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10 tips for avoiding common resume blunders

If you’re entering the job market for the first time or switching jobs after years in your field, the prospect of pulling your resume together can seem daunting. Here are 10 tips to help you steer clear of resume blunders. By Laura T. Coffey.
/ Source: contributor

Updating your resume — doesn’t that sound about as much fun as a poke in the eye with a sharp stick?

OK, OK, the experience might not be all that bad if you’re accustomed to keeping your resume updated and at-the-ready at all times. But if you’re entering the job market for the first time or switching jobs after years in your field, the prospect of pulling your resume together can seem daunting. And once you get around to doing it, it can be tempting to rush through the job.

First tip: Slow down. This document is hugely important, and this is a task that requires careful attention. A survey of executives with the nation’s 1,000 largest companies asked the question, “In your opinion, which of the following is the single most common mistake job seekers make on their resumes?” Their answers?

  • Typos or grammatical errors: 34 percent.
  • Including too much information: 22 percent.
  • Not listing achievements in former roles: 17 percent.
  • Poor layout and/or design: 17 percent.
  • Including too little information: 7 percent.

Here are 10 more tips to help you steer clear of these and other all-too-common resume blunders:

1. Focus on sparkling success stories, not ho-hum job duties. Most people can perform basic job duties — and then list those job duties in a Word document. BOR-ing. To stand out, you’ve got to stress what you accomplished while doing your job. Ask yourself these kinds of questions: Did you really shine in certain ways in your last job or jobs? How so? Did you overcome any serious challenges or problems? (Be careful with this one. You don’t want to go negative in your resume; you just want to emphasize that you’re a problem-solver.) Did you make money for the organization, or save the organization money? What impressive results can you cite? Were you singled out for awards or promotions?

2. Avoid vague or stale objective statements. Job-search Web site offers this as an example of an ineffective and essentially meaningless objective: “A challenging position enabling me to contribute to organizational goals while offering an opportunity for growth and advancement.” Rather than serve up something like that, craft a clear and specific objective for each employer you approach. In the body of your resume, state your objective right under your contact information. Then list your relevant work experience starting with the most recent, and then provide details about your education, special training and memberships in professional organizations. (If you just graduated from college, you can list your education first.)

3. Don’t sell yourself short on a single sheet of paper. The pressure to keep your resume down to just one page can get to be a little bit ridiculous at a certain point in your life – and the struggle may not even be necessary, especially if you have years of experience in your field. Hiring managers say they don’t want you to omit important accomplishments for the sake of brevity. At the same time, they also don’t want to endure long, rambling resumes chock full of irrelevant details. The guiding principle should be: “Will this nugget of information on my resume get me in the door for an interview?” If you find yourself answering “no,” leave that detail out.

4. Know what not to include. Avoid mentioning any of the following: irrelevancies such as the names of your spouse and children or your age, height or weight; detailed lists of hobbies or short courses you’ve taken, unless they’re relevant to the position you’re seeking; salary history; reasons for leaving past jobs; and all references to health.

5. Pay attention to personal pronouns and verbs. Resumes tend to follow a certain style, and that style is tightly written and telegraphic in nature. Don’t refer to yourself with the terms “I” and “me”; instead, start each resume entry with strong verbs and action phrases, such as, “Managed a team of 800,” “Developed a cure for cancer,” “Saved the company $5 million.” That sort of thing! For more ideas about how to do this, check out the lengthy list of flattering-sounding “action phrases” and “power verbs” listed here, and take a quick refresher course on active and passive verbs here.

6. Spell check, spell check, spell check. Typos on a resume are just plain bad. Run everything through a grammar and spell check on the computer, but don’t rely solely on that. Proofread your resume again and again, and ask one or more people you trust to read it over as well. Ask your proofreader-friends to point out grammar and spelling errors, as well as phrases or sentences that seem unclear and details that seem irrelevant. Also be on the lookout for inaccurate or missing dates and contact information.

7. Don’t forget to include keywords. What are keywords? They’re relevant job titles, responsibilities, skills, education and industry-specific terms, and they should be sprinkled throughout your resume. If you’re applying for an advertised position, take note of the desired skills and traits mentioned in the ad and then incorporate the same or similar words and key phrases into your resume and cover letter. Wherever possible, use strong nouns, such as “manager,” to grab attention.

8. There’s no need to refer to those references. Does your resume still have that “References available upon request” phrase on it? Maybe it’s centered at the bottom of the page to make it look a little bit fancy? Well, you can go ahead and delete that phrase and bump up your font size, because hiring managers know you’ll give them references if they request them. Definitely remember to do this: Give all of your references a heads up that they might be getting a phone call or e-mail from so-and-so at such-and-such company, and send them a copy of your resume so they’ll be up to speed on your latest accomplishments.

9. Follow instructions. Submit your materials exactly the way the employer wants to see them. If a company specifies that it only accepts hard copies of resumes, don’t send yours via e-mail. If e-mail is preferred but attachments are not, don’t send any attachments. If attachments are desired, attach your resume, and also consider playing it safe by including a copy of it in the body of your e-mail message as well. (Some attachments may never get opened because of compatibility issues or concerns about viruses.)

10. Remember that cover letters always count. No matter how fancy or well-formatted or spotless your resume is, it will all be for naught unless you include a well-written cover letter. If hard copies of your resume and cover letter are called for, send a polished package. Use high-quality white or off-white paper, and select a professional-looking, non-decorative font. Never fold your resume. Address your cover letter to a specific individual if you can, and don’t forget to sign it.

Sources and resources:

  • “Monster Careers: How to Land the Job of Your Life,” by Jeff Taylor with Doug Hardy
  • “From Here to There: A Self-Paced Program for Transition in Employment,” by Lawrence A. Stuenkel