The secret to a great job? A great résumé

For most job seekers looking for work, the key to getting hired is in their résumé.

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By Jessica Dickler, CNNMoney.com staff writer

darrin_bailey.03.jpg
Darrin Bailey, here with his daughter, hired a pro to rewrite his resume and was hired two weeks later.

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- The résumé is the gateway to most job openings. But even the most qualified candidates have trouble standing out on an 8-1/2 by 11 inch sheet of paper.

That's because it takes more than just experience to catch an employer's attention.

Darrin Bailey learned that the hard way. With 17 years of experience in surgical instruments sales and an extensive network of contacts in the industry, Bailey assumed he'd have no trouble finding work after he was laid off in April. But when his job search stalled, he was shocked.

"I didn't even apply for unemployment," he said, "I figured I would find something relatively quickly. A month and a half later I was still looking. I was shocked."

Bailey, 44, who lives in Damascus, Md., with his wife and four-year old daughter, says he expanded his search to include the entire the mid Atlantic area and used job search sites specific to his industry and level, like Medreps.com.

"I heard nothing," he said. "I didn't even get responses that I sent résumés."

That's when Bailey decided that he needed the help of a professional. He found a local résumé writer, Cheryl Palmer, and paid her about $150 to spruce up his résumé.

Together they hashed out what Bailey wanted to convey and Palmer took it from there.

Like many others on the job hunt, Bailey's résumé initially lacked a professional look, Palmer said. "It wasn't that he wasn't a good candidate, it was the presentation of his information."

To go from average to outstanding, Palmer made some small changes to the the font and format and more major improvements such as summarizing his duties in paragraph form and highlighting his accomplishments with bullets, to make them "very easy to skim."

"I knew right away it was good," Bailey said of the finished product.

"The very next week after I sent it out I got five calls and immediately had interviews. Two weeks later I had an offer."

Although the new position, in veterinary medical sales, pays about 30% less than his previous one, "I'm really happy to have something," he said.

Making a résumé count

Cheryl Palmer, the executive career coach who worked with Bailey, says that most people got into the job market at a time when the résumé wasn't critical, but now that we're in the midst of the worst job market in 26 years, résumés are more important than ever.

For a résumé rewrite Palmer charges between $150 for a mid-level professional and $400 for an executive.

For others interested in hiring a professional résumé writer, the fees can vary widely, according to Frank Fox, executive director of the Professional Association of Résumé Writers. Fox recommends calling two or three certified résumé writers in your area to discuss cost and goals before hiring a professional to help.

For the do-it-yourself approach, Palmer recommends finding samples online from some of the larger résumé writing firms.

There are also many résumé building programs online, but use caution when using the Internet as your guide, Palmer cautioned. "Be aware that a lot of the templates out there aren't the most professional looking."

She says the biggest mistake job seekers make is often to underscore their accomplishments. And by doing so, "anybody who has held a similar job to you is going to sound the same," she said.

"You haven't done yourself any favors by sending out a résumé that's very bland."

Most of all, you need to show a potential employer what you can do for them, by emphasizing what you've done for former employers. "Of primary importance is highlighting contributions you've made to companies in the past," Palmer said. "If you can quantify it, even better."

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