What are the most common mistakes made on resumes? originally appeared on Quora – the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights like this by Michael Brulotte, resume writer and owner of Docdoctor.ca
As a resume and cover letter writer, I’ve worked with people from all walks of life–blue collar, white collar, professionals, and high-ranking executives–conceptualizing, polishing, perfecting, or completely overhauling their resumes. One thing consistently surprises me: there seems to be a low correlation between a person’s career success and their capacity to compose a solid resume. I often wonder how people have made it as far as they have with the resumes they’ve been using.
The one that surprised me the most was the curriculum vitae of a successful lawyer. “A lawyer needs help writing?” I thought to myself. But did he ever, and it was obvious at first sight. Columns weren’t aligned, spelling conventions were inconsistent, important accomplishments were buried by run-on sentences, action verbs were weak and shifted tense for no reason, the entire document was in 12-point Times New Roman with no formatting, and it spilled awkwardly onto the upper quarter of a second page. This was from a smart and accomplished professional, and while this was the most notable example, it was far from being an anomaly.
So here’s a list of mistakes I see most often, and suggestions on how to fix them without having to pay someone else to do it (though I’ll gladly take your money). I’ll break this down into two categories.
I’ve heard a lot of resume experts say “avoid the graphics and fancy styles; it’s the content that matters!” And that’s sort of true. Unless you’re a applying to be a creative professional (graphics designer, singer, songwriter), you don’t want to waste valuable space on graphics and style. But that’s no excuse for letting it be ugly (like that lawyer did). You wouldn’t walk into an interview wearing jeans and a dirty t-shirt because “it’s my experience that counts.” Presentation absolutely matters. A simple, elegant, good-looking resume is the reader’s first cue that you’re a serious, professional candidate. Here’s a list of common style mistakes.
1. Choosing a boring font: Times New Roman, Arial, Calibri, whatever default font your editing program chooses–they’re lazy. Find something simple, professional, and less common than a default setting. Choose one that suits your field.
2. Not using bold, italic, or underlined text: You don’t want to overdo it, but using formatted text can make your document a lot easier to follow (e.g. use bold for your work position titles and the names of the schools you’ve attended).
3. Improperly aligning text: This is probably the most common mistake people make when using editing programs. Do not use spaces to align text! It looks stupid, it makes it very hard to make changes, and it will never align your content properly. Learn how to use tables, columns, and margins to align text properly. This is easily Googleable.
4. Spacing inconsistently: By default, Word adds extra space before and after bulleted/numbered lists and between paragraphs of the same style. You can change this in Word’s paragraph settings. There isn’t a wrong setting to use; just use it consistently, and make sure extra spacing isn’t making your resume look sparse.
5. Not using bullets: Remember, you want your resume to be as easy to read as possible. Use bullet points to draw the reader’s attention to the beginning of each item on your lists. Ideally, try to fit each bulleted phrase into one line. If you need to use two lines for one bullet point, try to put that one last so it doesn’t break the single-space flow of between the other bullets.
6. Using awkward categories: Your resume should include sections like: Experience, Achievements, Awards, Community Involvement, Professional Skills, Certifications, and Education (though preferably not all of them). Put Education either first or last (always last unless you’re applying for an academic position), and merge other categories whenever possible to simplify the document and save space (e.g. you might be able to list accomplishments under their respective “Experience” positions).
7. Adding a profile photo: Unless you’re applying for a modeling position, this is just weird. Leave the photo off your resume. If your employer really cares what you look like, they can probably find you on Facebook or LinkedIn.
8. Making it too long or too short: I find it’s more common for a resume to be too long rather than too short, but I’ve seen both. It should be a page or two at most, and it should include only the most necessary information without any fluff. You should also make sure that there aren’t any gaps in your work history (or to account for them as much as possible) as they could be a red flag for a hiring manager.
9. Going way back: That job at the photo developing lab in the 70s probably isn’t relevant anymore, even if you were the head honcho. Keep it contemporary. As a general rule, try to keep your work experience to the last decade, but if you did something really noteworthy outside of that time frame, it’s still okay to include it–just use your discretion.
10. Cramming text to fit everything: Have you ever seen a blog post or comment on a website that’s just a huge wall of text? Did you read it? Of course not. Wall-to-wall text is nauseating and hard to follow. Use white space wisely to separate your resume into visually logical sections.
11. Sending in Word format: Microsoft Word is notorious for rendering documents differently across platforms. In Word format (doc/docx), your resume will hardly ever look exactly the same on the hiring manager’s computer as it does on yours. Use Word’s “Save as type: PDF” option or use a PDF printing program (CutePDF is excellent) to generate a stable document.
Remember, a hiring manager will likely have a stack of resumes to consider, so s/he is only going to scan your document for a few seconds before deciding if it’s worth a closer read. Therefore, your information must be clear, concise, enticing, and easy to understand at a glance. Here’s a list of common content mistakes.
12. Including an objective: Don’t do it. A short personal statement is okay if it adds value (e.g. by articulating character traits that are important for the industry), but don’t ramble on about what kind of job you’re looking for. The hiring manager cares about the company’s goals, not yours.
