For former felons, creating an amazing resume can be extremely challenging without the right guidance. A professional resume that highlights your best qualities is absolutely essential to success when looking for a new job. Taking a little time to put together a high-quality resume can have an incredible impact on the number of job interviews you are able to secure, and job offers you ultimately receive.
In this video series, we will take you step-by-step through the resume creation process in order to give you the absolute best chance of getting a job — despite your previous mistakes. There are several videos in this guide, so be sure to continue scrolling down as you complete each section or click on the link below to go directly to that section.
The Complete Guide To Writing a Resume For Former Felons
Who this video series is for
To begin, let’s talk about who this video is for and who will benefit the most from it. We put this together specifically to help those former felons who are looking for a job now, or will be looking for one in the future. It doesn’t matter if your sentence was six months or sixteen years ago — our advice will work for you. As we go through the different steps of creating a resume, we will specifically call out tips for those with shorter sentences or longer sentences where it makes sense.
Next, we take great care to provide step-by-step details throughout these videos so that even if this is your first time creating a professional resume, you will still be able to do so. If it is your first time, it can be a bit of an overwhelming task, so we took great care to address most questions you might have through the process.
Lastly, the advice we provide will also be very applicable for those who have already put together a professional resume, especially if that resume was created before you spent time in prison. There are many tips and tricks that I have learned over the years that are specific to helping people who have a record find a job. Few other videos or books about creating resumes even touch on this.
If you feel that any or all of these three describe your situation, I strongly encourage you to invest a little time into watching this video series. I believe you’ll be glad that you did.
What you will learn about creating a resume for felons
Over the course of this video series, there are five key things that you’ll learn. First, we’ll talk about what the true purpose of a resume is. This is very important because a lot of people don’t really understand what they should be trying to accomplish with a great resume.
Second, we’ll cover how to put your resume together in a fashion that puts your best self first and minimizes the impact of your record has on your ability to get a job as much as possible. When you have a record, doing everything you can to keep that from being obvious on your resume can greatly increase the number of interviews you get.
Third, we’ll really get into how companies and hiring managers think, as well as how the hiring process works at many companies work. The more you understand about the hiring process and what many hiring managers are looking for, the more successful you will be in securing a job.
Fourth, and this is what we spend the most time on, we’ll take you step-by-step through the full process of creating a resume. We’ll guide you through the complete process and provide you with a great resume template that we created and that is proven to be successful for former felons.
Lastly, we’ll talk about what you should be doing once you have completed your initial draft of your resume to be more successful.
What isn’t covered
Now that we’ve talked about what will be covered in this video series, it’s worth noting a few things that will not be covered.
We won’t be going over cover letters. Cover letters can be very important, and we’ll be creating a separate video in the future covering them in-depth.
Second, we won’t be covering references. Being able to find people who are willing to refer you to positions or act as references to a new employer can have a dramatic positive impact on your ability to find a job. It’s such an important topic that we’ll be putting together an in-depth guide to references in the future. For now, we’ll only be lightly touching on the subject.
Finally, we’re not going to specifically discuss how to find actual job opportunities. That’s another very large topic that deserves specific attention. For this video series, we wanted to be very focused on resumes, but we will definitely be putting out additional videos in the future covering how to find job opportunities with a felony conviction.
What to think about when putting your resume together
As you’re putting together your professional resume, it’s very helpful to keep a few key principles in mind that can help guide you through the process. As you’re creating your resume, you will want to review these principles from time-to-time to make sure that what you’re producing is in line with what a resume can actually help you achieve.
What are you trying to accomplish with your resume
The first principle you will want to consider is what the immediate goal of your resume is. Many people assume that the goal of your resume is to get you a job. While a resume is an important tool in the process of finding a good job, the goal of a solid resume is more specific.
First, and foremost, your resume is used to get you to the first stage of the hiring process — an interview with a potential employer. Your resume needs to stand out enough that it doesn’t end up with all the others that get thrown in the trash without any contact from the employer. There are various statistics about this, but on average, less than 20% of people who submit a resume actually get interviewed… and it’s often much less.
The primary job of a well-crafted resume is to make sure that you are not part of the 80%+ of people who are rejected without any chance to talk to the employer. We’ll go through this in much great depth later on, but being able to provide a brief and impactful summary of your skills, abilities and accomplishments is absolutely vital if you want to stand out from the crowd.
Most hiring managers spend less than 1 minute reading through your resume before deciding to actually interview you or dropping your resume in the trash. If you want to get an interview you need to make a good impression quickly.
The good news is that the vast majority of people out there don’t understand this and have very boring resumes that are just plain bad. A weaker resume, with lesser experience or skills — but is well put together — can often beat out a stronger resume that doesn’t do a good job of showing its owners strongest features.
