The key to avoiding resume mistakes is to follow what I call the golden rule of resume writing: your “how I can help you” message needs to jump off the page in the 15 seconds or less that someone will look at your resume. The reader’s “no” or “maybe” decision is made so quickly that your key selling points really need to stand out. By contrast, the mistakes listed below make the reader work too hard to figure out how you can help them, or how you differ from the competition (this advice applies equally to your LinkedIn profile)
1. Big Paragraphs
Big paragraphs are a big stop sign to the resume reader. No one wants to take the time to wade through six lines of text to read your long description of your responsibilities. You want to make your resume easily “scannable” to the human eye so the reader can see your value by just skimming through it.
To help make your resume scannable, here’s a rule of thumb I share with clients: no block of resume text should have more than three lines in it. One line is optimal, two is ok, three is the maximum. If I see more than three lines in a bullet point, I can always find a way to either a) split it up into two separate points to make each point more powerful, or b) get rid of extra, repetitive, or overly detailed text and eliminate a line or two.
2. Just responsibilities, few/no accomplishments
Most resumes I edit start off as just a collection of responsibilities. That’s a problem, because most of your competition, with similar backgrounds to yours, will list responsibilities that are similar to yours as well. You can stand out from the competition, however, by describing how well you executed those responsibilities. Accomplishments will both differentiate you and show the value of your experience.
Seek to convert every bulleted responsibility into an accomplishment; that is, add the “so what.” Use numbers where possible to quantify your accomplishments. But if numbers don’t exist or you can’t estimate them, find other ways, e.g. “performed above expectations,” or “well received by executives,” or “all recommendations were implemented.” See this blog post for more ideas on how to create great resume bullets.
3. Bland phrases that add nothing
When I give seminars on resumes, I ask “who here is not a results-oriented problem solver?” Of course no one raises their hand, because everyone is, including you! So don’t bother to put in phrases like this, or other overused phrases (e.g. “multitasker,” “references available upon request,” etc.) that don’t add anything useful into your resume. This extra text just makes it harder for the great stuff in your background to stand out.
4. Too much detail
Often I’ll see bullets that contain buzzwords or acronyms that only mean something to my client’s current employer, not to the employer where they want to work. Get rid of those buzzwords and acronyms. I don’t want any of your potential employers to have to read anything on your resume more than once to understand what you’re saying (it needs to jump off the page). Also eliminate unnecessary detail. The less “extra” words that you have, the more likely it is that the important things will stand out that you really want them to see.
5. Including an “Objective statement”
An Objective statement is all about you. But the hiring manager cares far less about your objective than about how you can help them! So in general leave it out (with some exceptions for college students). Instead, have a powerful Summary Section with a headline that communicates how you can help them.
A summary section goes a long way toward creating a resume that resonates. Think of it as your “elevator speech” or “pitch” right at the top of your resume– the first thing a reader sees. In a summary section, the most relevant, impactful accomplishments are at the top of the first page where they will be seen, not buried somewhere on page 2 (you can repeat the accomplishments again further down in the resume, under the appropriate job).
Case Study: Lori came to me for help after getting nowhere with her job search. I quickly spotted the problem when she showed me her resume. She was going for a Business Development Director position but her resume led off with her most recent job as a social worker in private practice. No wonder hiring managers were sending her resumes to the “round file”!
So, in Lori’s case, we placed a title at the top of her resume, in large font, that reflected her job target–“Director of Business Development.” The rest of the summary section contained keywords and phrases that resonated with her target audience (e.g. “marketing,” “publicity,” “staff leadership,” etc.) and separated her from the competition. Also, crucially, the summary section contained her “greatest hits” – bullets about her business development successes that were pulled from throughout her resume.
6. Following made up rules that ignore the “Golden Rule”
So many “experts” tout a variety of resume rules, things like “leave out any experience that’s over 10 years old,” or “keep your resume to one page” (or is it two pages?), and so forth. Forget these rules. Instead, just remember the Golden Rule, that you want your “how I can help you” message to jump off that page in 15 seconds or less; whatever can help achieve this goal is good, otherwise you’re hurting the delivery of your message.
7. Using a “functional” resume format (i.e. non-chronological)
Always use the reverse chronological format for your job experience, following the resume summary section. Try anything else, and the reader will a) not take the time to figure out what you’re doing, or b), think you’re hiding something. The resume Summary Section is the place to fix all kinds of problems with your background, e.g. resume gaps, relevant experience that’s older, changing careers/industries, etc. You don’t need an alternative resume format.
8. Focusing on your current/most recent job, not on the job you’re going for
Too often, I’ll see resumes that contain all the keywords and buzzwords that are relevant to their current job, but will only serve to make the jobseeker seem like an “outsider” to the employer they want to work for (and everyone wants to hire insiders). If you are a business analyst in a financial services company, and want to move to the pharmaceutical industry, don’t highlight how you “increased ROI on credit card balances by 25%” since pharma could care less about credit card balances. Just say “increased ROI by 25%.” Get it?
9. Tiny fonts, narrow margins
These usually go hand in hand, coinciding with the client trying to fit everything on one page, or two pages (see mistake #6 above). Tiny fonts means “hard to read” if someone prints it out. For a typical 8.5” x 11” Word document page, Arial 11, Times New Roman 12, or another common font of comparable size is just right. And don’t go smaller than Times New Roman 11! Narrow margins, e.g. 1/2 inch or less, means your resume ends up looking like an intimidating “wall of text” that makes it hard to read. Much better is to let your resume go a bit longer so that you can include more white-space, which will improve readability. And readability is key to having your “how I can help you” message jump off the page.
10. Not emphasizing text appropriately using bolding/underlining/caps/font size
Say you are going for an “SVP of Marketing” position at a media company but you are currently an SVP of Marketing at a financial services institution. Which of these three options is the best way to start off the listing for this job on your resume?
JP MORGAN CHASE
SVP of Marketing
JP Morgan Chase
SVP of Marketing
JP Morgan Chase
SVP OF MARKETING
Hopefully you got the correct answer, which is option c. The reason: you are emphasizing the experience that they are looking for (svp of marketing), and de-emphasizing the financial services experience that highlights your lack of a media company background. So make sure you use emphasis to steer their eye to the elements of your resume that show how you can help them, and away from those that aren’t relevant to what they’re looking for.
By the way, many of these same mistakes (and their solutions) also apply to creating a powerful LinkedIn profile, as I explain in my book Advanced LinkedIn.