10 reasons your resume isn’t getting you interviews

If you’re sending out lots of resumes without getting many calls for interviews, it’s time to conclude that your resume isn’t doing its job. If you’re like most people, you’re making at least a few of these mistakes – which will put your resume promptly in the “no” pile.

1. It’s generic. If your resume reads just like dozens of other candidates’, no employer is going to call you. Your resume needs to convey that you’re an exceptional candidate, not just an average one who’s no different from other applicants. Which leads us to…

2. It just lists duties and responsibilities, not accomplishments. In a job market that’s flooded with candidates, a resume that reads like a series of job descriptions won’t excite a hiring manager. What will excite a hiring manager is a resume that shows a track record of achievement, so you need to list specific accomplishments, not just duties.

3. It’s full of dense paragraphs rather than bulleted lists. Employers will only skim your resume initially, not read it word-for-word, and large blocks of text are hard to skim. An employer will take in more information about you if you use simple bulleted points.

4. It leads with your education, even though you’ve been out of school for more than a few years. Generally your education should go beneath your work experience, because generally employers are most interested in what work experience you’ve had. Leading with your education just buries what will make most attractive to an employer.

5. It doesn’t include the dates of employment for each job you’ve held. Employers want to know how long you were at each job, and when. Resumes with clear dates are an immediate red flag that make hiring managers suspect you’re hiding something.

6. It wastes space on things that are irrelevant, like descriptions of your employer’s business. Some candidates devote two to three lines per job to describing the employer itself – its size and the nature of its business. Hiring managers might want that information when you move to the interview stage, but your resume isn’t the place for it. Your resume should focus on you, and you alone.

7. It’s not specific. Employers want concrete specifics. It’s not enough to say that you “revitalized” a department or “publicized” a program. What exactly did you do and what did it result in?

8. It includes everything you’ve ever done, rather than just the highlights. The longer your resume is, the less likely an employer is to see the parts you want them to see. The initial scan of your resume is about 20 seconds — do you want that divided among three pages, or do you want it focused on the most important things you want to convey? Short and concise means that employers are more likely to read the parts you most care about.

9. It includes irrelevant details, such as your age or your children’s names. Yes, people really do this. Employers don’t care about these details, and including them will come across as naïve and unprofessional.

10. It describes you in subjective terms. Your resume is for experience and accomplishments only. It’s not the place for subjective traits, like “great leadership skills,” “strong writer,” or “creative innovator.” Hiring managers generally ignore anything subjective that an applicant writes about herself, because so many people’s self-assessments are wildly inaccurate; they’re looking for provable facts. If you have those traits, list the accomplishments that demonstrate them instead.

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

{ 41 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    #4 – What is considered to be a “few” years out of school? I achieved my highest degree 3 years ago, and thus far, I have only obtained a part time job in its specific field. Do I no longer lead off on my resume with my education or am I still in that small window of time?

    1. Rana*

      Not to speak for AAM, but my understanding is that as soon as you start developing job experience in your field, you let that job take the lead, with educational accomplishments serving as support, not the main deal.

      Education comes first when you have little/no experience, because it’s all you have to show that you’re qualified to do the work; when you have actual work experience to point to, that’s what should get the primary billing.

      (That said, if one’s talking academic jobs and c.v.s, such rules go out the window.)

  2. Lexy*

    Meghan & Anonymous:

    I bumped mine after a year of industry experience. So if you’re 2-3 years out of school AND working in your field, I would bump it. If you’re still looking for work in your industry and don’t have much relevant experience, I could see an argument for keeping it up top. (Alison might disagree though?)

  3. kbbaus*

    I have my education at the top as well, although I’m 6 years out of undergrad. My reasoning is that I am currently in graduate school for a completely different degree and career field. I have no experience in this new field yet and am applying for entry level positions in that field. It made sense to me to order my resume that way, but maybe that’s not the way to look at it?

  4. Ask a Manager* Post author

    Meghan, anonymous, and kbbaus:

    The idea is that you want to lead with whatever’s going to make you most compelling to the employer. In most cases, that’s not education — it’s work experience. However, there are some cases where that’s not going to be true, like if your only work experience has been retail or food service and you’re applying for an office-type job. In those cases, it might make sense to lead with the education if it’s in a relevant field. But in general, even a year of work experience is more compelling to an employer than seeing info about your degree presented as your leading qualification.

  5. Anonymous*

    I’m an academic librarian and the first requirement in any job ad in our field is the degree from a school with an ALA accreditation. Employers in my field are also interested in what the applicant’s Bachelor’s degree is, too, because they might need a person to be a liaison to certain academic departmants, even if the job ad doesn’t mention that. In this case, should I lead with my education or move it down? When I’ve served on search committees, I’ve seen both, and no one on the committee with more experience than I have commented on the placement either way.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Most employers are to some degree interested in what field the person’s degree is in (which is why it belongs somewhere on the resume), but unless it’s the person’s most important and compelling qualification, the resume shouldn’t lead with it. The idea is that you lead with what makes you a strong candidate — and usually that’s not the degree.

