duties and responsibilities at past jobs must be in the same form, usually past tense verbs. The mechanics—capitalization, punctuation, etc.—also all need to be the same throughout. Likewise, headers must be consistent with the content below them.

Résumés are all about being concise. You’re awesome. Five or six reams worth of awesome at least, but you’ve got to boil all the awesome down to fit on a single page. Indeed, the word résumé means summary in French. It can be valuable to first have students write out, in paragraph form, a complete history of their education, skills, and experience, and then guide them through the process of distilling this text down into only the most important bullet points. If you can only choose five bullet points, which would you choose? Why? How about only three?

Details and Examples
In your résumé, facts and numbers speak far louder than empty assertions. Anyone can, and everyone does, claim to be a self-motivated, multitasking people person. More powerful than the clichés is a description of accomplishments that could only be achieved by a self-motivated, multitasking people person. And of course this same principle applies to persuasive essays and informative texts, and it is easy to show students that transferability.

Affective Benefits

Research would be needed to confirm this, but it’s not much of a stretch to assume that this process—compiling your strengths, skills, and accomplishments; articulating your objective; painting yourself in the best light possible—is going to have some positive effects on self-esteem and motivation.

Incorporating objective statements into résumés can also easily transform this into a goal-setting activity, as well. In the United States, we’re taught from a very young age to set goals and work toward them. In the advising work that we do with our students, however, we have found that this goal orientation is anything but universal. Still, with some advising and the right kind of classroom activities, we can help students to set goals, and this goal-setting can have positive effects on persistence.

About Robert Sheppard

Robert Sheppard
Over the past 10 years, Rob has explored a variety of roles and contexts in the field. These include the cram-school culture of Taiwan and Korea; IEPs in Boston focused on academic English; advanced conversation and TOEFL prep taught via Skype to students in Japan; and nonprofit, community English programs for immigrants to Greater Boston. He currently serves as sr. director of adult programs at Quincy Asian Resources, a member of the community advisory council at First Literacy, and a curriculum consultant at Boston Global Institute. He has a master’s degree in TESOL from The New School, and his areas of interest include adult ed, pronunciation and grammar instruction, curriculum development, and assessment.
This entry was posted in TESOL Blog and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Reimagining Résumé Writing in Adult Education

  1. Robert Sheppard Robert Sheppard says:

    Thanks guys!

    Nancy, I do want to share some examples, but the students who did them from our most recent semester have left for the summer, so I wasn’t able to get permission to use them. I’m asking the teachers to do them a bit earlier in the semester this year, so that I’ll have time to get some good ones to share. I’ll update this when I’ve got some!

  2. I love your approach to resume writing _ something I have avoided doing with my students for the reasons you mention. Can/would you share an example of a resume written with your model?
    Thank you,

  3. Parthasarathy says:

    A nice blog post. Thanks for the practical suggestions

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.