The most common resume mistakes and how to avoid them

May 02, 2024

6 mins

The most common resume mistakes and how to avoid them
Debbie Garrick

Freelance writer and translator, ex-recruiter

Your resume is the first impression a potential employer has and you often have just a few seconds to convince them to keep reading. Getting it right is crucial to success, but what does it take to hold their attention? Are there any tricks to getting past the Automatic Tracking System? What exactly do recruiters and hiring managers want to see? More importantly, what are the most common resume pitfalls and how do you avoid them?

Executive Resume and LinkedIn Writer, Virginia Franco, describes resumes as your “career marketing collateral” and after sixteen years in the business, she knows how to spot a howler. Check out her list of common resume mistakes and find out how to fix them. Follow her advice to refine your brand and ensure your key marketing material (aka your resume) hits the mark.

Mistake no. 1 - Being too vague

People are scared to write down exactly what they’re aiming for, they always want to keep their options open in the hope they might scoop up some role they haven’t even considered, but Franco says this is a mistake, “The truth is, how you write for Silicon Valley is different than how you write for Wall Street, and how you write if you’re targeting a finance job is different than if you’re targeting a sales role.” In a competitive market, you can’t appeal to everyone all at once. It waters down your impact and you’ll end up appealing to no one.

Franco’s tip: “List your headline at the top just like there’s a headline in a news article and tell the reader this is what the story’s about.”

Mistake no. 2 - Using an objective statement

Yep, we’re still right at the top of your resume. Franco explains she often sees resumes with this outdated format. Following the headline is a paragraph stating their objective, “Before we were taught to write an objective, for example, seeking a job to be able to do X, Y, and Z. What that objective does is it speaks about what you want, where the summary that we write today addresses what the reader wants.” You need to think like a marketer and put yourself in the Hiring Manager’s shoes. How can you solve their problem?

Franco’s tip: “What I like to do is write a paragraph that aligns with the job postings that people are targeting but then weaves in a couple of details about that person. What that does is it creates a paragraph that shows the reader why you’re a good fit but then because it weaves in a couple of nuggets of information about the person the reader walks away with a clear sense of what the story’s going to be about and they know a couple of things about them that will help to differentiate them and make them more memorable.”

Mistake no. 3 - Outdated formats

Your resume needs to keep up with the times, and some details that were crucial in the past are no longer valid:

  • Listing your full address.
  • Listing your home phone and cell.
  • Adding ‘references available upon request.’
  • Using the same format as when you graduated college with your education at the top if you’ve been in the workforce for five years or more.

Franco’s tip: List your city, state, and zip code plus your cell. As a rule, your professional experience should be at the top with your education at the end.

Mistake no. 4 - Typos

While you might get away with the odd typo, there’s no excuse for having mistakes in your resume. Depending on which survey you look at, a spelling mistake may or may not be damning, but when you only have a few seconds to catch a recruiter’s eye, you want to make sure the first impression is positive.

Franco’s tip: Use a spellchecker or something like Grammarly to go through it with a fine tooth comb. Ask a friend or peer to review it for you and make sure you are putting the best version possible out there.

Mistake no. 5 - Not catering to online readers

Franco says she commonly sees resumes that were clearly designed to be printed, but that although resumes do get printed, it’s not usually until the later stages of the recruitment process, the first review is usually done on some type of screen, so you have to write with online readers in mind.

Franco’s tip: Online readers are skimming, so here’s how to help them find the most pertinent information in their quick scan of your resume:

  • Leave white spaces between everything:
    “I keep my paragraphs to 2-3 lines so that they don’t get fatter and longer on mobile and then I add white space between each and every bullet and paragraph (0.5 on Microsoft Word is usually enough to help the reader). I don’t cram bullets together so you won’t see 4/5 bullets squished together. I add space in between them.”

  • Guide the reader down the page:
    Franco explains that online readers don’t necessarily read down the page the way you would read a book, so she orders things accordingly. “I will make sure to frontload what I write which means I’ll put the good stuff at the beginning of the sentence because skim readers don’t always read to the end. Then when people are jumping around the page if they see a list of bullets they tend to read the first thing and then you’d think if they have more time they’d go down to the second but actually, skim readers read the first, then the last, and then the stuff in the middle, so you have to be strategic in terms of ordering because you want the first thing they see to be something that hits them over the head.”

She also uses design elements like bold lettering or all caps to highlight things she wants the reader to take notice of. This could be something like previous companies, job titles, or career progression.

Mistake no. 6 - Using worn-out adjectives

We’ve all seen those phrases that everyone shoves onto resumes and into cover letters: seasoned executive, skilled communicator, outside-the-box creativity … Heads up, these are not words that wow.

Franco’s tip: Rather than rolling out an overused description, Franco advises you to “show not tell.” For example, “Let’s say you’re targeting a role as a journalist. Rather than writing a skilled communicator or skilled writer, I would say writer for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, etc. Then the reader will look at that and think, ‘Oh they wrote for the New York Times, so they must be good.’”

Mistake no. 7 - Listing responsibilities instead of achievements

Another common resume mistake Franco sees is people listing their responsibilities under their job titles rather than listing their achievements. “Everyone’s job usually has the same things as part of their role, it’s what you do with it that makes it memorable and impactful and makes the reader say, ‘This is what I want.’”

Franco’s tip: Think of your job like a home improvement show with a before and after. Look at your role and think to yourself, “What did things look like when I got there?” and “What did things look like after?” Consider your role in getting things from point A to point B, then write down why those changes were important and how they helped your company or team.

She also recommends you “Try to put some measurement and context around your achievements, rather than ‘grew sales’, it’s much more impactful to say ‘grew sales 30% year over year after 3 years of decline.’”

Mistake no. 8 - Keyword stuffing to trick the ATS

First off, you shouldn’t be afraid of being sandbagged by the ATS, according to Franco “By and large the myth that ATS can reject your resume is false. What people can do is the decision maker at the other end can program a couple of requirements, they call them knock-out questions, say you’re an accountant and you must have a CPA certification and you don’t have it, that could be programmed as a knock-out question and you’ll get an automatic rejection but the idea that if you don’t have enough keywords you’re getting kicked out, that’s not true.”

On the same note, you shouldn’t try to trick it by adding keywords in white font to hide them from the eye or other underhand tactics. They might help you through the first phase but they’re likely to backfire on you eventually.

Franco’s tip: Use the job listing as a guide and add keywords into your resume that align with the role – as long as you actually have them, that is. If you’re applying for roles that are a good fit for your experience, the chances are you do.

If you want to get on in the career world, a stellar resume is non-negotiable, it’s your first chance to show you’re the person for the job so it’s well worth spending the time to get it right. Think like a marketer and provide solutions to the company’s problems, don’t let your fate come down to a lack of white spaces or a glaring typo.

Work with the ATS and consider the keywords you’d like to include but don’t let them dominate your thinking. Show the reader just how good you are using facts, figures, and measurable achievements. Most of all, make it unique to you. Don’t trot out over-used phrases, take the chance to shine and get ready to land those interviews.

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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