13. Listing content in the wrong order: This one is simple. Put the most recent stuff first, and proceed in reverse chronological order (oldest stuff last), indicating each item with a start-year to end-year range (including the months is optional).
14. Ignoring job requirements: Before setting out to write or rewrite your resume, familiarize yourself with companies for which you’re interested in working. Get to know what they tend to look for and emphasize the pertinent qualifications you have. The more your resume is aligned with the posted job requirements, the more likely you are to get an interview.
15. Omitting contact info: If you want the company to contact you, make it easy for them! Provide your full address, one phone number, and an email address in a prominent place (usually right under your name at the top). By the way, don’t include “Address,” “Phone,” or “Email” before each item; the reader will be able to identify these without your help.
16. Using a “cute” email address: This isn’t your Myspace page. You’re not cute. Get over it. Use your full name, your first name and last initial, or your first initial and last name. Don’t use numbers, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, or other parts of speech. (Bad examples: robbyyy5, deanman, christinatina89, truetitan, princesspeach4u… you get it.)
17. Including personal details: A hiring manager doesn’t care about your age, birthday, or marital status. In fact, it might even be illegal for them to ask you about these things. So save the time and space. Don’t include it.
18. Using personal pronouns: Your resume is obviously about you. Don’t use “I,” “me,” “he,” “she,” “him,” or “her” when talking about yourself. It makes you look like a dilettante.
19. Using annoying catchphrases: If your resume contains cliche descriptors like “second to none,” “able to think outside the box,” or “people pleaser,” you need to do some rephrasing. Just describe what you achieved using strong verbs, and leave out the silly lingo.
20. Using a dated email domain: I was reluctant to include this because I’m not sure how it actually resonates with hiring managers, but I always get a negative vibe from professionals who still use Hotmail or Yahoo, probably because those domains are so often associated with the immature usernames mentioned above. Personally, just to be safe, I would go with Gmail, Outlook, or a private or academic domain (e.g. firstname.lastname@example.org).
21. Highlighting duties instead of achievements: A hiring manager cares less about what you were “responsible for” than what you achieved; reword points to emphasize what you actually did instead of what you were supposed to do.
22. Leaving out key details: As briefly as possible, be specific. Don’t say “Successfully managed a store with a team of employees” when you can say “Optimized store operations to increase sales by 10% and customer return rates by 1.3 times the annual average.”
23. Being too modest: This is the one time it’s good to brag. It’s great to be a modest, unassuming person in your daily life, but on your resume, you have to be the champion of your accomplishments. If it helps, imagine you’re writing the resume for someone else–someone whom you respect and admire.
24. Using jargon, acronyms, and abbreviations: Unless they are common and well-known in your field, spell things out for the reader or they might not know what you’re talking about. This is especially true for proprietary, company-specific language (e.g. “Managed CAT for the ECLU department” …you did what?)
25. Using inconsistent phraseology: I’ll explain. This one is important. I’ve actually read very few draft resumes that haven’t made this mistake, and I find it one of the most distracting things a writer can do. Use full sentences always or never, and use the same voice for all them. The simplest way to do this correctly is always to start with a past tense action verb (e.g. managed, ensured, assisted, directed, composed, oversaw, calculated, completed, succeeded). You can also put an adverb in front of any of these (e.g. successfully completed). But do not have one bullet that says “Managed XYZ” and another bullet that says “I was in charge of ABC.” Making the reader’s brain awkwardly shift gears like that is practically like asking them to stop reading. Here’s a trick: pick an imaginary phrase like “Michael has…” and stick that in front of each bullet point when you’re proofreading. If one of the bullets is grammatically incorrect with that little preamble, reword it. This will go a long way in making your resume easy to follow.
26. Using inconsistent verb tenses: Just use past tense verbs the whole way through. One exception might be when talking about a current position, but even then your accomplishments have always occurred in the past. If you need to use the present tense, use present participles (i.e. verbs ending in “-ing”), do so only for a current position and only for ongoing duties (e.g. “Ensuring client satisfaction with follow-up phone calls.”)
27. Using inconsistent punctuation: Either use full sentences and end all points with a period or (preferably) use point-style and do not use periods. Either way is okay if you do it consistently.
28. Not checking for spelling mistakes: This should be obvious, but people still forget. Even in documents that pass a Word spell check, it’s important to look for the wrong use of homonyms (e.g. “insured” instead of “ensured.”)
29. Making grammatical errors: This can be tricky for non-native speakers, but anyone is at risk of making a mistake here and there, so it’s always a good idea to have someone else proofread your documents before sending them. Poor grammar looks unprofessional, and it can distract from the content of your resume.
30. Listing references: In some countries this is common practice, but for applications to Western companies or any multinational company, you should never include references on your resume. They waste space, and you’ll be asked for them later. It’s best to prepare a separate annex document that neatly lists your references and their contact information. Send this second document only when you’re asked for it.
31. Omitting a cover letter: Yes, they can be tricky to write, but you need one, and it absolutely needs to be targeted. Take time to compose a professional letter, and it will pay off. To save time if you’re submitting multiple applications within the same industry, you can make yourself a template and modify key paragraphs for subsequent applications.