You want to be the most professional candidate they see
The second principle to keep in mind is all about professionalism. Regardless of the job that you are applying to, from a position working in a high-rise office building or digging holes in the ground for road construction, you need to appear as professional and mature as possible.
You don’t want to give potential employers any indication that you have a criminal conviction and you absolutely must show that you can be a productive and dependable employee who will follow the rules and always get the job done the right way.
When it comes to your resume, you can fairly easily demonstrate a high level of professionalism and competence that separates you from many others by submitting a properly formatted, professional-looking resume. This is especially true for more blue-collar jobs where the great-looking resumes are even less common.
You can’t give employers any reason to lump you in with the negative stereotypes about former offenders. You have to show that you are one the “good ones” who made a few mistakes in the past, but have learned from them and are now better prepared and more motivated than other candidates to do a great job.
You have to be honest but in the best way possible
You also want to ensure that your resume is honest, but still shows you in the best light so that you are able to put your best self forward. It can be very tempting to include a few things in your resume that are not 100% true. You want to make yourself look just a little bit better and increase your chances of getting that interview. What’s that harm in that, right?
In reality, this is very risky and often a big mistake. As a former felon, you can’t assume that you will get the benefit of the doubt from employers. It is very likely that they will take any indication of dishonesty very seriously and terminate your application if they discover you were dishonest.
If you get to the point where an employer is following up on your resume, they are seriously considering you for a position. The last thing you want is to go through the whole process only to be denied because you made a few small lies on your resume.
A better approach is to be honest with the information you include on your resume, but smart about what you include. You will likely have to tell the hiring manager that you have a felony conviction on your record but you don’t have to do that right now.
Your resume should make all of the best aspects of yourself obvious while also downplaying your weaknesses. We will be spending a lot of time covering how to do this later on.
Don’t be too obvious about your criminal record
This brings us to our last principle which is delaying revealing that you have a felony conviction until you are able to talk to someone face-to-face at the company you are interested in.
Letting a potential hiring manager know that you are a felon through your resume tends to give you the lowest chances of actually being hired. If they find out before you have had a chance to talk to them in person, it is much easier for them to ignore your resume and focus on other candidates.
A better approach, and one we will go into detail on later in this video, is to do everything you can honestly do in order to delay the revelation that you are a felon until as late as possible, ideally during a face-to-face interview. It is much more likely for an employer to hire you regardless of your record once they have had a chance to meet you in person and you have demonstrated that you are professional and prepared.
Instead of seeing you as just another faceless applicant, they will have a much better understanding of who you are which makes turning your down much more difficult.
If an employer finds out earlier on in the process that you are a former felon, you are certainly not doomed to failure — but it can hurt your chances. If it is a job you are interested in, you should still apply and see what happens.
These four principles are critical to your success as you are putting together your resume. Throughout the process of writing and updating your resume, take a minute to run through them from time-to-time.
How hiring managers think
Now we are going to take you into the mind of a hiring manager who needs to bring on a new employee. If you can better understand how hiring managers think, you will have a much easier time putting your resume together in a way that improves your chances of getting an interview. This will also be extremely helpful during the interview so that you can answer their questions as well as possible.
Hiring is a painful process
The first thing you have to realize is that hiring new employees is a huge pain in the butt for most businesses. Most managers only hire new people when they absolutely have to, and that means they are running their business short-staffed until they are able to bring someone new onboard and get them trained up.
During the hiring process, they are probably doing a lot of the work the employee they are hiring will do in addition to their usual responsibilities. That means they are essentially covering two jobs plus the added work of hiring. That’s a lot of work for anyone.
Hiring the wrong person is even more painful
While the hiring process itself is a big pain for a manager, hiring the wrong person can often be even worse. The last thing a manager wants is to go through the whole hiring process only to have the applicant quit shortly after or not actually be able to do the job well.
We have all had to do something, either a job or some kind of project or activity, with someone who just isn’t helpful or motivated. In cases like those, you would be better off if they didn’t even show up! This is a manager’s worst nightmare — hiring and paying someone who makes the team worse off.
Hiring is expensive
Hiring is also very expensive, especially for smaller companies. It can be a big risk to bring on new employees and pay them a fair amount without knowing if they will actually be worth their wages. It can easily cost thousands of dollars in time and money to advertise an open position, go through the full hiring process and train someone without even knowing if they will be a good fit or beneficial to the company in the long run.
Picking the right person is very tricky
Now, once a hiring manager is able to get a stack of resumes in front of them and is interviewing applicants, they have another, even bigger problem: How do you tell who the best person for the job is? This is an incredibly difficult problem with a lot on the line if it goes wrong.
Most managers have a one-page resume and maybe an hour-long interview to pick the best person for a job. This is very challenging, and a lot of it is based on how a manager feels about an applicant. Are they trustworthy? Do they seem professional? Will they have the work ethic to do a good job every day? They have to make a big decision with only a few pieces of information to go on.