      However, if your field is an exception to this and the degree IS seen as the most compelling thing, then you’d lead with that.

      In other words, this isn’t a hard and fast rule — it’s just about opening with what will entice an employer most. Just like you would open a news article with the most important info you wanted to convey.

    2. Anonymous*

      I’m a librarian and have interviewed at several academic libraries. I put my education at the bottom. I put my library-related experience at the top.

  6. Risa*

    On a related topic, if the company is using an application system, fill it out completely. Don’t just list your basic information and attached your resume.

    When I’m hiring, I’m often scanning through hundreds of resumes. If I can’t quickly locate the information about your experience, I’m going to move on to the next person. If you can’t be bothered to complete the online application, I can’t be bothered to seek out your information. I don’t have time to chase down the relevant information for every applicant and I have plenty of other applicants who take the time to fill out the information properly.

    It may be harsh, but it’s such an easy thing to do in order to improve your chances of having the hiring manager call you for an interview.

    1. Kelly O*

      The corollary to that is, please make sure your ATS is not driving applicants insane. I have to put down month date and year for starting and ending every job I’ve had. I can’t exclude salary. I have to put my high school GPA. You want my references’ information before we ever talk. You want my Social Security Number and driver’s license up front. (The collective “you”, mind you, just speaking in general about ATS.)

      There are some jobs I have simply not applied to because after an hour of sorting through an application, I either had to get up for another reason or was so frustrated I thought “if the application is this cumbersome, what is it really like to work there?” and given up.

      1. EAC*

        What I usually do in the SSN field is “000-00-last four digits”. hoping that they get the hint that I am concerned about ID theft. In the salary field, I input “00.00”, because I feel that at the application stage my salary/salaries just isn’t any of their business.

        I’ve been contacted for a couple of interviews where I have done that and if the other companies refused to consider me as a viable candidate because of it, well so be it.

      2. Risa*

        Oh I agree! I’m referring to not even listing anything beyond their personal information which is required and the job title/company/reason for leaving (which are the only required fields for each job). They list nothing about the job itself – what they did, the dates of the position, etc.

        We actually require very few fields on our forms. For example, we only require level of education, but have the other fields available to fill in like name of school, GPA, etc. It seems like unless it’s required a fairly high proportion of applicants won’t bother to fill it in. Which makes it harder for me to screen their applications. The trick is finding the right balance between requiring enough fields to properly screen and requiring so many fields that it takes hours to complete the process.

        My recommendation though is to fill in as much as you can to sell yourself as a good candidate to the hiring manager. This is your first impression, before I even get a chance to see your resume.

  7. Ali*

    What should I do if I don’t have any accomplishments? I’ve been out of school for four years and struggled the first couple years, being laid off and fired more than once. Although I did good enough in one job and am one of the best on my team in my current job, I still don’t have anything accomplished worth putting on my resume. Other people have been promoted ahead of me or been recognized for hard work where I haven’t, and all I’ve been told is that I do one part of my job consistently well. However, I can’t put anything down that says “increased sales by X amount” or “named employee of the month for month/year” or “won ABC award for XYZ.” Am I doomed?

      1. Ali*

        Haha I actually e-mailed a different question to her a couple weeks ago (it hasn’t been published yet). I don’t want her to think I’m completely clueless.

      1. ChristineH*

        What if your accomplishment was part of a team effort, and that team is a volunteer team? An advocacy group I am a part of had a positive impact on some businesses in our community. However, it wasn’t like “ChristineH did X”; I’d be more inclined to write, “Smith County Advocacy Group did X”. Sure I helped with a couple of specific tasks and we’re a very small group, but that was just one piece.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          You’d talk about your role and its outcome, but don’t do “Smith County Advocacy Group did X,” because the immediate question it raises is, what did YOU do?

  8. LPBB*

    Are bullets 100% necessary? I just went through and bulletized my one page resume and putting in the bullets turns it into 1 page and 3 extra lines on a second. I tried everything I could think of to save space, such as reformatting the bullets to be flush and shrinking my margins. If I make the margins extra small I can do it all on one page, but it seems user unfriendly.

    I could get rid of those 3 extra lines, they’re just listing some professional memberships, but I’ve had it impressed on me that my industry really really likes to see that you are an active member of at least professional organization.

    I just finished a professional masters degree, so I only have a little bit of relevant industry experience, which is why I’m trying to keep this down to one page. I have other experience, of course, so maybe it would be better to ditch the one page rule?

    1. Risa*

      Are there any short bullets that are related to one another that you can combine? I.e. “Achieved a 25% increase in XYZ and led my team in XYZ for three out of the last four quarters.” Individually they are two short bullet points, but are related and might actually read better as a longer bullet point. You could save some lines doing this.

      Bullet points are easy to read/scan. And when you are going through tons of resumes, you need to be able to digest information quickly and easily.

      1. LPBB*

        That’s a good idea. I took just a quick look again, and there are at least 3 or 4 sentences that can be combined, rather than having separate bullets.

