10 costly job search mistakes you have to stop making

If you’re having trouble finding a job, it might be because you’re sabotaging your chances without even realizing it. Here are 10 common mistakes that you might be making in your job search.

1. Relying on outdated sources of job searching advice. Job search conventions have changed dramatically in the last 10 years, but many books and “experts” are still doling out outdated advice that can now hurt your chances. Ideally your advice should come from sources who have done a significant amount of hiring themselves — and recently, not a couple of decades ago.

2. Listing mainly job duties on your resume, rather than accomplishments. Job descriptions don’t belong on your resume; accomplishments do. Resumes that stand out go beyond what duties you were responsible for and instead answer this question: What did you accomplish in this job that someone else might not have?

3. Feeling that your resume must be a complete accounting of everything you’ve ever done. Your resume is a marketing document intended to present you, your skills, and your experience in the strongest light. You’re not required to include that short-term job you were fired from, or the one outside your field, or that year at law school before you flunked out.

4. Sending your resume without a cover letter. If you’re applying for jobs without including a compelling cover letter—customized to this specific opportunity—you’re missing out on one of the most effective ways to grab an employer’s attention. A cover letter is your opportunity to make a compelling case for yourself as a candidate, totally aside from what’s in your resume, and you’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t include one.

5. Annoying employers with too much follow-up. Job seekers are sometimes advised that they should call employers to “check on their application” or to try to schedule an interview. But most employers don’t respond well to this, viewing it as overly aggressive and annoying. After all, you’re not the only person applying for the job; multiply your phone call by 300 applicants, and you’ll see why employers are annoyed.

6. Not preparing for interviews. If you’re not preparing for interviews by practicing your answers to likely questions and preparing examples from your past work that clearly demonstrate why you’d excel at the job, you’re probably selling yourself short. Few people interview well on the fly; if you don’t prepare in advance, you’re likely to be passed over even for jobs you’re perfect for.

7. Not understanding how to “stand out” as a candidate. Job seekers often think they need to find a creative way to stand out from the sea of other candidates, so they try fancy resume designs, video resumes, sending the hiring manager cookies (yes, really), and other gimmicks. But gimmicks don’t make up for a lack of qualifications, and they’ll turn off many hiring managers. This isn’t what many job seekers want to hear, but the way to stand out is by being a highly qualified candidate with a track record of success in the area for which the employer is hiring, writing a great cover letter, and being responsive, thoughtful, and enthusiastic.

8. Not paying attention to your references. When you’re asked for references, you don’t want to have to scramble to track down that manager from six years ago who has left the company where you both used to work, or that boss who has since retired. Instead, make sure that you stay in touch with the people you’ll want to use as references some day, so that you don’t have to hunt them down – or remind them of who you are! – when that reference check comes around.

9. Ignoring danger signs. When you really want a job, it’s all too easy to ignore signals that a company might turn into the workplace of your nightmares. But if you don’t want to end up in a job that regularly leaves you in tears, it’s important to pay attention to red flags, like flakiness, high turnover, or a manager who seems like a jerk.

10. Becoming bitter. Job searching is frustrating, especially in this market, but if you let unemployment make you bitter, you’ll probably turn off potential employers. It’s nearly impossible to hide bitterness if you feel it, so it’s crucial to find ways to have a more positive outlook.

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 44 comments… read them below }

  1. Kris*

    It’s really easy to get bitter and unfortunately really hard to hide it when you are.

    1. ChristineH*

      Not only that, but it can take a real hit on your self-confidence, which can also be difficult to hide.

      1. Anonymous*

        This is where I am right now and it’s really hard to get out of this funk. I keep reminding myself that I’m talented and would be an asset to lots of places. But it’s hard when you’ve been unemployed for years at a time.

        I’m limited geographically and in a shrinking field so it’s expected that the job search would take this long. But it’s still a demoralizing experience.

        Have there been any posts on here about how to deal with this issue?