You can make their job a lot easier by understanding what they are looking for on a resume or in an interview and being prepared to give that information quickly and easily. When it comes to resumes, if they are difficult to read, too long or too confusing, they are going to get thrown in the trash in favor of those that make their life easier.
Hiring takes a lot of time
One final thing to consider is just how long the hiring process can be and how much time it takes up from the hiring manager’s day. It can take weeks or months to find and hire a good worker, even for simple jobs. This is time that the manager would much rather spend on their actual job.
They want to hire a good employee as quickly as possible and anything you can do to make that easier is going to be appreciated. That means doing things like putting together an easy-to-read and professional resume, being on time to any appointments or interviews, and being prepared to answer any questions they might have.
Next we are going to dive into what hiring managers are looking for and the key questions you need to answer to get hired.
What Hiring Managers Are Looking For
As you are preparing your resume and preparing for interviews, you need to consider what hiring managers are actually looking for. We just went over how they are thinking, and now we are going to discuss the actual questions your resume should answer in order to be selected for an interview.
Every hiring manager and job is different, but, in general, there are five questions your resume needs to cover:
Do you get it?
The first question your resume needs to answer is if you understand what the hiring manager is looking for. Do you understand what the job will require you to do and do you have the skills and experience necessary? In order to accomplish this, there are a couple things you should do with every job you apply to:
First, you should carefully read the job posting and make sure you fully understand what they are looking for and that you are reasonably confident you can fulfill the duties. Don’t be discouraged, though. You don’t have to be a perfect candidate!
Job postings will often list requirements for what a perfect applicant would look like and rarely, if ever, does someone who exactly fits that description actually exist. If you are even remotely similar to what they are looking for or think you could do the job, it is worth applying.
Are you qualified?
Now that you understand what they are looking for, you need to update your resume specifically for that job. That means highlighting the specific skills or experience important for that job and making sure that information is front and center. If you are able to highlight your best experiences related to that job, you are going to have much better success.
Once the hiring manager understands that you know what they need, their next step is to verify that you have the skills or education necessary to do the job well with as little training as possible. As we discussed previously, hiring managers want to get new hires trained and performing well as quickly as possible.
They are going to have an idea of what a minimal amount of experience or education is in order to do the job well, which is usually included in the job posting, and you need to be able to quickly verify that you have that in your resume. If you highlighted that experience and education and made it easy to find, you will be in good shape.
Can you do a good job?
After checking the box about skills and education, the next question is about results. Having experience doing a particular job is great, but being able to show that you did a great job is even better. This is often what separates people who get interviews from people who get the job, and you need to do anything you can to show you are someone who gets things done on time and at a high quality.
Again, let’s think about the hiring manager’s point of view on this. You have two people who both have experience working as a fast food cashier. One person simply lists that they have four years of experience working as a fast food cashier. The other lists fast food cashier for three years, including one promotion, two customer service awards and 100% accuracy in all money counts.
Which one of these applicants do you think is going to do better? Being able to show not only what you did, but how you did it is very important and will have a big impact on how likely you are to get an interview.
Is it worth their time to train you?
Once the hiring manager believes you have the ability to do a great job, they begin to think about how long you would actually stick for around if they hired you. Since hiring is such an expensive and time-consuming process, no company wants to have to go through the process all over again anytime soon. They want employees who will stick around for years and consistently do a good job.
You can show commitment by demonstrating on your resume that you are not a “job hopper”, someone who jumps from job to job every few months. Now, if you have only been able to get short-term assignments to this point, don’t stress out. This isn’t a total deal breaker, but you will need to be able to explain it to an employer.
You can show your commitment in your resume in a number of different ways, including by highlighting the jobs where you stayed the longest, not including really short-term jobs unless you don’t have any other experience, and showing (through education or work experience) that you have had a long-standing interest in the type of work you are applying for.
Are you a professional?
Finally, you need to demonstrate that you are professional and responsible. Ultimately, this question is about trust. Can you be trusted to show up, do a good job and not put the hiring manager or company at risk?
Employees can do tremendous damage to a business’ reputation and financial success through mistakes or poor job performance. Even little things like missing work or not getting along with other employees can have big consequences.
The question of trust is especially important to former felons. When you have a record you have to appear more trustworthy than the next guy or girl because you won’t get the benefit of the doubt.
You have to be more professional and more prepared or else a hiring manager may not want to take a chance on you. You absolutely can overcome this challenge, but will need to work a little harder and be more persistent to make it happen.
Next, we will cover a few additional questions that all felons need to address before they will receive an invite to interview
Additional Questions Former Felons Must answer
Any time you have a record, there are going to be some additional questions a hiring manager is going to need to answer in their head before they bring you in for an interview. It sucks that it is this way, but if you know what you need to do and are prepared, you can overcome the challenges.
