The 7 Biggest Resume Mistakes to Avoid
While recruiters scan resumes in search of qualifying criteria, they're also always on the hunt for reasons to eliminate candidates. It's a tactic that makes sorting through hundreds of applications that much easier, and that much more efficient.
It's important, then, that you craft a resume that gives readers absolutely no cause for pause. In other words, you need to make sure that your document is not just well written and beautifully formatted, but also entirely error-free.
Read on to find out more about the biggest mistakes you need to avoid when writing your resume. If you haven't started compiling this vital job search document just yet, our free Resume Builder is a handy resource in your quest to put together a flawless submission.
Vague statements and overused phrases
Recruiters are looking for specificity and originality; not delivering either of these things is a misstep that could cost you the job.
"If you include vague descriptions of your experience like 'Handled all aspects of operations' or 'Used a wide variety of programs', you're telling the reader that you don't care enough to tell them the details," says seasoned resume writer Beth Brown, co-author of "The Damn Good Résumé Guide: A Crash Course in Résumé Writing, Fifth Edition". "Each statement on your resume should paint a picture in the mind of the reader and tell a clear story about something you did that is impressive and relevant to what they're looking for."
Brown is equally opposed to what she calls "stale, overused and redundant language," and stresses that if you want your resume to stand out among the hundreds that hiring managers are reviewing on a weekly basis, you cannot make the mistake of using tired terminology that appears on every other application.
"If you start your statements with, 'Responsibilities include…' or 'Managed…', the reader's eyes will glaze over and your resume may not receive the attention it deserves," Brown warns. Instead, she recommends beginning phrases with strong action verbs — examples include "coordinated", "executed", "accelerated" and "mobilized" — and employing "vibrant language to bring energy and excitement into your resume".
Typos, grammatical errors and stylistic blunders
You might think that one small spelling error isn't a huge deal (especially if you're applying for a job that doesn't prioritize communication skills), but many recruiters agree that such mistakes are instant disqualifiers.
"We would not meet a candidate who sent us a resume or cover letter with one or more spelling and grammar mistakes," say Damian Chiam and Janou Pakter, COO and CEO (respectively) of creative executive search firm JANOU LLC. "Those who communicate mostly via social media, where speed is much more important than language and grammar, probably don't even notice spelling and grammar mistakes, but many of us do, and we see them as an indication of sloppiness and a lack of attention to detail, and a suggestion that the candidate is unprofessional and even uneducated."
Brown agrees. "A big mistake that can make or break a resume is not carefully proofreading it before sending it to a prospective employer," she says, pointing out that spacing issues are also hugely problematic. "Computer spell checks are not enough — use your own or a friend's eyes to review your resume to make sure that it is visually appealing and correct."
Similarly, professional resume writer and career coach Debra Wheatman, president of Careers Done Write, recommends using Grammarly, Grammar Girl's tips, style guides, and every and any other resource at your disposal to make sure your resume is free of typos and grammar mistakes.
She also urges job seekers to remember the following specific grammar and style-related points when writing a resume:
- In a list that begins with the word "including", the comma should appear before "including", not after it (example: "Oversaw a number of operational activities, including…").
- Lists in resumes should never end in "etc."
- If your resume includes a bolded element, any punctuation touching that element should also be bold.
- Homophones (words that are pronounced identically, but have different meanings) can easily trip you up — you need to be able to distinguish between them (example: "principle" and "principal" or "complementary" and "complimentary").
Recruiters and hiring managers are busy people. They do not have time to pore over five pages of prattle in an attempt to find the one or two details they really need to know. As a result, if your resume is too long, it's probably not going to be read at all.
"Don't write too much as you're likely just repeating yourself, and it shows your inability to be concise," advise Chiam and Pakter. They recommend that entry-level candidates and those who have up to approximately eight years of experience should not exceed one page, while senior candidates and executives should stick to two pages.
Having said that, it's important that your resume isn't too short either. Anything under a page might imply that you don't have much to say about your skills, experience and education, which won't reflect well on your fit for the job.
A lack of customization
One size definitely does not fit all in the world of resumes.
"You have to customize your resume," stresses Wheatman. "You have to tweak it for the position that you're applying for."
She suggests that job seekers write targeted aspirational resumes by including the job title in question (the one on the job description) right at the top of their documents. This way, you "establish your brand and set the tone in the mind of the hiring manager by telling them that this is what you are," while also ticking an important keyword box if your application is scanned by an applicant tracking system (ATS).
On that note, Wheatman also suggests that you run the job posting through a word cloud generator to make it easier to identify key phrases used frequently by hiring managers. These terms should then be included throughout your resume. "You want to make it as close a match as possible, without lying, of course," she says.
Failure to highlight achievements over duties
Another major resume mistake to avoid, says Brown, is listing job responsibilities and duties, rather than achievements and results. Recruiters don't only want to know what you did in past roles; they want to know what value you brought to the table — how you made a real difference to companies and left them better off than when you arrived.
While it's a good idea to quantify accomplishments using numbers wherever possible, Brown says you can also include expressions that show that you did an excellent job. A line like, "Received recognition from senior management for outstanding performance" would work, she asserts.
"Describing your experience in this way is more exciting to the reader," Brown explains. "If you are competing with other job seekers who have the same basic experience and skills, your resume will stand out more if you show the positive effect or outcome of your efforts."
Too much emphasis on the past, not enough on the future
As Wheatman says, "It's not about what you are; it's about what you want to be". Or, put differently, it's not about what you've done, but what you can do going forward.
"One of the biggest mistakes you can make is thinking that your resume is about your past," warns Brown. "Instead, think of it as your next step into your future." She goes on to explain that if you focus too much on your history, you might fail to consider how what you've done relates to what you want to be doing in future and, more specifically, to the requirements of the position you're seeking.
"As a marketing tool, your resume needs to focus on your experiences and accomplishments as they relate to your desired next job," she says, adding, "This is especially true if you are changing careers or re-entering the professional world after a break."
Too much narrative, not enough facts
While you do want your resume to tell a story, it can't just be a narrative, with few facts or specific details.
"We sometimes see resumes that read like a magazine," say Chiam and Pakter. "Resumes should mainly state facts and provide clear information on dates, job titles, responsibilities, experiences and education. Too many details on just your motivation, and on what your hopes and passions are, is not a good idea — this can be covered in your cover letter or email introduction."
At the end of the day, while a resume is a self-marketing tool, the emphasis shouldn't only be on you, your intentions and what you're hoping to gain from the position. You need to consider what sort of information recruiters (and ATS bots) need to make a decision, and you should ensure these details are both present and easy to find.
Concerned you're still making some of the classic resume mistakes? Consider putting our Resume Templates to use — they'll help you to stay on track and avoid some of the key blunders that might cost you the job.