Before you get invited in for an interview, employers and recruiters look at your resume to see if you’re a good enough candidate for the job to be worth their time. If your resume doesn’t look good, you don’t look good. Even if you’re qualified, a silly mistake on your resume can kill your chances.
Think of your resume as your 60 second audition in front of a judge on one of those reality TV talent shows. The person reviewing your resume will quickly decide whether to give you a shot at the big time or send you packing. So the golden rule is: Make a good first impression, and don’t look dumb!
You can do this by avoiding common mistakes on your resume — the kind that we see even great candidates making. Remember, you only have a few seconds to either make a good first impression or to make a really bad one.
1. Spelling mistakes and grammatical errors
A grammar error or misspelling can stand out like a sore thumb and tell the employer that you’re careless. Luckily, these mistakes are easily avoidable. Spell check, but don’t rely on spell check to do all of the work for you.
I have seen plenty of resumes with embarrassing mistakes that spell check didn’t catch — it was a real word, just not the one that the candidate wanted to use in his resume (be careful to never, ever leave that first “L” out of “public relations” in your resume).
Take the extra time to re-read your resume several times or have an English major friend look it over for you. It’s easy to miss even big, embarrassing mistakes when you’ve been looking at your resume for too long.
Your eyes see what you meant to type instead of what’s really there. An objective reader can make a big difference in helping you catch spelling and grammar problems as well as many of the other mistakes listed in this post.
It is particularly important to proofread carefully if you are applying for jobs that require writing skills and/or attention to detail. For a potential future boss, your resume is your first work sample and should reflect your ability to write, edit, and proofread if hired.
If you’re not sure about grammar, word usage, capitalization or punctuation issue, just look it up. Grammar Girl is just one great resource for practical application of grammar rules.
2. Sloppy formatting and fonts
You want your resume to stand out, but there is such a thing as standing out in a bad way. You may think it’s creative to use 6 different fonts and colors, but that kind of creativity tends to just look clumsy. Avoid too many font types and steer clear of font sizes that are too big or too small.
Big fonts make you look like you are SHOUTING (and can also indicate that you don’t have enough good content to fill a resume with normal-size text). Small fonts may help you keep your resume to one page, but it’s not worth it if the reader has to squint
You should also avoid long paragraphs and long blocks of text. Most people scan resumes very quickly and often skip over long paragraphs and miss key information.
Use white space and bullets to make your resume format easy on the eye. Use of bullets can also ensure better reader comprehension when visually scanned.
Leave comfortable margins on the page and make sure that everything is neatly aligned. Look neat. Look smart.
Also, keep in mind that there’s a good chance you resume will be scanned electronically as more and more companies use special software to index resumes. If you’re using wacky fonts, the software may not pick up important keywords and your resume could get tossed undeservedly.
3. Just plain ugly
Your resume is meant to be a marketing document — an introduction that will get you in the door for an interview. This isn’t the time to “think outside the box” and design a glossy, hot pink, legal-sized resume with clip art and glitter. There are better ways to demonstrate your creativity. Save the arts and crafts for Pinterest.
Also, avoid using weird colors, weird formats, or weird paper stock. Your resume should be simple and elegant. Go minimalist and let the words speak for themselves.
If you’re presenting a hard copy of your resume in person, make sure it doesn’t look like it was just pulled out of the trash can (or it’s very likely to end up back in the circular file).
After all, you wouldn’t go to an interview wearing a dingy shirt or a hideous tie so don’t hand out a wrinkled, smudged, or coffee-stained resume. When you bring your resume to an interview, carry it in a folder to keep it crisp and fresh.
We have a full article on resume design rules if you need to double-check yours.
4. Too short
In general, try to keep your resume to 1-2 pages in length. Recent graduates should aim to stick to one page while more experienced candidates can get away with using more space.
If you’re still short on work experience and are having difficulty filling a page, think about listing relevant school coursework and extracurricular activities. Include volunteer work and the contributions you’ve made in that arena.
You’ll also have space to list pertinent skills — including your prowess with different software programs and other tactical skills that apply to the job (review the job description and use the employer’s language).
As you develop in your career and add more jobs to your resume, you won’t have space for these “extras.” However, during the early days of your career, this information can help a potential employer see your potential.
Remember to use common sense here: No need to mention your collection of Twilight memorabilia or that you were runner-up in the 2010 SpongeBob look-alike competition.
5. Too long
Even if you’ve been working for many years, you should try to keep your resume to 2 pages if possible. There are exceptions — CVs for academic positions and some other roles tend to be longer and more detailed. (I know this first-hand since I just reviewed a 79-page resume from the very accomplished academic client).
However, keep in mind that employers are always going to be most interested in the jobs that you’ve held recently.
Use your space wisely to share more details about your most current and relevant work experience and edit down the descriptions of your earlier jobs to the bare necessities.
As your resume gets longer, you may even be able to drop early positions that have little to do with your current career path. Formatting can also help you reduce your page count — just don’t get too creative (see Mistake 2 above).