        1. ChristineH*

          So am I. I’ve been unemployed for some time. For awhile, I was doing relatively okay, but then things started coming apart as I watched several promising opportunities over the past couple of years fall through. I have a disability, and I keep having to remind myself that I have skills and intelligence despite the challenges. I just have to keep plugging away and project confidence.

    2. Anonymous*

      So true! Be unemployed or underemployed can eat away at your confidence. I have to keep telling myself “I’m talented and relevant” It sounds silly but it’s like psyching yourself up, a fake-it-til-you-make-it approach.

      1. Piper*

        Definitely. I’ve also found that by pursuing endeavors outside of underemployment helps – I’ve taken up volunteering, started my own part-time businesses, and picked up some freelance work. I might be bored to tears at my mind-numbing job, but I’m determined to prove my relevancy, even if I have to blaze my own path to do it.

      2. Kelly O*

        I do this all the time (underemployed) – seems like nothing is panning out and even my interviews are few and far between.

        I know there is something out there, but between feeling kicked at my current job and not getting bites, it’s really wearing on me. I have to make myself stay positive and that is not easy some days.

  2. Charles*

    As usual a great list. I know for me, personally, Number 10 is the hardest – becoming bitter.

    It is really hard to not become bitter when the recruiter starts by saying “we’ve never hired someone for a training position before; But, we do a lot of work with this client hiring insert_position_here (e.g., IT professionals, engineers, biochemists, admin assts., paralegals) and thought we would do this client a favor because we don’t want to lose their business.”

    While I appreciate their honesty, there is something screwy about never having hired a trainer before yet they feel confident enough to decide who is qualified for the training position.

    Even when this isn’t the case so many hiring managers themselves should read AAM – as they need to update their own hiring practices and questions. Recently, I interviewed with someone who was asking questions that I heard 2 decades ago when such questions were considered “new and innovative.”

    When they ask me to describe my ideal job I wanted so much to answer “being a Corona taste-tester on the beach in Cancun, Mexico.” (Yep, I am bitter and snarky.)

    On the bright side, I have never responded to a job rejection by telling them that they made a mistake. (not yet anyway!)

    1. Esra*

      The ideal job question is a weird one to answer. Because most honest answers would boil down to: Doing little for lots of money.

      My ideal job is doodling robots, 3 hours a day, for 100k a year.

      1. Catherine*

        Lol exactly. My ideal job is to design window displays. For lots of money.

    2. Anonymous*

      That sounds awful. So much sunscreen.

      Do you have an opening for a tea and mystery-novel tester in a English B&B?

  3. Anonymous*

    I’m actually curious about the Cover Letter piece. I read several HR blogs and it seems as though I read a little bit of the opposite. If they don’t ask for a Cover Letter – don’t include one because most Hiring Managers/Recruiters aren’t reading them anyway – they’re just going straight to your resume?

    Definitely agree with everything else, especially with not just listing your list of duties!

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Recruiters may not always read cover letters, but (good) hiring managers do. If you look at the cover letters category of the site, you’ll find a ton on this.

  4. Sigh.Sigh.Sigh.*


    Thanks for sharing your delightfully snarky insights into outdated hiring practices. Most people have encountered them, and ended up terribly frustrated from the experience.

    I’m happy to see that you’ve maintained an awesome sense of humor about it, Corona taste-testing and all.

  5. JP*

    I’d love some advice about keeping in touch with potential references. I’m just starting out in my career and so far have one manager (from a temp assignment) who I contacted right after the assignment concluded and agreed to be a reference for me. How do I make sure she remembers me/is still a willing reference without bothering her? It sprung to mind since I just saw her quoted in an article on CNN and I remembered AAM had mentioned using interesting articles as segues…but this piece was regarding some unfortunate scandals in the industry, so I don’t think mentioning that is the best idea!

    1. AD*

      Most people are totally willing to be references, and if she said so once, it is not weird for you to send an e-mail even if you’ve been out of touch for a while. Ideally, you’d check in once/year or so, but even if it’s been longer, it’s fine to send an e-mail asking if her offer to serve as a reference is still good, and confirming her contact info.

