Resumé Mistakes to Avoid

I review a lot of resumés. I used to do it regularly when hiring, and now it is part of my client intake process. I love to see the various ways people present themselves and their experiences. We are a creative species. That said, we are not all skilled writers.

What I find interesting is that generally speaking, everyone is making the same kind of mistakes on their resumés. Clearly, somewhere along the way, whether high school, university, or online resources, we are finding the same bad resumé advice. Or perhaps we are just ignoring the same good advice. It’s hard to say. Still, there are six common mistakes I see over and over from job seekers in all industries – mistakes that may be preventing them from getting the interview that will lead to their dream job.

Here they are, in no particular order:


Jargon is always a problem with a military-to-civilian transition clients. After many years of service, they just don’t know how to talk about their military career without using a lot of military-specific words. However, this is not a military-specific problem. I see it all the time. Both finance and IT, for example, love their jargon and their acronyms.

Trust me; if you want a hiring manager to understand your experience, you must use plain language. Even when applying within your industry, the human resources staff are not necessarily experts in the field – they are experts at hiring. So, think of equivalencies. Focus on leadership and discipline with words like mentoring, efficiency, and workload planning.

Military personnel can replace words like platoon or squad with “team” or “crew,” and job titles like tank crewmember with “heavy equipment operator.” And everyone should do their best to avoid acronyms. Even if you write them out the first time, overuse makes for difficult reading.

Lack of Target or Focus.

If you can’t figure out what kind of job you want, how do you expect a prospective employer to know where to put you? Every job search should be targeted, and every resumé and cover letter should be customized to the specific job it is being submitted for.

While it is no longer recommended to include an ‘Objective’ on your resumé, you can use a ‘Summary of Qualifications’ or ‘Profile’ section to outline what you offer to a potential employer. This section should be tweaked for every application, so it speaks directly to the job requirements.

Generic, task-based content.

The surest way to get lost in the crowd is to prepare a resumé that is little more than a list of job duties, tasks, and responsibilities. Please don’t cut and paste from a job description. It is such a lost opportunity. Anyone who has ever done your job could say the same thing. How do you describe that job in a way that makes you stand out – that proves you did it well?

Remember that employers want to hire employees who can produce results, and that past performance is the best indicator of future success. Don’t talk about what you were responsible for. Tell the reader what you accomplished. Point out your success stories. Use numbers or concrete project examples to quantify your results. Clarify the scope of your responsibilities and accomplishments with actual dollar amounts (estimates are fine if you can qualify them), percentages of savings generated, the number of employees supervised, and dollar values of equipment managed.

Outdated templates and writing styles.

Don’t rely on resumé templates if you want to maximize your chances of catching a hiring manager’s attention. One size does not fit all. Any HR coordinator or recruiter can immediately recognize a resumé created with Microsoft Word’s “wizard” feature. Show some creativity by using a design made for you and by you.

You need to be able to lead with your strengths. Recent graduates might want to start with the “Education” section instead of “Experience.” If you are making a major career switch, you might want to highlight volunteer work first. Cookie-cutter resumés do not best highlight you, and will not generate job-winning interviews.

Sharing Too Much Information.

A two-page resumé is more than adequate for 90 per cent of the population. Three pages are forgivable if you are a senior candidate applying for a job with a long list of requirements. Even then, any experience more than 15 years old can be heavily summarized, sometimes even omitted.

Remember why you are writing a resumé in the first place: you want to get the employer’s attention during that critical 20-30 second first look. You want them to want to know more and call you in for an interview. You want to do that in a concise, visually appealing way.

Typos. Spelling Errors. Excessive Capitalization. Incorrect Verb Tenses. Etc.

Everyone talks about typos and spelling. Proofread, proofread, and then proofread again. Then get a friend to do it for you. Spell checker is good. Grammarly® is even better. But you know what spell checkers don’t always pick up? When you use different verb tenses in each sentence. Or when you Capitalize Every Important Word in a Sentence. Or when you’re words that your using are spelled correctly but don’t match the context.

You might need to review your basic grammar. Don’t worry; you don’t need to take a course. Google can help. Use capital letters on actual job or department titles, but not general references. Director of Transportation vs. transportation staff. Course titles should be capitalized (“History of Western Civilization”), but general areas of expertise (“assisted with marketing and sales functions”) should not.

Awkward format and spacing

The key to a successful resumé is its readability. I should be able to quickly glance at the page and know where to find any information I need. In order for that to happen, the text must be properly spaced and separated. Make sure Section headings stand out. They might be bold, or all caps, or underlined. They may have a (lightly) shaded background. There are lots of options – just don’t make me search to find where the education section starts. It must be obvious.

Also key to readability is white space: around the margins between sections, even between bullet points or paragraphs within a section. Try to leave a margin of at least 2.0 cm all around the page. Leave a blank line between each job description, but don’t leave two or three lines. And don’t leave one line after the first job, then three after the next, then no space after the following three jobs.

The font should be consistent. Headings might be in a larger font, and your name should be the largest font on the page. But all text should be the same size and all bullets the same shape and size. As soon as something is different, the reader begins to wonder why. If you confuse the reader, you lose the reader!

File compatibility

I can’t tell you how many times someone has sent me their resumé in a pages file and asked for a review. I don’t own a Mac. Pages is a Mac program. Pages is not compatible with other programs. MS Word cannot open the file. Open Office cannot open the file. I cannot read or review that resumé.

For a while, I would diligently seek out online applications that would convert and open the file for me, then review the resumé and respond. But I have stopped doing that. I am helping no one by doing so – and I no longer trust that free online apps are not storing my info or the potential client’s info. Now, I write back and request the file in a format that I can read, like a PDF.

As someone who would like your business, I will take the time to request a new copy of your resumé. As a hiring manager reviewing hundreds of applications to a job I need to fill by the end of the month, I would not. Any file I can’t open is a file I don’t have to read. Always make sure you submit your resumé in the file format requested, and if there is none specified, use a well known and widely used format like .doc or .pdf.

Does your resumé include one or more of these problems? How do you feel it would stand up to a critique? Job seekers interested in a free resumé review can contact me through my website here, or by sending their resumé to myself here, as an e-mail attachment.

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Natalie MacLellan

Natalie Joan MacLellan is a Certified Professional Resume Writer (CPRW) a Certified Résumé Specialist in Military-to-Civilian Transitions (CRS-MCT). She was nominated for the Career Professionals of Canada 2016 Awards of Excellence for Outstanding Résumé in three categories: Executive, Career Change, and New Graduate. She provides one-on-one consultation for résumé writing, career transitions, and job search strategy through her company Best Foot Forward ( Discounts available for military and family members.

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