5 signs that your resume is holding you back

When you’re searching for a job, nothing is more frustrating than sending out scores of resumes for jobs you know you’re qualified for but not getting any interviews. If that’s happening to you, the explanation might be your resume is holding you back in some way.

Of course, in a tight job market like this one, it’s can be hard to know if the issue is simply the market and the amount of competition that’s there, or whether your resume itself is putting you at a disadvantage. But there are flags that indicate that your resume is probably the problem. Here are five of the biggest.

1. You’re applying for plenty of jobs where you match the listed qualifications, but you aren’t getting interviews. Most people, even the exceptionally well-qualified, don’t get interviews for every job they apply for. But if you’re applying for dozens of jobs a month – jobs for which you truly do meet the qualifications – and never hearing anything back, chances are good that your application materials are responsible. Your resume probably isn’t going to get you interviews at even half the jobs you apply to. But if it’s not even scoring you a success rate of one in ten, that tells you that you need to revisit what you’re sending out.

2. You feel like you’re a much more valuable worker than your resume reflects. Many people think to themselves, “If I could only get to an interview, they’d see what a great fit I am.” But if you feel that way, your resume isn’t doing its job. If you’re a great employee – someone with a track record of achieving at a high level in past jobs – it’s your resume’s job to show that. If it’s not, you need to do rewrite until your resume reflects why an employer should be excited to talk to you.

A common response to this is, “But the type of work I do is hard to convey on a resume.” But being a valuable employee is about getting results for your employer, and there’s always a way to describe that on a resume. It doesn’t have to be as quantitative as “increased sales by 20%” or “promoted twice in two years” (although those are great accomplishments to include if they’re true). Instead, it might be something more like “became the department’s go-to source for quickly and accurately resolving billing discrepancies” or  “built a reputation for working successfully with previously unhappy clients” or “resolved an inherited four-month backlog in three weeks.” Whatever it was that made you excellent at your work, that’s what your resume needs to convey; otherwise, it won’t open many doors for you.

3. If you imagine the resume of someone with a similar work history but who has done mediocre work, it’s not that different from your own. Your resume shouldn’t just list what activities you engaged in at each job, but rather should convey how well you did them. Hiring managers aren’t likely to be especially impressed by your job descriptions; what they care about is whether you excelled in the role. If your resume doesn’t convey that you were better than that other guy who had a similar job, there’s nothing to make an employer think that you’re the one worth interviewing. The way you address this is by focusing your resume on what you achieved in each role and how you excelled, not just a list of duties.

4. It’s three or more pages. Job seekers with long resumes regularly protest that they can’t possibly fit their full job history on to two pages. But highly qualified, very senior candidates regularly manage to do that (some even sticking to one page), so if you exceed two, most hiring managers will see you as someone who can’t edit, doesn’t understand what information is most important, and doesn’t respect their time. Are you really willing to accept that outcome just so that you don’t need to trim down your text?

5. When you do get interviews, interviewers seem surprised by some of the information you give them during the interview. If your interviewer seems pleasantly surprised by a work achievement or other qualification that comes up in the interview, it might be something that should have been on your resume in the first place. Similarly, if your interviewer seems disappointed to learn that, say, your last job was only a few hours a week or lasted only a few months, that’s a flag that your resume might need to be clearer. (You might wonder why you should be clearer about things that might get you disqualified, but otherwise you risk wasting your time interviewing for jobs where you’re not a strong candidate and don’t have much chance of being hired.)

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

{ 31 comments… read them below }

  1. The Other Dawn

    Very timely for me. I’ve been applying to jobs for a few months now and no bites at all. With the app I sent out last night I ruthlessly edited my resume and cover letter even further and am hoping that makes the difference. I never exceeded a one page letter or 1.5 page resume, but I tried to make things even clearer and eliminate anything that’s implied by my job title. Let’s hope for the best with this one!!

  2. Dan

    AAM,

    You’re right about response rates for qualified applicants. My work area is in a highly specialized area, where I think I have a unique skill set and value proposition. But whenever I apply to those specific jobs, I’ve been around the block enough to know that it’s 50/50 whether or not I even get a call back.