      1. Ariancita*

        I wondering if you can elaborate on, “Most people are totally willing to be references…” I have kept in good contact with 4 references up to 6 years ago. But now a job wants 5 references, so I would have to go back past 6 years to find the 5th and I have not been in contact with them since that time (because I have more recent good references and always felt 4 was a good number). Not sure how open someone from so long ago would be to me approaching them (and if they could even speak about me in a meaningful way since their memory would be foggy–these are academic references where I worked for them for a semester only). So you think they would be willing/open?

  6. ChristineH*

    I’d like to add another one to the list: Getting discouraged and/or losing your self-confidence. Speaking from experience, I think this can be a real turn-off. I know this is much easier said than done when you’ve been out of work for an extended period of time.

  7. nodumbunny*

    C’mon even the cookies won’t get the sender a second look?! (I have never/would never do that, but I’m tickled by the idea someone would try it. Or maybe I’m just craving sweets…)

    1. Jenna*

      At my previous job, they were hiring for a position in marketing (I think, this was ages ago). One person they were interviewing would bring in a box of donuts for staff each time they came in for an interview. We hoped that they would keep interviewing him over and over again so we could get more donuts :)
      They didn’t hire him though.

  8. Sandrine*

    I’m actually puzzled as to how CVs and resumes work in the US XD .

    I mean, for me at least both phrases mean the same thing : that paper with your name, adresse, email, phone number, job and education history… For example if you ask me for my CV/resume, I’ll be likely to hand you a document with first my job history (newest to oldest) with the job title + company + location if applicable, then my education, then my “computer skills” (although I’m starting to take that out) and then hobbies. Yup, for some reason I still have it (mostly to indicate that I’m open-minded and have various interests, but I keep it “short and simple” as no one needs to know I listen to kpop all day whenever I can :D .

    Usually, what happens is that hiring people will ask me what I did in X or Y job, then they’ll ask me how did I handle A or B issue, and then I’ll say X job taught me this, Y taught me that, and so on and so forth.

    Today I had a job interview with written tests because it implies customer service by e-mail (I now know I HATE being on the phone :D . Ha XD) . I tried preparing myself just like AAM suggests (and I’m in France, heh, go figure, I guess I like your style too much Allison) , and it was all “for nothing” XD … I got the writing test slightly wrong (I had to do an imaginary response to a customer’s enquiry and, while correct, the lady said one sentence wasn’t properly constructed -huh?- I apparently didn’t kiss the customer’s behind enough :P ) so while the hiring lady wouldn’t place me with her client, she’d take me for her own team. I’m like “hell yeah” inside because NOMOREPHONESEVAR,WOO!

    TL,DR: Ms (Mrs ? Ooopsie. Sorry) Allison Green, thank you for helping me prepare! I was a ball of nerves during my tests today, but hopefully I didn’t look like too much of a fool and was able to explain clearly why I wrote things the way I did… so I think I still have a chance!

    TL,DR2 : Sorry for rambling. I tend to do that when I’m excited.

    1. Rana*

      C.V.s are very different beasts from resumes. For my academic c.v., I list my education, all the institutions I taught at, all the papers I presented, all the work I had published, all the book reviews I’ve written, the awards I’ve won, the committees I’ve served on, and perhaps a description of the various courses I’ve taught along the way. This means it could easily run into the double-digits in terms of page length. It also doesn’t include non-academic jobs, because they are irrelevant.

      A resume is a much tighter, more focused document. I’ll let someone else describe it, because I’m still struggling with what exactly does – or does not – go on it. (AAM’s got great advice here, too.)

      1. Sandrine*

        Thank you!

        I know Allison has a bunch of nice stuff about those, and I think she does, from time to time, give explanations…

        The thing is, I love my resume (I guess my document is a resume then even though in French we call it a CV XD) , because then when employers ask me to “talk me about yourself” I can just say how I grew to want X to Y because I went through A, B, C and learnt a lot so I became to want to work in Y… hehe.

