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Choosing Your Resume Strategy: Specialist or Generalist

Choosing Your Resume Strategy: Specialist or Generalist

Resume Formats: Specialist or Generalist Resume?

By Larry Buhl

In a buyer's market, you may be tempted to throw all your skills on your resume, praying that the sheer variety of your experiences will overwhelm an employer. After all, you wouldn't want a potential employer to overlook that one gem in your background that could really set you apart.

But does the generalist resume work best today? Not necessarily. Recruiters say emphasizing the breadth of your experience depends on what you're looking for.

The Generalist's Advantages

Positioning yourself as a generalist could be effective if you:

  • Target Small Companies: "A company with fewer than 500 employees may see a job seeker with a broad base of skills as giving them more for their money," says Dave Upton, founder and CEO of ExecuNet. At tiny companies or startups, a broad array of skills is often essential due to the need to wear different hats, he adds.
  • Target Downsizing Companies: Organizations that consolidate functions will often want someone who can do many things, such as a single HR generalist who can handle compensation and benefits as well as recruiting functions, says Stefanie Cross-Wilson, co-president of recruitment and talent management at Hudson.
  • Will Take Any Job: Recruiters agree that the scattershot approach yields scattershot results even in the best of times. But if you simply want a foot in the door of a company -- any company, doing anything, anywhere -- selling yourself as a jack-of-all trades could pay off.

The Specialist Positioning

Selling yourself as a specialist is preferable if you:

  • Know Exactly What You're Looking For: If you're sure about what you want and know how your skills match up to the requirements, make the case that you're the one they need and don't muddy your resume with a variety of unrelated skills.
  • Work in a Competitive Industry: These days, employers who used to receive dozens of resumes for a position may see hundreds or thousands. The person who fits the job best, particularly in a competitive field, is more likely to get the job than someone who can do a bit of everything, recruiters say.
  • Seek a Job Requiring Specialized Skill:  An employer filling a job that requires deep knowledge of industrial automation, forensic accounting or video game design, to name a few, can usually find a candidate with the exact skills to match the job. If you don't have the specific skills, your knowledge of gardening, accounting or music theory, while nice to have, won't make up that deficit.

The Best Approach

Still not sure which approach is best? Recruiters recommend playing it safe by positioning yourself as a "specialist, with breadth." To do this:

  • Research a job listing and the company to find out exactly what skills are needed and what other skills might be useful.
  • Emphasize the depth of your expertise in the most necessary job skills -- the ones that actually match the job description -- and add your compatible skills at the bottom of the resume.
  • Don't send out a hodgepodge resume. You're more likely to confuse the recruiter or the hiring manager, who may think of you as a dabbler without depth.

This tactic, recruiters say, will cover your bases by showing the breadth and depth of your skills, and that could be a winning combination in a tight job market.

"When more people are vying for the same jobs, it's even more important to show your skills fit well," says Lindsay Olson, partner and recruiter at Paradigm Staffing. "If you are a generalist, then you should be able to tweak your resume to fit the position. A resume should show me how you fit the requirements, not make me guess."

Cross-Wilson agrees. "If you possess the 'nice to have' skills, then show them, but not at the expense of the 'must have' skills," she says. "In most cases, if you are not competitive on the must-haves, you will not get the job."

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