these 5 resume mistakes are hurting your job search

As a former hiring manager who now helps clients with their own hiring, I look at a lot of resumes. Day after day, I see job candidates severely harming their own chances by submitting resumes that do a terrible job of making it easy for employers to spot why they might be the right person for the job.

Frustratingly, most people are making the same small number of easily fixable mistakes. I can’t write back to these candidates to tell them to clean up their resumes if they want a better shot at a job, but I can tell you! These are the five most frequent mistakes I see and what you should be doing instead.

1. Writing a resume that reads like a series of job descriptions. This is by far the most common mistake job applicants make: The bullet points they use to describe what they did at each job just list activities and read like a job description for the role might – for example, “edit documents,” “collect data,” or “manage website.” That conveys your job description, but it doesn’t convey what kind of employee you were, which is what employers care most about. After all, someone could engage in those activities and do a mediocre job of it; instead, your resume should convey that you excelled. That means that you should be talking about your achievements – what you accomplished, what the outcomes of your work were, and what made you shine in the role. It’s the difference between “managed billing” and “completely revamped client billing system to ensure bills are now sent out on schedule” or “resolved an inherited four-month backlog of invoices in three weeks.”

2. Leading with your education even thought it’s been years since you graduated from college. Once you have some work experience, employers care most about what your work history has been and what you’ve accomplished. Your education is a distant second, so you should lead with your work history and save your education for the end. In fact, even if you’re a new grad, if you have relevant work experience, you should lead with that. (Some fields are an exception to this, but if you’re in one of them, you probably know it.)

3. Including a long list of “core competencies.” It’s fine to have a section that lists your skills, but too often people throw everything they can think of into this section, resulting in laughably long lists of skills that most hiring managers end up ignoring. If you choose to list skills on your resume, they should be hard skills that are truly distinguishing (such as software programs), not subjective self-assessments like “strong communication skills” or “works well in groups and independently.” It’s far better to demonstrate your skills not by listing them but by talking about how you’ve usedthose skills, via the bullet points describing what you’ve done at each job. That way, you can frame it in terms of what you accomplishedwith the skill, instead of just noting the skill itself. (Also: If you do decide to retain this section, please call it something other than “core competencies,” which is jargon that tends to makes hiring managers’ eyes glaze over. Calling the section Skills is fine.)

4. Including so much info before your work experience that it doesn’t start until the bottom of the page. Sometimes job seekers load their resumes up with some much extra information that their work history doesn’t start until the bottom of the page or, worse, a second page. The thing that employers care most about when reviewing your resume is your work experience. You want it to be the first thing they see; don’t bury it deep into the document.

5. Including every job you’ve ever had, no matter how long ago or irrelevant to what you do now. A resume isn’t supposed to be a comprehensive accounting of every job you’ve ever held. Rather, it’s a marketing document that you should edit to present yourself in the strongest possible light. That means that you may not need to include every job you’ve ever had or jobs from two decades ago. Focus on more recent work (the last 10-15 years) and the work that most closely relates to the job you’re applying for.

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

{ 61 comments… read them below }

  1. Richard*

    Number one mistake I see is not having a professionally written resume. Typos, bizarre fonts, bad formatting, non-printable margins, not checking to see how it looks printed out.

    On the “Core Competencies”/”Skills” – In general, I’d rather have someone work the skills into their work history. I’m sure my recruiters use it to help them find people with specific skills, so I won’t say it’s useless, but I’d rather see how someone used the skill than just list it. The way I use it is as a conversation re-starter if it’s time to come at them from a different direction. If someone has a skill listed that’s unique, or that isn’t in their work history, I’ll ask them what they know about it. Which comes to the second biggest mistake I see people make, putting things on the resume they aren’t willing and able to talk about. If you don’t know what HTML is, don’t put it on your resume. I’ll automatically assume that the other 30 things that are on your resume are fabricated, too.

    I do like to see someone’s entire professional experience on their resume, though, at least at large companies. I’d say that 99% of resumes I get have the whole history on them, and if I got one without it, I’d think it was odd (generally a negative), I wouldn’t think, “Gee, it was sure nice of them to omit it.”

    Most jobs I’ve been at have had job grades that specifically require X number of years of experience or an explicit executive level approval to bypass that. In addition, for jobs where we’re acting as consultants, often our rates are based on job grades with those sorts of requirements. I’m not going to hire someone and pay them the salary that requires 25 years of experience, and then have an internal or customer audit reveal that they shouldn’t have been charged at that rate. Small companies that do internal work don’t do things this way, or other companies that don’t have those kinds of processes, so I know that’s not universal, but in my opinion, not the kind of thing I’d tell people to omit.