        Now I’m getting curious and I’ll try to write my “resume” into an American “CV” at some point… I need to see what a proper CV looks like bwahahahahaha.

      2. ChristineH*

        Now you’ve got me wondering if I should take my tiny bit of published documents (3 short professional newsletter pieces, only one of which I was the solo author) off my resume entirely unless I’m applying for a job that entails any writing. Whoops!

          1. Rana*

            Hmm. I think you’d have to ask AAM about that one. I wouldn’t include something like that on my c.v. (if I were applying for the sort of jobs I used to be aiming at, because it would be “off topic”) but I might for the version of my resume I use for writing/editing/indexing work. I wouldn’t include it for a non-writing job, probably.

            But, as I say, I’m still pretty inexperienced in terms of figuring out what non-academic employers want, so I would take my comments with a large lump of salt.

            1. Rana*

              I should have clarified that “all my published work” meant “all my published professional work.” So reviews of academic books, essays in historical encyclopedias, articles for journals, yes. My poetry and creative non-fiction, no.

              1. Rana*

                I have to say, I miss the structure of the formal c.v. It’s easier to list your professional qualifications when the very nature of the c.v. makes it easy to tell what work is significant and what is not. I still struggle with trying to figure out what is “an accomplishment” and what is “basic work experience that anyone at this level ought to have, you dummy.” A section called “Publications” or “Presentations” is so much easier to understand and prepare!

  9. Anonymous*

    I have to agree with #9 in the article: Avoiding Danger Signs.

    What is hard about starting a new job is that you don’t know until you actually start working there what your co-workers, boss and work environment is like.

    1. AB*

      Also agree 100% on this one. Too often I have let myself get caught up in what I WANT the job to be (and simply the thrill of having a “successful” job hunt) that I choose to just ignore those warning signs only to be slapped in the face with them once in the position. I’m doing much better this time around listening to my gut. It’s a refreshing change in how I approach it all, actually.

    2. Piper*

      This. 1000 times this. When you’re unemployed, it’s hard to not jump at an undesirable opportunity. But sometimes it’s better for your sanity to turn it down. I know I should have. I ended up with an insane boss (who thankfully is no longer my boss) and a horrible culture where there is exactly zero room for growth and learning. And I had inklings of this when I took the job, but was blinded by the nice, fat paycheck it offered.

  10. AB*

    Further question for AaM on #3:
    You indicate that jobs can be left off a resume, particularly when they don’t pertain to jobs being applied for now, but what if the circumstance involves multiple jobs in various alternate industries? It’s already a challenge to overcome job-hopping accusations, but that would lead to suspicious gaps in the timeline. Thoughts?

  11. Chris Walker*

    #11. Understand what works and what doesn’t in the particular industry/company where you want to work. There isn’t just one strategy or approach that works everywhere. Applying to Goodyear is not the same as applying to a 15 employee start-up. Is your resume/cover letter going to HR staff or the business owner? It makes a difference.

    Re #5. One of the most important things a candidate must do at the end of an interview is determine and agree on the acceptable time frame and method of follow up. As above, there is no rule that is universally applicable.

  12. Kelly O*

    I’m wondering if you all are encountering more issues with third-party recruiters. Here’s my scenario:

    I applied for an advertised position and received a phone call and email. I took all their testing, spoke with the recruiter and was left with the impression that this job was definitely in the cards. I took time off my current job to meet with him and filled out all their paperwork (providing social security card and drivers license, which gives me pause but what can you do?)

    We talked for over the time allotted. He went through my resume, tweaking and telling me how “he” wanted me to answer certain questions. My input was not important. He thanked me for my time and I was shown out, but never once did he talk about the position I’d applied for.

    So I follow up two weeks later. No response. I send another email the following Monday. No response. Every Monday for three additional weeks I send a follow-up. Finally this Monday I just said “if there is something that has changed since our discussion I would appreciate your letting me know so it can be addressed.”

