Common Threads: How to Write Military Resumes for Civilian Audiences

Translating military experience into not only relatable, but hotly-pursued skill sets is the perpetual challenge faced by military job seekers across the globe. has featured articles on this topic, but it doesn’t hurt to revisit such a widely contemplated and often frustrating topic. In “Word it right: How to craft a résumé recruiters will want to read”, an article recently posted on, writer Adam Stone deftly explains that writing a good military resume goes beyond weeding out military jargon and acronyms (although you should definitely do this for non-DoD related jobs). It requires the following additional steps: 1. putting yourself in a potential employer’s shoes; 2. thinking creatively; and 3. demonstrating success.

As Stone points out, “Before you can translate your experience, you have to know what language you’re translating to. Experts recommend starting with the employer and working backward from there so your résumé is grounded in an understanding of the target industry and the needs of the company.” While this is true, it is easier said than done. As the Director of, I am frequently asked, “Which jobs am I qualified for?” Many military job seekers don’t even know which industry, let alone company, to target. Surprisingly, the more military experience a client has, the more likely the question. Career search advice and targeted military resumes are things we regularly provide to our customers. But for those going it alone, I suggest the O*Net website as a resource.

O*Net allows you to pinpoint the civilian job title that most closely matches your military experience and interests. You can use this knowledge to look for companies hiring for your civilian-equivalent job title and target your resume by analyzing your target job announcement for specific language. For more information on O*Net, see my previous post on the topic.

Stone goes on to discuss the importance of creatively drawing less than obvious parallels between military experience and civilian qualifications. Specifically, he cites one Infantry Officer’s struggle to translate his experience. This military job seeker thought about “soft skills” such as “leadership” and added situational details. While I don’t recommend overusing soft skills in the resume itself, as they tend to be interpreted as “fluff”, this can be an effective means to an end.

Creative writers often use a technique called spiraling to develop characters and plots. Spiraling involves placing a main character trait in the center of a blank sheet of paper (such as “Quiet”) and drawing concentric lines around it to point to possible storylines (i.e. repressed memories, solo camping trips, communicates best with animals, etc.). Place a soft skill in the center of a sheet of paper (financially savvy/cost-minded), and spiral out hard skills (fiscal administration and budget management), specific examples (managed a $500,000 training budget), and achievements (optimized training funds and cut travel costs by 50%, saving $25,000 per quarter, by combining 2 courses…). Or try this exercise in reverse; place a tangible experience (managed the construction of an Iraqi school) in the center, and spiral out skills (project management, budget management, quality assurance, etc.). Then spiral out from each of those skills. Are there more examples of project management in your experience? Notice that “budget management” reoccurs. Run with common threads.

To Stone’s well-put insights on how to “word it right”, I’d like to add the importance of putting experience in its proper context. I’ve read hundreds of military resumes and failing to establish context is one of the most common resume writing mistakes veterans make. Lack of context may hinder a civilian’s ability to fully comprehend your experience. The better context you provide, the more the civilian reader can appreciate the unique challenges you have faced on the job. Use context to liberally round out your experience and provide a more realistic backdrop for your accomplishments. Describe your military unit or organization in the context of its industry (size [number of people vs. “battalion”], mission, location [an austere environment like Afghanistan is worthy of mention], “customers”, and services). Briefly describe the scope of your responsibilities, aligning word choice with your status. In other words, a senior executive probably doesn’t need to mention his or her ability to file paperwork.

Military resumes are the most inherently challenging to write, or at the very least, write well. Obstacles faced when building a military resume worthy of civilian attention can be overcome with a little elbow grease and creative thinking. Keep in mind who you are trying to please when writing your military resume – you or the hiring manager? Determine a hiring manager’s needs and, through your accomplishments-driven resume, tell them you are the best person to fulfill those needs.

For more information on professional military resume writing services, please visit or email me at