How to write a military-to-civilian resume
- Get started by creating a master military resume
- Consult your VMET and fitness evaluations for ideas and resume content
- Translate your military titles and skills for civilian readers
- Focus on experience that is relevant to the job for which you’re applying
- Top-load your resume with targeted keywords and accomplishments
- Don’t separate your military experience from your other work experience
- Get help if you need it
Military veterans transition into the corporate job market with a broad skill set and experience shouldering unimaginable responsibility. Unfortunately, most civilians have no idea what’s going on in the military or how to decipher military terminology. To succeed in a post-military job search, it’s up to a transitioning veteran to create a military-to-civilian resume that describes their experience in a way that makes sense to civilian recruiters and hiring managers.
To gain some insight, I spoke with three military resume experts:
- Jen St. Pierre, Warriors to Work Specialist at Wounded Warrior Project
- David Madden, Veterans Representative at Worksource King County
- Clif Cooper, Former Army Transition Manager
The military speaks its own languages. Each service has its own way of communicating things. “Even between the different services within the military, I can’t read some of their lingo,” said Cooper. If the Army has trouble understanding the Navy or Air Force, you can bet that a civilian recruiter will be confused by all of it.
“If the veteran went straight from school into the military and hasn’t had any type of civilian employment, when they come out, everything they speak is military language,” said Madden. “How do you go to an employer, who really knows nothing about the military, and answer when they ask, ‘What was your job description?'”
The first step in creating a strong military-to-civilian resume is to, as St. Pierre put it, “demilitarize the language.”
“What I mean by that is avoiding military terms and acronyms that civilian recruiters and hiring managers aren’t going to understand.”
Translate your titles, acronyms, equipment, skills, and anything else that could go over the head of a civilian decision-maker.
Start with a master military resume using the terms you know best
When you’re looking at a blank resume template, translating your military experience on the fly makes it a more difficult process than it needs to be. “It’d be like me applying for a job in the Hague and trying to write it in Dutch in my first draft,” explained Cooper. “I would write it in English and then translate it to Dutch.”
For veterans struggling to get started, creating a master military resume can be an effective first step. “I tell people when they write their resume, use military lingo on your first draft because that’s what you know,” said Cooper.
“In this master resume, we can speak to everything,” said Madden. “They have that opportunity to get it out of their system.”
Consult your documentation and fitness evaluations
There are records and resources available to all veterans that can provide a starting point or fill in some gaps.
“VMET stands for Vocational and Military Employment Training,” explained St. Pierre. “That is a document that every single [service member] receives when they transfer out. They don’t really realize that they have access to it. It’s basically their military resume. It contains every MOS [military occupational specialty] they were in with a description. Not only that, but every single course and certification they took.”
“A lot of information is available on your fitness reports or evaluations and quarterly counselings,” added Cooper.
“It’s different in every branch of the service,” continued St. Pierre. “It could be a ‘fit eval,’ or a ‘fit rep.’ These are performance reviews. … These contain such valuable information for a resume. They contain measurable results, number one. And number two, real specifics about their accomplishments, spoken from their leader’s point of view.”
Digging up these documents can make a world of difference when it comes to creating a strong resume foundation.
Translate your military ranks, titles, and duties
Civilians do not understand the hierarchy or responsibilities of military titles. One of the most helpful things you can do on your military-to-civilian resume is to change your titles into something a civilian reader will find familiar.
“Most corporate and profitable environments aren’t going to have any idea how to translate E1, E2, first sergeant,” warned St. Pierre. “Instead of taking the time to research it, they’re going to count the candidate out of the lot because they don’t understand.”
St. Pierre shared these examples:
“For instance, E7 to E9 … the civilian equivalent could be director, supervisor, department manager, senior advisor. Below that is an E4 to an E6, which depending on what service they’re in [would be a] corporal, specialist, petty officer, or sergeant. That translates over to assistant manager, line supervisor, section leader, task leader, foreman. Same things with the lower ranks, like E1 to E3. Maybe they were private or a seaman recruit or a seaman apprentice. That could be a production worker, an assembler, a technician, an apprentice, or a team member. So even when they’re lower ranks, you can still give it a strong civilian title.”
This practice also extends beyond official titles to roles and duties.
“If I was a main battle tank crew member, in the civilian world, we would translate that to ‘heavy equipment operator,'” explained St. Pierre. “We’re taking those titles and we’re civilianizing them.”
This can be a tough pill for veterans to swallow. It’s not just heavy equipment, after all. The responsibility of human safety or millions of dollars in equipment that comes with performing any number of military duties won’t be found in your average civilian job description. “The military gives you an immense amount of responsibility that you will never be responsible for again,” said Cooper, but making your military resume accessible for civilian hiring personnel will make a big difference in your job search.
