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Military to Civilian Résumé Guide

You’ve served your country in the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force or Coast Guard. When it’s time to leave the armed forces, one of the biggest challenges you’ll face is transitioning to civilian employment.

As a member of the military, you gained a wealth of experience, obtained specialized training and valuable education. You are qualified to work in a variety of corporate or federal positions, both as a team member and a leader. While in the military, you were trained for a specific Military Occupation Specialty (MOS) or held a position of leadership and great responsibility. You probably accomplished many tasks outside your specialty. It’s important to translate your military background into terms to which the civilian or federal hiring agency can relate.

Get Organized

The first, and probably the most important step in creating your military résumé, is organizing your documents. Once you organize your documents, you may create a portfolio with your information. Your portfolio should include the following items:

  • Military Records
    • DD214 – Certificate of Release or Discharge
    • Performance Evaluations
    • Awards
    • Training Records
    • DD 2586 – Verification of Military Experience and Training (VMET)
    • Security Clearance Information
  • Education and Work Experience
    • College Transcripts
    • Certifications
    • Licenses
    • Work History and Volunteer Experience

Trying to write your military résumé without these documents at hand will make the process much more difficult, and more importantly, almost guarantee that your final product will turn out lackluster and thin on your accomplishments. This step becomes even more important, and probably more difficult, if you’ve been in the military for several years.

Do Your Research

Determine the type of position you’re interested in and research the industry. Utilizing the documents listed above, you should consider putting together a "generic" résumé that includes your entire military career experience. When you find a position you’re interested in, create a version of your résumé that is tailored to the position you’re seeking. Hiring managers or recruiters spend less than 20 seconds looking at your résumé, in fact, some organizations have computers do the initial scrub.

Make your qualifications for the job jump out at the recruiter immediately, instead of asking them to sift through your résumé to find it. Think about it this way: if you don’t want to take the time to tailor your military résumé to fit the job, why would you expect someone else to take the time to basically do the same.

Choose Your Military Résumé Format

Most résumés will fall into two categories, chronological format or functional format Most of you will use chronological format; it's ideal for those with a consistent work history over the past five years and who are seeking a similar position. For example, if you were a truck driver in the Air Force, and you’re applying for a job as a truck driver in the private sector, a chronological military résumé is what you need. However, if you were a truck driver in the Air Force, but you’re applying to be a nurse in the civilian world, a functional format would best suit you. Hopefully, you would have gone back to school; and you would emphasize your education and any medical training you received while in the military. The functional format is also good for those of you with significant gaps in your work history, or if you feel that you might be overqualified.

Write Your Military Résumé

Okay, you’ve organized your documents, researched the company, and decided on a format. Now you’re ready to start the heavy lifting: putting pen to paper. Most of us find this process overwhelming, and it can be if you’re not used to writing a lot. Some people have a hard time bragging about themselves; don’t worry, this is quite normal. However, there is no getting around this, your job is to make it painfully obvious to employers that you’re the most qualified candidate among the pool, and they would be making a huge mistake not to bring you in for an interview.

Contact Information

- Ensure you have a valid phone number and email address on your résumé. While this sounds like common sense, this is a very common mistake on résumés. Make sure your email address is professional, for example, or will turn off potential employers, or cause them to start forming preconceived notions about you before they even look at the information in your résumé. As a side note, the same goes for phones. Use generic voicemail greetings and avoid specialized ringtones (e.g., popular songs) that could cause potential employers to misjudge you. General rule of thumb when job hunting: let your accomplishments shine prior to the interview, and let your personality shine during the interview.

Summary of Qualifications

- The first section of your résumé should be a qualifications summary. This is a stand-alone blurb which provides a snapshot of your key skills and attributes that are relevant to the position. Use this section to sell why you are a good fit overall. Recruiters and hiring managers have very limited time to review résumés and often only glance quickly initially. A well-written summary will entice them to read your résumé further. Remember what we stated earlier, your résumé might only receive a few seconds. If they don’t see what they’re looking for right away, you may not get the closer look you deserve.

Core Competencies

- During your military career you have performed many tasks, some of which were totally unrelated to your main job. The first two sections of your résumé help to hone in your focus. For example, leave off the fact that you were a HAZMAT certifier if you’re applying to be a targeting analyst. Make sure the core competencies you highlight are taken from the job description as they relate to your skills. Core competencies can be terms such as Strategic Planning, Accounts Payable, Project Management, etc.

Professional Experience

- Your professional experience should include your job functions, but more importantly, your accomplishments or impact statements.

Here’s an example:

  • Posted job description – Responsible for maintaining files and implementing systems to improve file management.
  • Your Accomplishment/Impact – Maintained 100% accountability for files for over 500 personnel. Eliminated two-year backlog; created new filing systems and procedures that ensured critical material was easily accessible at all times.

Limited Military Jargon

- Assume that no one outside the military knows what titles such as First Sergeant, Company Commander, and Petty Officer mean. Nor do they know what the acronyms NCO, AAM, or SAM mean. In fact, many of the acronyms and terms you’re familiar with may be unique to your branch of service. The average civilian may have heard some of these terms and titles floated around in the movies and TV shows; but the majority of civilians would be hard pressed to accurately associate a title to the correct echelon. If you write that you were an NCOIC of a mission, and the employer doesn’t understand that you were the non-commissioned officer in charge of that mission, and isn't able to understand what exactly your responsibilities were for that mission, you’ve just sold yourself short.

Education, Credentials, Licenses, Training

- Here relevance is key. As you know, training is constant in the military; however, the fact that you’re a certified life-saver doesn’t matter to the employer looking to hire an administrative assistant. Include information that is relevant to the position. The same goes for civilian education. Your Master’s Certificate in Government Contracting won’t be relevant to an employer that does not get involved in contracting.


- The awards and recognition section of a military résumé is another somewhat tricky area for veterans because the military offers a wider range of formal awards than civilian organizations. Some awards demonstrate your ability to perform the task at a high level. For instance, if you received a Navy Accommodation Medal for performing your job at a high level during a mission, certainly that’s worth putting on your military résumé. Other awards don’t demonstrate your capability to perform a task but rather serve as a testament to your character. Even though these may not be directly relevant to a job per se, most employers are also looking to hire people with leadership ability, dedication, and strong character. Therefore, stand-out awards such as Purple Hearts or Bronze Stars should be included because they demonstrate those qualities very effectively.

Awards can be added as a separate section on your military résumé, or you can add them as part of an accomplishment statement. For example:

  • Received Meritorious Service Award for outstanding and exceptional leadership in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.
  • Received Bronze Star Medal for heroic actions and going above and beyond to save the lives of comrades in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.

Résumé Length

- The (unofficial) standard for a résumé is one to two pages; however, there are exceptions to this rule. Generally speaking, if you have less than ten years of service; were an E-6 or below; or O-4 or below, you should try to keep your military résumé to two pages or less. For senior leaders (E-7 and above or O-5 and above), or those with over ten years of service, it is perfectly okay to extend that to three. However, try your very best to not go over three. The more important rule to follow here is to make sure the information is relevant to the job. If you find yourself going well into four pages, there’s a good chance that you’ve included some information that simply isn’t pertinent to the job you’re applying for, and are using a "generic" résumé - which will get you nowhere.