    For “stretch” jobs, all bets are off. You just never know.

  3. Zillah

    Totally agree about the absurdly long resume – no reason for it at all. I had a friend once who took up three pages with his first out of school job and a couple summer jobs. The out of school job was a page all on its own when he’d been there for less than a year! Um, no.

    But, I think that some people have longer resumes bc they’ve had a lot of pt jobs/internships… Many of which they’ll leave off in five years but need now. How do recent grads or other people in that situation address it without cutting out important relevant information?

    1. Leah

      I just had this problem and found a solution that worked well for me. Instead of having all the internships listed separately under “Experience”, I listed the names of all my internships as a subheading under the appropriate school. There are two caveats:

      1) Since this was for law school, the duties for each job were similar enough that I didn’t need more detail. Any projects/cases/etc I wanted the person reading my application to know about were referenced in my cover letter, which also means having to customize my resume less. If they’re not in such a specific trajectory, a quick parenthetical can help. e.g. “Internal Revenue Service (Corporate Audits Department)”.

      2) I had relevant, full-time jobs both before and after law school to list under experience. If someone’s relevant experience is only as an intern, “Experience” should probably be renamed as “Internship Experience” with the position of “intern” still listed next to each company because people don’t read resumes as closely as we’d hope.

  4. Fabulously Anonymous

    I once knew someone that said, “you’re in grad school! Your resume must be at least two pages or you haven’t accomplished enough.” In fairness to her, I think we often use resume and CV interchangably and she was referring to a CV.

    1. Leah

      Yes, I have had trouble with the resume/CV difference in trying to help friends from home applying to US jobs. THey’re used to CVs chockablock with personal info and a photo as being standard. They think I’m being ridiculous when I tell them that listing their spouse’s name and age and child’s name and age is inappropriate. It doesn’t make her look like an interesting, well-rounded person, like she thinks it does. Sigh.

  5. Stephanie

    #5

    Interesting. I interviewed for a position that would have involved writing white papers. The interviewer asked as a throwaway question if I had ever published anything (he said he wasn’t expecting junior-level candidates to have done so). I mentioned I used to write for my college newspaper. He was very impressed. I had actually omitted that from my resume since the experience was a few years old and I was trying to keep it to a page.

  6. T

    I found this article particularly helpful. I’ve had some trouble figuring out how to show accomplishment in certain types of work, so now I have some new ways to think about how to rework my resume to reflect my skills. Thank you.

  7. CC

    Time to take another look at the resume, I guess. Part of what made me a good employee is the sorts of things we’re told not to put on a resume though. A lot of them are even things that I wouldn’t have considered exceptional, if it weren’t for colleagues commenting on them. Stuff like being really organized and knowing exactly where to find a particular detail about a project (if not outright knowing that detail), or being known as the one who catches mistakes.

      1. CC

        Oh. Maybe I’m not properly understanding which of the things I find hard to demonstrate are or are not supposed to be included — assuming I figure out they’re not standard-issue human characteristics but are actually skills that not everybody has. Being organized and detail-oriented are things that anybody can claim whether they’re particularly good at it or not, just like writing well or working well in groups.

        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          Yeah, you don’t want to just proclaim that you’re organized or detail-oriented; you want to show evidence of it. But things like “became go-to resource in department for reviewing work and spotting (XYZ types of) mistakes” definitely counts as evidence!

          1. CC

            I guess that comes back to figuring out what’s actually exceptional vs. what’s normal and expected from (in my case) an engineer. Never been good at that. I want to get back to my spreadsheets and drawings.

            1. AB Normal

              CC, I’m also an engineer and it seems to me you just need to pay close attention to what AAM is describing to be able to come up with good examples of where your organization and detail-orientation generated results for your company.