    1. YandO*

      I am curious

      When a job requires someone with X years of experience, do all those years have to be in that field?

      So let’s say I have 5 years of experience. Three years in admin, two years in the the field/job I want. You ask for 5 years of experience, would you consider me?

        1. YandO*

          Yep, that’s what I figured. It makes perfect sense.

          But it feels likes three years of my life were completely wasted. Sigh….

    2. harryv*

      This brings up a point I’ve been thinking about. To retain the spacing, font, etc, I’ve used PDF. Recently, I read an article that we should avoid pdf as some companies resume scanner may not work well.

      Anyone know for sure?

      1. Apollo Warbucks*

        I think it will normally say on the site if they have a requirement for a particular format.

    3. JM in England*

      Here in the UK, there is a tendency for employers to think that if you don’t list your entire employment history, you have something to hide……………..

      1. harryv*

        I wouldn’t pick and choose and leave gaps in your employment. I would cut out employment which was completely irrelevant. I’m in IT and would not list my time as a college intramural volleyball referee or tram driver part of my experience. I actually even took out my time as a Apple (computer) lab technician.

      2. Apollo Warbucks*

        I’ve dropped the retail, bar and restaurant jobs off my CV and my entry level jobs are just a couple of lines.

        1. Carrie in Scotland*

          I’ve dropped everything prior to 2007 (bar/retail) bar one job that’s just 1 line – all the other stuff is relevant to what I do now (admin).

    4. Shannon Terry*

      Totally agree with Richard’s first two lines. Not everyone is good at everything (including writing a stand out resume.

      What I always say to my clients that feel bad about not having a good resume, is this: You are good at what YOU do ! I bet I can’t do your job, let alone do it well. Let a professional help you with what s/he is good at!

      I wanted to speak to questions about full career histories on resumes: the general rule is to focus on the last 10-15 years of relevant experience. Then at the bottom you can simply have a section header “Earlier Career Includes” and list job titles and company names only, with no dates (or sometimes I will list 1-2 key accomplishments only as content for these, depending on their relevance to my client’s current job goals, and space considerations).

      If you want to draw on and highlight experience older than that, there are ways to do hybrid formats that won’t lose that work history at the bottom. Some of this will depend on individual factors. However, one way is to include two sections of work history, such as (listed first) “Related Professional Experience” and then the second as “Additional Professional Experience”. This can work well for many of us that have an eclectic (and usually quite interesting!) background with multiple skills and interests that also don’t want to seem like they are hiding something, as one comments says, or, take the risk of appearing to have large job gaps.

      Hope that helps some!

  2. WJM-TV*

    Question — what if your job doesn’t have a lot of accomplishments? I’ve been an administrative assistant and intern. There’s not a lot of numbers that I can put into my resume.

    1. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

      There are a couple of posts in the archive about exactly this – poke around a little!

      1. Melissa*

        Thanks, I was going to ask the same question. Some of my jobs I can think about accomplishments, but some of them either don’t have accomplishments or the accomplishments are only relevant in the academic context and I’m trying to leave.

    2. KathyGeiss*

      This can be hard but think beyond quantitative accomplishments. Did you revamp a system, handle a particularly large project load for a time, receive excellent feedback about your ability to prioritize activities?

      As mentioned before, there are lots of great examples in Allison’s articles and the comments.

      1. Not an IT Guy*

        But in those examples, are those really accomplishments or is it just doing what’s expected of you?

        1. Cordelia Naismith*

          Either way, it’s descriptive of what you did at that job and what kind of employee you are, so I think it makes sense to include stuff like that on your resume.

    3. Golden Yeti*

      I tried the accomplishment route for awhile, and didn’t get any response from it; I tried asking myself why such and such that I did was important. Granted, I absolutely could have been doing it wrong, but I didn’t have much luck.

      1. De Minimis*

        I’ve almost always done mistake #1, but I never have any trouble getting interviews and don’t really see any need to change anything. Employers want to know what you’ve done and if your prior job’s duties have anything to do with the duties of the job they’re looking to fill.

    4. YandO*

      I struggle with this.

      What helped me is thinking a long the lines of:

      “What would impress me?”
      “Who would I want to hire?”