You have to realize that many hiring managers have little experience working with former felons and have a point of view warped by the news, TV and movies. They may have a negative viewpoint toward felons and you need to do everything you can to prove them wrong.
Are you a safety risk?
The first concern hiring managers have is regarding the personal safety of themselves, their employees and their customer. Even if you were not convicted of a violent crime, they may still feel like you are more likely than other applicants to be a safety risk.
Professionalism goes a long way toward overcoming this as does avoiding, mentioning your conviction until you have had a chance to meet someone in person. A well-written resume, especially one with some experience, can get you off to the right start.
Are you a property risk?
Past personal safety, there is also going to be a concern about business or property safety. Again, even if you were not convicted of a property crime, they may still feel like you are a risk or riskier than the typical applicant. You can overcome this the same way as we mentioned with safety concerns.
Will you listen?
After the initial concerns have been addressed, hiring managers are going to worry about your respect for authority. They may view someone with a record as a rebel or someone who doesn’t like to listen to other people. If they don’t feel like you will follow their instructions and respect them as your manager, they are not going to interview you.
Being able to demonstrate that you have good listening skills and are trainable is critical to your success. Professionalism goes a long way here, but so does following directions. Make sure you read the job posting and application instructions carefully and follow the directions.
They want to see that you are just another normal person who made a mistake or two and not some biker gang hooligan who only listens to themselves.
Will you show up?
Finally, they need to know that you will be a reliable employee. They need to know that you will show up every day, will consistently do a good job and won’t do anything unpredictable or crazy. Again, professionalism is critical here, as is your resume.
If you have any professional experience – especially after you get out of prison – that can really help demonstrate that you can be counted on. You can also get letters of recommendation from former bosses or program leaders to help with this as well.
Ultimately, as we have said many times, it boils down to demonstrating that you are taking this more seriously than the other applications, you are more motivated to do a great job, and you will show your appreciation for their willingness to hire you by sticking around and making their lives easier as a result.
In our next video, we are going to take a look at what an effective resume looks like for someone with a felony conviction and compare it to a typical resume.
What an effective resume looks like
Now we are going to look at two sample resumes for the same individual. This resume is for a man named John Smith who was recently released from San Quentin State prison. While in prison, he worked as a dishwasher in the kitchen and completed an associate’s degree.
Prior to prison, he worked for six months at KFC as a dishwasher and, prior to that, in a warehouse for a little over a year. Overall, a fairly standard situation for many people out there. John is now applying to dishwashing jobs in his area.
First, let’s take a look at a very typical resume that John might put together without any guidance.
How To Create A Professional Resume For Former Felons
A high-quality resume is a very powerful tool and we are going to walk you through all the steps of putting one together now. As you saw in our previous videos, it is pretty amazing how big a difference proper formatting and a little thought can make.
What a high-quality resume looks like for former felons
Go through our next video and be sure to take notes. We pack a lot of important information into a short video, but you can always go back if you have any specific questions. We have included links to the resume template we created below the video as well as quick references to specific points in the video.
If you found the video useful, please share with anyone you think would benefit from it as well as hitting the “like” button above to help get the word out!
Access the Google Docs Resume Template (you will need a free Gmail account) — Click Here
You simply need to select “Make a copy”) when asked
Download the Microsoft Word Resume Template — Click Here
How to create a great resume with a record, step-by-step
Using all of the information we covered in the previous videos, we are going to walk you through the process of creating a good-looking resume. We go through the process live and talk through what we are thinking about the different sections from brainstorming to final resume creation.
You may be a bit overwhelmed by the length of this video. Don’t be! Creating a great resume takes a little time and thought, but it is always worth it in the long run. We have included time markers below for the individual sections so that you don’t have to watch the entire video if you only have questions about a specific question.
If you found these videos helpful, be sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel, like us on Facebook or share this guide with anyone you think will appreciate it.
If you want to skip to a particular section of the resume, you can find the beginning of each section below:
Contact Information — 3:15
Qualification Summary — 6:50
Relevant Skills — 31:07
Professional Experience — 47:41
Education — 1:04:45
Again, if you found these videos helpful be sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel, like us on Facebook or share this guide with anyone you think will appreciate it. We love to hear from those out there who have found this useful as well as get suggestions for additional topics for us to tackle in the future!
Adam Sanders has worked as a reentry advisor, program leader, and teacher at San Quentin State prison in San Quentin California for several years. He co-founded San Quentin's financial literacy program and is passionate about helping former offenders successfully re-enter society and find personal and financial success.
Adam also has nearly a decade of experience working in Marketing and Finance for large software companies and an MBA from Northwestern University.