Perhaps the most powerful tool for this type of translation is O*NET’s Military Crosswalk search.
Enter your service branch and classification code or title to receive a detailed report including all the tasks, skills, technology, and knowledge associated with the position, as well as a list of civilian-equivalent job titles.
“A lot of times, individuals do not even know Military Crosswalk exists,” said Madden.
Translate everything you can on your resume. St. Pierre suggested spelling out any necessary acronyms and even replacing the word “soldiers” with “personnel.”
Tailor your resume to the job description
“A veteran thinks, and rightfully so, they can do human resources, operations, logistics– kind of the whole gamut,” said Cooper. “While that’s true, and there’s nothing wrong with that mindset, it actually hurts them in the search.”
Veterans are trusted with a great deal of responsibility and can serve in a wide variety of roles throughout their military career. It’s tricky to narrow all that experience down. Referring to some of the resumes she receives from her clients, St. Pierre jokingly said they’re “like eight pages long.”
Once a transitioning veteran decides which direction to take their career, they benefit from removing as much unrelated experience as possible. A targeted resume is not a list of everything you’ve done. Rather, it answers the questions asked in the job description. Tailoring your resume to the job description makes it fast and easy for the recruiter to see how you’ll make an impact.
“Look at the things that are important to the employer [in the job description],” said Madden. “It’s great that you’ve done these things [in the military], but the employer is looking for XYZ.”
“We really want to focus on speaking the language of the employer,” added St. Pierre.
Both St. Pierre and Madden advocate for using Jobscan to home in on what the employer wants to see. Jobscan analyzes your resume against the job description to see which skills and requirements you’re missing.
“That’s what we’ve been able to help them do time and again [by] using Jobscan,” said Madden. “We’ve been able to really take the game to another level because we’re speaking the language and we’re showing [the veterans] live, this is what it looks like.”
“I bring up the Jobscan report and I walk them through it,” said St. Pierre. “Every single section, what it means, how to incorporate those keywords into the resume. It makes sense to them.”
Include your military measurable results
Accomplishments and achievements are a great way for anyone to make their resume stand out. A military veteran’s experience is full of opportunities to include these measurable results.
“Usually what I do is talk [veterans] through stories and really figure out, what are the results?” said Cooper. “It needs to have a number … whether it’s man hours, reduction in steps, or additional steps for compliance.”
For some veterans, aspects of their roles might overshadow seemingly mundane results, making it difficult for them to see the value. “Nobody [in the corporate world] cares that you were a fighter pilot,” pleaded Cooper. “How much money did you save by buying doors or surfboards or windshields last year?”
“We all deal with money because [the military] a global force now,” continued Cooper. “Simple things like government travel cards, saving money, coming up with better ways to save money” can make for quality measurable results on a military-to-civilian resume.
“There’s so much project management within the military,” St. Pierre used as an example. “A strong action verb would be, ‘Collaborated with a team of six senior leaders to develop a security action plan that resulted in zero incidents within the command for the year of 2017.'”
As previously mentioned, some of these results can be found in the VMET or fit evals. “Sometimes I take exact sentences from them because their leaders did a great job of quantifying and explaining [the veteran’s] accomplishments,” said St. Pierre.
Measurable results should be sprinkled throughout your resume, from your summary section down through your work experience.
Military-to-civilian resume formatting tips
Formatting your military resume presents a unique challenge. You might have served through a series of diverse roles with increasing responsibility all around the world. How do you sum that up on a resume in a way that makes sense?
“The first top half of the resume is the most important,” said St. Pierre. “That is what a recruiter will spend their six-to-seven seconds on.”
After your name and contact information, St. Pierre recommends having a strong summary statement that introduces that you’re a veteran as well as your areas of expertise. She also recommends including a skills section “so that the recruiter can easily find those resume keywords that they need.”
If you went back to school after leaving the military and you’re not far removed from earning a degree, your education section can come next.
When it comes to your experience section, “I wouldn’t separate it out, military and civilian,” advised St. Pierre. “I would just put ‘Work Experience.'”
St. Pierre recommends breaking up your different roles within the military, but underneath a single heading for the service branch, resulting in something like this:
This format helps keep the resume in a format familiar to the recruiter, and should help to minimize confusion.
Get help if you need it
“Seek out assistance,” concluded St. Pierre. “[Veterans] aren’t expert resume writers and that’s okay. Seek out subject matter experts and mentors. Like the Wounded Warrior Project Warriors to Work program, there are many, many VSOs out there that help.”
There are also people online willing to help. Create a LinkedIn profile and follow or reach out to veteran career coaches and advocates like Michael Quinn, Leslie Coffey, Daniel Savage, Maggie Cutler, Tom Cal, Jacqueline Contreras, and others for tips, resources, and mentorship during your transition.