      Also, in order to know know your accomplishments, you need to figure out how your work makes a greater impact on the organization and then track that impact. By doing this, I have figured out some awesome things about my work and not all of it goes on my resume, but I mention some of it in interviews.

    5. Me too!*

      I’ve always had a problem with this. I’ve tried to put in a few things I did that were ‘new’ or ‘different’ that made the job better than my predecessor. My last two jobs I wrote cover letters that could stop traffic and I think that’s how I ended up in the interview.

      I have an interview tomorrow that I know will ask how I juggled deadlines, I’ve never had a job with lots of deadlines! My work is so fluid or I had to work till it got done, oh well…

      1. YandO*

        answer I’ve found to work great with this questions is this:

        I break down a big project into smaller pieces and set my own deadlines for each piece with an overall deadline a few days ahead of the major one. This way I have built in fail safe, as well as make sure I am on track the whole way through.

        I’ve never actually had to work on strict deadlines, but that’s a system I apply when there are no deadlines and it work equally well in my view.

    6. Ad Astra*

      Depending on the type/field of your internship, you might be able to say things that speak to the “real world” nature of the work: Did you write customer-facing copy? Did you work directly with clients? Did you create a handbook that was used to train other employees? Did you perform research that contributed to an ongoing project? Any indication that you created real, usable work that actually benefited the company (not just “practice work” that never sees the light of day like you may have done in school) can demonstrate your skills and knowledge.

      I found these types of bullet points were enough to help me land an entry-level gig in my field (communications), and achievement-based bullet points seemed to be increasingly important as I got further into my career.

  3. insert pun here*

    Here’s something I’ve been wondering about — I apply for a lot of jobs that require a resume + cover letter + other documents AND an online application that wants your complete work history. In that case, is it important that the application and resume match? What do you guys think?

    1. Dawn*

      Yes yes yes! Although, one thing that I do in those situations is my resume only goes back 7 years (I’ve had several jobs over the last 15 years). SO if the online application wants the last 10 years worth of jobs, obviously those aren’t going to be on my resume. I don’t think that’s a deal-breaker tho. I think it’s more of an issue if there’s a title change between what you put on your resume and what you put in the online application, or if there’s a huge disconnect between the two.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      They don’t need to match. A resume is different from a job application.

      (I mean, obviously dates and titles and such need to match. But it’s fine to leave stuff off your resume that you include on a comprehensive job history section of an application.)

      1. De Minimis*

        Yeah I just had someone call to follow up about stuff I didn’t have on the resume [stuff from the mid-90s/early 00s] but it appeared to be more a case of them just being curious. This seems to become more of an issue the longer your work history gets.

  4. Dovahkiin*

    Highly 2nd the bit about the Education section. I don’t want to see your GPA. And including semesters abroad is really weird. Makes me wonder if you didn’t have enough achievements to fill the space so you went digging.

    1. Melissa*

      Including GPA is highly dependent on field and level of experience. It’s flat out expected in my field for the first few years and not including it is an indication that you did so poorly you’re trying to hide it. Allison mentioned field-dependency, but I just wanted to emphasize–if you’re a relatively recent grad or a career changer, familiarize yourself with what’s expected for your field.

  5. Ali*

    I really used to struggle with writing accomplishments on my resume since I didn’t have a quantitative type of job. But once Alison and another career contact worked with me on it, it made a lot more sense. I’ve had no trouble now getting consistent interviews…just need something to stick!

    1. SherryD*

      I’m with you! Since I’ve improved my resume, I’m pretty satisfied with the number of interviews I get. Now I just need to find my right match.

  6. the gold digger*

    A friend’s resume noted that he had run the communications for a political campaign. I had to tell him, “John! Your candidate won. That needs to be a bullet point.”

  7. LizNYC*

    I’m reviewing resumes for the first time, and one thing I’ve noticed: people who *claim* in their cover letter to have X skill…but then it’s NOWHERE on their resume. And I can’t figure out what job that skill would have applied to or how they used it. This goes back to having a job-specific resume for when you’re applying to different industries.

    1. LQ*

      This is an interesting point and one that ties in with something above. I do something along the lines of a bullet in my current job
      * Created 100 hours of e-learning with rapid development tools

      And then in the skill portion I list the different rapid development tools that I would use. (It also lets me say rapid development tool for because I can learn others that aren’t on my list, I just happen to use these 4 at my job.)

      I want to list all the ones I know but it would seem odd to list them there (especially if I have them on more than one job). Is that potentially confusing people?

