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Creating a civilian resume from military experience

Resumes & Cover Letters

I have been seeing a ton of veterans requesting resume help when looking for a civilian job. This can seem daunting when you only have military experience, and I've had several veterans tell me that they "don't have any experience" for civilian jobs. This is not true! Here are some tips to get you thinking about putting together a great resume that will get you some interviews and hopefully land that job!

  1. Think chronologically. It can be challenging to make a civilian resume when you’ve essentially just had one “job” in the military. If you’ve evolved up the military ranks, try separating your military experience into “jobs” that way on your resume. It will look more like a civilian who has been promoted within a corporation, gaining skills over time. Focus on the things you did at each level and those achievements.
  2. List your skills. Start by making a list of all your jobs and acquired skills from the military. This should include both the obvious skills like the essential skills of the jobs themselves but also the additional skills that you needed. For example, if you were "crew chief", your leadership skills can easily be translated into management skills on the civilian side.
  3. Write down your achievements. Think about outcomes and successes you had during your military experience and try to incorporate that into your resume - both civilian jobs and military jobs want to see how your skills made things better or more efficient. In the military, your successes are likely positive feedback from your superiors, and on the civilian side those are generally good performance reviews, promotions and raises.
  4. Lose the lingo. Human Resources personnel or the hiring manager do not understand terms like "crew chief" so it's important to describe the tasks in neutral terms. A website like O*Net can help you identify key skills in civilian terms.
  5. Be careful with certain language. Certain skills, like weaponry expertise, is not only desirable but essential in the military. However, some of that language can be downright scary to a civilian reading how well you can maintain an arsenal or how good of a marksman you are. Focus on how those skills translate - organization, focus, concentration, accuracy.
  6. Take the time to write a good quality cover letter. A resume only explains so much. Having a quality cover letter can explain your skills in much better detail and explain why you’re looking for civilian work, and more importantly, why you’re ready for civilian work. And since we’re on the topic of cover letters…
  7. Use softer language in your cover letter. I have yet to meet a veteran that didn’t struggle with softening their language when transitioning to civilian life. It’s understandable, of course – you’ve just spent a great deal of time having to respond to CO’s and there is no place for soft language or sugar coating anything in the military. However, that same language will come across as very harsh in a civilian resume or cover letter. For example, when explaining why a civilian job is being sought, a veteran will likely reply something like “I have successfully attained ABC level with the US Marine Corps and upon retiring from the military, I have decided to pursue this position”. A civilian is more likely to write something like “I truly enjoyed my experience with my previous company, where I was able to achieve AB and C and was honored to have been promoted to D. However, I am at a stage in my career where I feel I have a great deal more to offer in terms of E and I believe this position will challenge me and allow me to reach my larger potential”. The difference in the military language is that it is factual, and civilian language is usually driven by a sense of empowerment.
  8. Ask a civilian. Don’t be afraid to ask a civilian to read your resume and give you feedback.

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