6. Lies and half-truths
If you lie on your resume, you’re taking a big risk. First of all, you’re very likely to get busted during the background and reference checks. Even if you get lucky and make it through the hiring process, dishonesty on your resume can get you fired down the road — even if you’ve been doing a great job.
If you haven’t yet graduated from college, for example, put down the name of the school you’re attending and state your expected graduation date. Don’t say you’ve graduated if you haven’t.
Another common fib is with languages. Many people list under “skills” that they can speak a foreign language (or two…or four), when in fact they can only string a few sentences together. Don’t think you won’t eventually be found out – you will. And trust me, it’s tough to learn Japanese in a weekend.
7. Sketchy job dates
One of the main things that employers focus on is how long you worked at your previous jobs. They are going to be scanning for dates and zeroing in on short tenures and long gaps between positions.
Make sure to put down, for each job, the date that you started working and the date that you left (month and year is sufficient). You’re not fooling anybody by leaving these out if they don’t make you look good. A lack of dates will read as an attempt to hide something. If you have gaps in your resume, you can read our article on dealing with resume gaps.
Proof the dates carefully. It’s easy to overlook mistakes when it comes to numbers. You don’t want your resume to say “May 2090” instead of “May 2009.”
8. Contact information
This may sound silly, but it happens more often you might think: people forget to update their resumes to include their most recent contact information.
If you’ve moved or changed phone numbers, make sure that your phone number, address, and e-mail information is up to date.
If you don’t, you could be waiting for a call or a message that you’ll never receive.
Also, make sure you have a professional looking email address. If your name is John Smith, using the address “[email protected]” (which you hilariously created in 2005) is not a good idea.
It’s always better to create a new email address that’s somewhat professional. Even if you can’t get [yourname]@gmail.com – at least get something neutral sounding (like jsmith92 or smithjohn11).
Also, don’t get an address that’s too long and weird (like [email protected]). It’s too easy for a typo to happen when someone is emailing you – and it’ll drive people crazy.
9. Vague objective
If you want to include an objective in your resume, make sure that it’s as tailored as possible to the job that you’re applying for.
Avoid vague statements like: Looking to apply my skills and experience in a fast-paced, challenging environment.
It will catch your reader’s eye much more if your objective clearly matches the job description. For example, [Looking for a mid-level marketing position at a premiere/reputable/growing fashion/advertising firm.]
You should also think about whether including an objective statement is really the best use of that prime real estate at the top of your resume. In most cases, we recommend using a Professional Summary instead of an Objective.
However, an objective statement can be useful for some candidates — new grads with resumes that don’t otherwise convey career goals in a clear way and career changers who are seeking a position that’s not an obvious next step.
10. Too general or irrelevant
Your resume should be focused, concise and emphasize achievements and skills that fit the job you’re applying for. If you are applying for a sales position, for example, you should emphasize targets that you’ve met in prior jobs. Including percentages and numbers can be useful.
For example, [“Increased _______ by 25% in Store XYZ” or “Reduced operations backlog by 50% for the fiscal year in 2009.”] Think about how best to present your experience and skills in a way that would impress your potential employer.
This probably means customizing your resume for each position, especially if you are considering more than one type of opportunity. Carefully review the job description and then take the time to tailor your resume to emphasize the strengths and experience that are most relevant for the position.
11. Including “red flag” information
Your goal is to land an interview by giving the employer a compelling overview of the job skills and experience that make you a good candidate. Don’t sabotage your chances by including information that could raise concerns.
Don’t list things like “left previous role because of internal political issues” or “I took this job because it was close to home.” There will be time to discuss your reasons for leaving and taking positions in the interview.
By then, you will have used Big Interview to prepare and practice so that you can discuss your reasons in a positive and professional way.
12. Too much information
You want your employer to know what you did in your previous jobs, but you don’t need to include the kitchen sink.
Describe your job duties in enough detail to give the employer a good idea of your general responsibilities.
Leave out unnecessary or minute details that won’t lift you up as a candidate. More importantly: Highlight your job achievements. Use bullet-points to help the reader focus in on your accomplishments.
Too many candidates make the mistake of including a detailed job description instead of emphasizing individual contributions.
13. Passive tone of voice.
Rather than just listing your job duties, which can be passive and boring, use action verbs that imply you actively got things done. Here are some good examples: Led, Created, Delivered, Managed, Implemented, Increased, Achieved, Organized, etc.
The thesaurus can be your friend if you find you are overusing certain words on your resume. Just don’t get too crazy trying to impress them with your awesome vocabulary — you want them to actually understand what you did (skip “confabulate” and “propagage” and other Word-of-the Day entries).
Your resume is your first face forward to the employer, so it’s very important that you take the time to to make sure it looks great and is an accurate and powerful representation of your qualifications. Common mistakes (even the seemingly little ones) can kill your chances of getting an interview. When it comes to your resume, you really can’t be too perfect.
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