  8. College Career Counselor*

    I saw a resume that looked more like a version of one of those “data visualization” posters you see on the web. Complete with a pie chart and large numbers as graphics. I have to say, I found it somewhat off-putting, because it made me work harder to read it. Also, it was clearly something that was generally intended to be viewed online, because when I printed it (no color printer here), the shading was lost, and the font size went down to six point type.

    I can sort of see that this type of thing might catch on, but it’s got to be VERY carefully done to be effective. Has anyone else seen something similar? If so, what are your thoughts?

    1. Ad Astra*

      I don’t think a data visualization/infographic resume would be successful in most fields. Even if the job was producing infographics or data visualizations, the HR department is going to want a traditional resume they can skim quickly. I think Allison’s posted about these sorts of “alternative” resumes being more trouble than they’re worth.

      That said, I do create my resume to be viewed primarily on a computer (screen-friendly fonts, embedded hyperlinks, etc.), because that’s the first place anyone will see it — and my former jobs were digital-focused. Now I work in an office where people do things that I find harmless but puzzling: printing off e-books, marking up corrections on paper instead of tracking changes, attaching stuff in Word documents instead of copying directly into the email body… It’s a little bit of a generational thing and a lotta bit of an industry/culture thing.

      1. LQ*

        I’m going to speak up in favor of attaching Word documents – if it is content that needs to be worked track changes is awesome x190234590 (or Suggestions if you work that way). So that may be an attempt to move away from the paper tracking.

        But I completely agree about the infographic, if you want to create one as a part of your portfolio and have it to show off your skills at creating a great infographic out of difficult information I’m can be on board with that. It is all your information, nothing is proprietary to any former employer etc. So you should be good to share that visual as a part of your portfolio.

        1. Ad Astra*

          There are lots of good reasons to attach a Word document instead of pasting directly into the email, but they have never applied to me in the past. I was typically pasting their words directly into another program, so there was no reason to bring Word into it — especially working on down-to-the-minute, everything’s-an-emergency deadlines. Like, I really couldn’t spare the extra 3 seconds it took to open the program (if everyone in the office does that, it adds up), and sometimes I risked crashing my computer because I was already running half the Adobe Suite and a clunky CMS.

          In my current gig, we don’t ever use the track changes function (maybe I should suggest it?), but sending a Word doc doesn’t irk me because my deadlines aren’t as tight and my computer isn’t as overloaded with a million programs running at once.

          1. LQ*

            If you can get people on board with track changes it is awesome. (For the people who think everyone else is taking credit for their work – show them that it will “prove” they did write whatever. For people who want to be efficient and good at their job it’s about exactly a billion times faster than retyping something, more accurate, you can make comments, about why, and you can have multiple people comment on something, especially if you are all working from a common drive. For people who are lazy it’s way less work.)

            I do love that outlook lets me preview word documents for those days when I’m running all the programs. Though I get what you are saying. I don’t think that’s the same as the people who print off every single email to read them.

            1. mdv*

              I agree, track changes is awesome, especially when merging comments and changes from 20 different people in a 200-page document (something I have had to do before!) … it is also useful if you’re just helping someone out with a cover letter or resume, or anything else like that — gives them a much better visual on what the changes are that I would recommend, and also the possibility to accept or reject each change, as you see fit.

  9. Lurker*

    I’ve received several resumes that seemingly list every country/place the applicant has visited in the “Other Skills/Experience” section. Unless you’re applying for something in the travel field, I think it’s weird.

  10. Red Rose*

    I feel like I should remove my oldest two jobs, but they both have some accomplishments that make me more well rounded (for example, in one job I created and delivered in-house training on my expertise) and I don’t have more recent examples of the same. What are your thoughts on this?

    1. NJ Anon*

      I had a couple of jobs early on that I was proud of but thought age discrimination was at play so I took them off.

    2. James M.*

      I think it comes down to cost/benefit. Do the benefits of including those jobs, with relevant transferable skills emphasized, outweigh the costs?

    3. Chickaletta*

      I’d leave them off UNLESS your applying to a job that specifically requests those accomplishments. If it’s been awhile since you did those things than they might not be relevant anymore anyway, practices and standards change over time.

      I did marketing research for a bank when I was back in college fifteen years ago and haven’t done that since, but it was so long ago that if an employer asked me about it during an interview I’d be kinda embarrassed, like oh, you want me to talk about that? I can’t even remember how I did it, just that I did.