              Things that would be considered exceptional and worth mentioning:

              “became the department’s go-to resource for project information”
              “built a reputation as a superior reviewer of team deliverables, ensuring that mistakes and defects were fixed before the solutions were delivered to customers”.
              “helped the company achieve a faster time-to-market by implementing more effective methods of cross-team collaboration between the hardware and software groups”

    1. Steve G

      I recently added “the one who catches mistakes to my resume”, but made it real specific: “Put check points in place to decrease error rate in xyz data to less than 0.1%” in a industry where it is known to be higher…

      1. CC

        Alas, I don’t have such numbers; all I have is a few comments from co-workers and a slightly obsessive habit of comparing drawings and spreadsheets with each other.

  8. JerryBe

    How would you recommend presenting consultancies? I work for a company where I conduct research for different government clients. Each project may last a year or two, with additional short-term projects from other agencies thrown in. Each project generally requires different tasks and duties. I’ve taken to include only the longer term projects or projects with specific agencies to keep the resume short and readable. My resume is still 3 pages long, with a half page dedicated to bullets of skills and expertise – this was added by a good friend who reviews resumes as part of her job. She couldn’t understand the work I do otherwise (she doesn’t have a similar background).

    1. JamWheel

      I’ve got a similar problem and think I need to either group my successes into a key achievements section at the top and duties under each role or key duties on top and achievements at each role. I just am not getting bites with my current format because its not obvious what my duties were at each role. Any thoughts would be appreciated!

      1. AB Normal

        I’ve done consulting work for 10 years, and what I do is summarize my duties and achievements based on what the job I’m applying to asks for.

        For example, if the job description asks for experience in process improvement, I highlight my accomplishments in this area. If the job description asks for experience in writing software requirements, that’s what I emphasize. I don’t think you need to list all duties and achievements in every single project; I have a paragraph on top with a more generic description of how I assist organizations in X, Y, and Z, followed by the most relevant experience and accomplishments for that particular position.

        I get invited for an interview 80% of the time I apply for a job, so I think this format is effective.

  9. Anx

    #4 and #5 seem contradictary to me.

    If you’re trying to keep your resume to one page, either some positions or some of the highlights simply have to go until you establish yourself on your career track.

    I think you just have to hope for the best that whatever internship/club/project/accomplishment/experience doesn’t make the final cut wasn’t the one that would have made the strongest impression.

    1. Diet Coke Addict

      I think #4 is pointing out that every single thing you’ve done in your life doesn’t need to be on there (no need to include the job you had serving burgers in high school if you’re applying for a job as a financial analyst) and that you should curate your resume accordingly–for that same financial analyst job, bump off the retail and food-service stuff. But the things that you do keep on there should have all the relevant information and still make you look aces instead of just mediocre. Maybe you were in the math club in university, but if you only put down “Math Club,” your interviewer won’t see that you actually competed in four Math Bowls and won several math trophies (or whatever).

      So don’t include everything as it dilutes your resume, but the things you do include should be chosen to put you in the best possible light.

    2. Zillah

      I disagree about just hoping for the best – based on the job posting, you should be able to make a decent judgment call about what will make the strongest impression. There is an element of luck, of course – there’s no predicting little idiosyncrasies – but it shouldn’t just be a shot in the dark.

  10. NurseB

    I have been in the professional world for the last 16 years but changed my career fairly significantly 1 year ago. I’m having a really difficult time knowing how and when to remove positions from my resume. My positions in the last 10 years are in healthcare so they are at least somewhat related. Everything before is accounting/office management related. Last year I took off everything older than 10 years and one of my interviews said they wanted someone with Office/Excel experience. I then spoke about my earlier career. How do I include those things without my resume being too busy??

  11. Lisa Lisa

    I’m having a really bad time. I’ve totally changed my resume and cover letter, but in seven months I’ve only gotten one interview! I’m completely stumped as to what else to do! Why is this so hard?

    1. Harryho

      Do you keep the same resume and cover letter for each submission? I find that it is much more effective if you submit to less, more targeted jobs and tailor each resume / cover letter.

  12. Harryv

    Hope someone can comment. I have a mid-level IT manager trying to break into a director role. So far I had interviews with FB and Google which is great but get no interviews with jobs I really want near my locality. Any ideas?

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