How to Avoid Common Resume Mistakes

It's very hard to write your own resume because a resume is a macro view of your life, but you live your life at the micro level, obsessing about daily details that have no bearing on your resume. For that reason, a lot of people hire someone to help them. After all, spending money on a resume writer is one of the few expenditures that will have good return right away.

But if you're writing your resume on your own, the first thing you'll have to do is make some mental shifts. You need to rethink the goals of a resume, and rethink the rules of a resume in order to approach the project like the best of the resume professionals. That means not making the most common resume mistakes, and not breaking a few key rules.

1. Don't focus on your responsibilities, focus on what you achieved. A resume is not your life story. No one cares. If your life story were so interesting, you'd have a book deal. The only things that should be on your resume are achievements. Anyone can do their job, but only a small percentage of the population can do their job well, wherever they go.

The best way to show that you did your job well is from achievements. The best achievement is a promotion because it's an objective way to show that you impressed the people you work for. The next best way to show objective measures is to present quantified achievements. Most people do not think in terms of quantified achievements when they are in the job, but on the resume, that's the only part of the job that matters. No one can see that you were a "good team player" on your resume unless you can say "established a team to solve problem x and increased sales x percent" or "joined under-performing team and helped that team beat production delivery dates by three weeks."

Steer clear of expressions like "Duties included," "Responsibilities included," or "Responsible for." That's job-description language, and not what employers are looking for. Use action verbs instead, but minimize the use of "I" and articles (the, an, a). Write a self evaluation and for each achievement, ask yourself: "What does this accomplishment say about me, and what I can do for this employer I want to work for?"

2. Don't make your resume a moral statement; it's a marketing document. The best marketing documents show the product in the very best light, which means using whatever most outrageous tactics possible to make you look good. As long as you are not lying, you will be fine. Here's an example: You join a software company that just launched a product and the product had so many problems that they had to hire someone to handle the calls. You start doing the tech support, and you work tons of overtime because the calls are so backed up. You clean up the phone queue and then you start taking long lunches because there's not a lot to do, and then you start job hunting because the job is boring.

Here's how you summarize this job on your resume: Assumed management responsibility for tech support and decreased call volume 20 percent. How do you know 20 percent? Who knows? It was probably more. But you can't quantify exactly, so err on the safe side. But if you just say "Did tech support for a software company" no one knows you did a good job.

3. Keep it all on one page. The idea of a resume is to get someone to call you. Talk with you on the phone. Offer you an interview. So a resume is like a first date. You only show your best stuff and you don't show it all. Some people dump everything they can think of onto their resume, but a resume is not the only chance you'll have to sell yourself. In fact, the interview is where the hard-core selling takes place. So you only put your very best achievements on the resume. Sure, there will be other questions people will want answers to, but that will make them call you. And that's good, right?

For those of you who can't bear to take off the twenty extra lines on your resume because you think the interviewer has to see every single thing about you right away, consider that a hiring manager has to sift through a pile of resumes to figure out which person to interview; each resume gets about a ten-second look. If you think you need a longer resume, give someone one page of your resume and have them look at it for ten seconds. Ask them what they remember; it won't be much. They are not going to remember any more information in ten seconds if you give them two pages to look at; ten seconds is ten seconds.

If you have a long job history behind you, beware of age discrimination. Employers might think you're too expensive if you have loads of experience. If you're at the senior level, list about 15 years of job history (no more) and don't provide the date of your college graduation if it was more than about 10 years ago.

4. Ditch the line about references on request. It's implied. Of course, if someone wants a reference, you will give one. No one presumes that you will not. So when you write that you will provide a reference you seem to not understand how the game is played.

Don't list references on your resume at all; if they are requested along with your resume, list them on a separate sheet.

Bonus tip: If you have an excellent reference, like a CEO of a company, have the reference call before you even go to the interview. Sets the tone for the employer to think you are amazing.

5. Tread lightly on the personal interests line. Your personal interests are not there to make you look interesting. They are there to get you an interview. Every line on your resume is there to get you an interview. So only list personal interests that reveal a quality that will help you meet the employer's needs.

If you are in sports marketing, then by all means, list that you kayak. If you were an Olympic athlete, put it down because it shows focus and achievement. If you are a mediocre hobbyist, leave it off. Personal interests that don't make you stand out as an achiever do not help you. And personal interests that are weird make you look weird and you don't know if your interviewer likes weird or not, so leave weird off the resume.

6. Don't be a designer unless you are. If you have more than three fonts on your resume and you're not a designer, you've botched the layout. If design was easy, no one would get paid for it. Recognize your strengths and keep design elements to the bare minimum. And leave Photoshop out of it: Just because you know how to use the shading tools doesn't mean you know how to use them well. Stay away from overused templates (like those in Microsoft Word) because you won't stand out, and it makes you look completely generic.


Tailor your resume to each position. One-size-fits-all resumes should be avoided, unless you're casting a very wide net (versus applying for a specific company or position).

If you are only putting achievements on your resume, you are going to be hard-pressed to fill a whole page. That's okay. Anything on your resume that is not an achievement is wasting space, anyway, because you don't know what a hiring manager will look at first—and if you have ten good achievements and three mediocre lines about your life story, the hiring manager may only read those three lines—so remove them.

It's very hard to see your achievements from the trenches; you might think you did not have achievements because your boss doesn't ask you to do achievements, your boss asks you to do tasks and projects. But you need to recognize that you do not see achievements and ask for help to see them. A resume coach, or even a friend, can help you to see them more clearly.

List items in order of importance or relevance to the reader. Many people write the dates first, and while dates are important, they're not the most important.

• Job history: Title / position, name of employer, city / state of employer, dates of employment.

• If the company you work for is unknown, or the nature of the company isn't obvious from the name, describe the business, note its revenues and maybe how old it is; otherwise, a recruiter or hiring manager will have to look up the company description, which takes up more of their time.

• Education: Name of degree (spelled out: Bachelor of _____) in name of major, name of university, city/state of university, graduation year, followed by peripheral information, such as minor and GPA.

Accompany your resume with a short and succinct cover letter/email.


List your most recent job first. Chronological order is only a good idea if you are looking to get hired to go back in time. Otherwise you look like you're bucking resume writing convention in order to hide something, which you probably are, but you have to do it with a better sleight of hand than that.

Spell check your resume. Then check the spelling yourself. Then have someone else proofread it. Resumes with typographical errors often automatically get moved to the bottom of the pile. If you can't be trusted to pay attention to such an important detail in your job search, what does it say about your potential job performance?

Have a professional email address using just a combination of your names and/or initials! While it is fine to use with your friends, using it a resume implies you do not know what is appropriate in a business environment.

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