  11. Amber Rose*

    Unless you’re applying for government work. Then forget all common sense and turn in the most ridiculous mess, exactly the way they like it. :/

    Man, am I glad I’m not job hunting.

    1. Jessa*

      Yes but doesn’t the government at least in the US now have a universal application process (at least for the Feds,) where you only have to do it once?

      1. Mpls*

        Snort. No – they are all posted in the same place, but you still have to tailor the application to the posting.

        1. De Minimis*

          It really depends on the jobs you’re applying for, if it’s something where there’s a lot of variation in the types of jobs you’re looking at, then you might need to make a lot of changes when you apply to different jobs. For me, I’m looking almost solely at accounting/finance jobs, and my one resume I’ve created in the system doesn’t need to be changed at all, so I can generally apply for a federal job in about 10-15 minutes depending on the types of questions asked [usually you go to another federal site to answer some of the questions] and on whether I write a cover letter.

          In my most recent job search, I’ve been applying to a lot of local/county government jobs as well, and they now seem to have a website similar to USAJobs and I’ve already gotten some interviews/testing appointments. I find both systems pretty easy to use–they are definitely better than a lot of private sector systems out there [Taleo…]

  12. Pennalynn Lott*

    Back in the early 90’s I worked at a place where we contracted out programmers and systems analysts and the like. So we got dozens of resumes a day, and it was my job to [ugh] re-type them into our proprietary software program [prior to scanning software and email], and put them into our company’s format. I received one resume that was complete gobbedly-gook. Literally. The name on it was something along the lines of, “mlhm xogjh”. The whole thing was like that. I stared and stared at it and then had an “Aha!” moment: The author had moved the fingers of his left hand over one key on the keyboard. Using that as a “decoder”, I was able to translate the nonsense into a real resume. I can only surmise that he did it on purpose as some sort of a very weird test. I have no idea if we ever employed him.

    1. Chickaletta*

      That’s dedication! I would have either thrown it away or typed it in exactly like it was, depending on my mood that day.

  13. Anonymousterical*

    Two months and six days ago, I jumped off a cliff and quit my horrible 70-80 hr/wk job without anything lined up. I had ten interviews in two months, and, about two hours ago, I successfully changed careers from (mid-level) retail management to (entry-level) higher education administration. I used these resume tips exactly, as well as AAM’s interviewing guide (which I’ve pretty much internalized, but it calms me to read it when I’ve arrived to an interview an hour early and am languishing in my car…) (Also, OMG I have a 40/hr week job again! Office work instead of unloading trucks! Weekends off! Home by 5:30! A team I gelled like crazy with during the interview! Whaaaaaaaaat.)

    Accomplishment-based resumes are the absolute way to go. Kind of pulling a bit from upthread, if you really don’t have bona fide accomplishments, then think of how you can turn the hiring managers’ expectations on their head. I was a “retail clerk” for four years during college, and I didn’t put things like “run register, stock merchandise, help customers” on my resume. That’s what people expect. They don’t expect things like “trained new associates in multiple departments and inventory systems” or “wrote and delivered customized overhead announcements for multiple departments and charity drives” or whatever is appropriate. Make your work stand out (without lying) and draw interest to what you’ve done.

    1. mel*

      Aaah! Congratulations!

      I’m still battling the front line of hospitality work (and metaphorically draining all of my blood – almost out now) and haven’t gotten an interview for even other retail work in at least 4 years, not even with an accomplishment-based resume. It’s good to be able to cheer for others who have made it out!

      1. Anonymousterical*

        Thanks!! I’m super excited (and nervous!) :) It’s a tough market, and I was literally a week away from applying for fast food or factory work just to get some cash flow, and then this gig came along. It was nowhere near my first choice (it’s a low-level position at a 36% pay cut from what I had been making, but my foot is firmly in a door), so I think it’s true what they say: the more you stop wanting something, the more doors open, and I’m happy this one did.

        I hope yours opens soon! This Internet stranger is pulling for you! :)

  14. New career seeker*

    I am writing my C.V change of jobs from retail 10 years, to the construction (commercial) industry I have 3 months commercial work including 6 months voluntary in that field, usually employers prefere 6 months commercial to be considered .

    I have a 3 year employment gap 2003-2005 2 years at university, left university for caring responsibilities up until 2006 how do I word/ construct that on a C.V?

  15. BakerStreet*

    I can help others get job interviews and rewrite their resumes so why do I get stuck when working on my own resume? It drives me nuts!

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