    Turns out he “doesn’t have anything” in my pay range, and if I could go down that would help. We had this discussion and no, I don’t feel it’s appropriate to go down. He led me to believe there were plenty of opportunities at this rate, even to the point of saying “no, I don’t think that’s an issue.”

    Now it is. So I wasted quite a bit of time in preparing for his interview, taking tests, providing personal information, and trying to follow up. I only got a response when I basically said if you don’t respond to this I’m going to consider this door closed. I told him in my email that all I wanted was a response, since he was so positive in all our other communications.

    Even though I know it’s not true, it makes me wonder if I really was as good as I thought. I blow those tests out of the water. There was only style critique of my resume (layout, font, etc.) So why am I not getting calls, and why am I not worth monetarily what I know I’m worth? (It’s not like we’re talking a large salary here either. I’m in administrative work, and I know how it goes.)

    It really is enough to make you wonder if you should just stay in the particular circle of hell you find yourself and deal with all the other stuff. Or make you wonder if this is really all you’re cut out to do.

  13. Corporate Cliff*

    These are job SEARCH mistakes, not job mistakes. You should update this post’s title. The US News title is accurate.

  14. JH*

    I have to disagree with the Cover Letter and listing All jobs on the resume.

    Cover Letters: In the healthcare industry we don’t find cover letters helpful. They are often ignored completely. In healthcare, you either have the appropriate experience or not – not much gray area and not much of a need to explain anything beyond what a resume demonstrates.

    Listing all Jobs: If you don’t list all of your jobs and they show up on the background check/verification of employment then we’ll be concerned about the truthfulness of the applicant.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Sigh. Excuse my crankiness, but I’m so sick of responding to arguments like this. The fact that you don’t find them helpful doesn’t mean that’s universal. My mail is full of letters from people whose cover letters got them the interview.

  15. Jay*

    I have to respectfully disagree with one point: “resume gimmicks.”
    There is a time and a place to use approaches that will help you stand out from the crowd. As a marketing professional with prior graphic design experience (and career transitioner in a recession) I have used a few avant garde techniques in my candidacy submissions which landed me interviews. However, these have been specifically tailored to the company and position. For example, I have done a powerpoint presentation to accompany my standard Word resume for positions with small, entrepreneurial firms where client presentation was a key responsibility. Also, I have created a brief marketing plan to accompany my resume for a newly created position where they needed to ad structure around existing efforts. All deviations from the norm have been thoroughly researched, professionally composed as if it was a real presentation/plan, targeted the “audience,” and sent in addition to a traditional resume and cover letter. I would never suggest this method for a non-creative job, such as accounting, or for large companies where this would be considered a nuisance by throwing a wrench in the daily process – as in medium-large companies. Although I have yet to land a job (lost out to internal candidate, changed job from mid to exec level, position reevaluated and put on hold, etc.) I have gained significant attention by those companies targeted with these methods. And by attention I mean: invitations to interview, connections on LinkedIn, referrals by HR and hiring managers to other positions both in and outside of the company, and even some contract consulting work.
    In summary, when marketing oneself rely on the basics of successful branding: always consider your audience – what’s important to them, what problem can you solve for them, and what is the best way to differentiate yourself from the competition. Sometimes the unusual is refreshing if your audience is receptive.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Those don’t sound like gimmicks, though — they sound like simply demonstrating how you’d do the work, which is different than a gimmick (and good).

    2. Anonymous*

      I’m curious to know everyone’s opinion on creating marketing plans to present at interviews. I have a second interview for a company in their event sales & marketing department. I wanted to showcase how although I’m not as experienced in the event sales department, I more than make up for it in the marketing department – which in turn results in increased sales. Also, I am genuinely excited for the opportunity and have a great amount of ideas and strategies I wold like to implement if hired. I’ve been thinking about putting together a quick marketing plan with some sample campaigns, facts & figures, etc. to discuss during the interview but am unsure if it would be over the top or viewed like previous posters have said as “gimmicky.”

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        The key is that it has to be great — if it is, this can have a big impact. But if it’s not very good, it can kill your candidacy. So make it great!

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