        I do like the way it looks better with bullets, my main problem with it was that they always added just one or two too many lines to my resume.

  9. Henning Makholm*

    If it’s really “most people” who make enough of these mistakes to land their resume promptly in the “no” pile … then that group probably includes some really good people, and the employer who develops a way to see past them would have a tangible competitive advantage when it comes to finding and hiring the crucial high-performers.

    Of course, for some of the points that is easier said than done (you can’t just decide to see past the absence of information you need to make a decision), but, say, it would be easy to decide not to let the presence of childrens’ names or some other such irrelevant item influence the sorting process.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      These aren’t arbitrary rules like “no employer will hire you if you use red ink” — they’re mistakes in the sense that they’re getting in the way of a candidate presenting themselves as effectively as they otherwise could. They are making their candidacy look less strong than it could if they fixed these things. Employers who are flooded with tons of great candidates aren’t going to take the time to parse this stuff out and see if the candidate might actually be stronger than they look — they have little incentive to if they have plenty of other strong candidates to talk with.

      Similarly, there are great workers who interview terribly. It would be nice if employers could somehow see past that. But in practice, with lots of competition, they probably won’t.

      1. Henning Makholm*

        But again, if it’s really “most people” that land in the “no” pile, then that employer won’t have plenty of other strong candidates to talk with. Instead, he’ll end up in the press lamenting that it’s impossible (impossible I tell you) to find qualified workers in XYZ area.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I realize there are some employers in the media talking about not being able to find candidates, but in most fields, employers don’t have that problem at all. Most employers are flooded with so many candidates that they’re looking for reasons to weed them out, not put them in.

          1. Henning Makholm*

            Still “most people” sounds statistically unlikely. As far as I can google up, 90% of Americans in the work force do have jobs — despite your assertion that “most people” make mistakes that make them categorically unworthy of employment.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Right, most people don’t have great resumes. The point is that the better your resume, the more likely you are to catch an employer’s interest. If you’re one of 200 bad resumes for a job opening, you might get a call but your chances are pretty low. If you’re one of 5 good resumes, your chances go way up. It’s not that you CAN’T get a job with a bad resume; it’s that it’s much harder. I’d like to make it less hard for people.

  10. Rana*

    I just wanted to say that I think it was Alison’s resume and cover letter advice that got me my last interview – even though I didn’t get an offer, it was heartening to actually get interviewed for a change.

    So, thank you, Alison!

  11. Anony Mouse*

    I just got a call about a job I applied for last September. Do I even have to call back and respond?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      As in, a year ago? No, you don’t …. not unless you might want the job. Although it’s still polite, and it might be useful to point out to them that nearly a year has gone by.

      1. Anony Mouse*

        Actually, once I got over my initial shock, I realized that I have a friend who may be a good fit, so I will call back and try to work that angle.

  12. Elizabeth West*

    I went to my alma mater and visited with the career center. They are looking over my resume. I took Alison’s advice and revamped it from a functional one to a better-looking chronological one. The func one was getting me interviews, but compared to the other, it looked a bit cluttered.

    Too bad the jobs that are calling me aren’t very good. But then, many of them aren’t right now. I’m hoping my dream job calls. I did apply, and have all the qualifications. *crosses fingers*

  13. Job Seeker*

    I have recently changed my resume to a different format. I finally have a cover letter that is getting a little attention. I have been a fish out of water on here for so long. So many people here know so much more than I do. On my own, I have done so many things the wrong way and felt so embarrassed afterward. I am presently helping my mother with so many medical problems that I have only been job searching here and there. I am fortunate that I am married and my husband makes a wonderful salary and I do not have to work for the money. That takes the pressure off, but I know employers look at how long you have been between jobs.

    I am feeling a little worried that the longer I go without a job, it looks like I have been looking and for some reason not getting hired. I understand how that looks to a prospective employer.

    I am not someone that thinks I have to have the perfect job, or that I am too good for anything. I do know I am a hard-worker, get along well with others and am grateful for any opportunity. I applied again with the same company Alison that I completely messed myself up with. Ironically, they keep accepting my application and they do not always accept applications from everyone. This is online and every application is not accepted.

    I saw this morning they accepted mine again, but the job I applied for just a few hours later became closed. This is the same company I made so many mistakes with. They accepted it just today and I applied for this part-time job with them last week. I don’t know what to make of this. I keep hoping maybe my bridge isn’t closed. I really appreciate this company still considering my application, it is something I want so much. I was wondering if I should include anything on my cover letter about me having to take some time out to help a family member with medical concerns? I would only include this fact with this one company’s cover letter because I would like to explain why it seems to be taking me so long to find something. I have been looking since January. I am now looking for part-time to be able to work and still help go to medical appointments with my mom.

    I am also going to volunteer with a health system again as soon as I can get my mother on the right track. I win the prize for dumbest job seeker so I don’t want to mess up so much again. Should I include this information or would that be pointless?

    My son suggested I find something else and work there and re-apply with this company in about a year.

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