a professional resume writer told me my resume is “awful” — is it?

A reader writes:

I have been following your blog for more than a year now and I must say that it has been an invaluable source of advice and inspiration. Following your advice, I got interviews with every company I have applied to and received an offer.

I am currently preparing to apply for a rotation graduate program which I feel I could really excel in. I have spent weeks researching the company and with the applications’ deadline approaching, the stress got to me, so I contacted a professional CV writer.

Initially, I just wanted to get some objective feedback, but the minute he got a glimpse of it, the writer said my CV was ”pretty awful.” His main arguments are a lack of personality and awkward phrasing.

On the one hand, there are several forms with competency question plus a motivation letter, so I don’t feel like my CV should channel my personality so much. On the other hand, I am now questioning my approach and I seriously consider getting some professional help with this particular application because it is really important to me.

The reason I have not done anything yet is because I feel like I will cheat my (hopefully) future employer if I get someone to write my application for me. Plus, if this ever comes out I’ll lose all credibility, at least I feel that way.

Finally, is my CV really ”pretty awful”? I have attached it to this email and I do not by any means ask or expect you to provide detailed feedback on it, but I really need a reality check.

No, it’s not “pretty awful.” It’s a pretty normal resume — perfectly solid. There are things you could do to improve it — get more accomplishments in there, not just job duties (although you’ve gotten a good start on that already), get more specific about what some lines mean (for example, one of your bullet points under a job just says “back-end support and administration” and it’s not clear what that means), and fix some spacing issues. But it’s perfectly solid, not awful. (Which is further backed up by the fact that you got interviews with every company you applied to with it!)

But telling you that it’s awful is a trick that some resume writers use to get you to pay for their service. In fact, at least one well-known service offers a free resume critique and then no matter what you send them, sends you a response telling you how terrible your resume is — and that you should hire them to rewrite it. There’s a bunch of stories around the internet from people who hired them to redo their resumes … then later submitted the new, supposedly better version created by the company back to the same company for another free critique … and got the same letter telling them how terrible it was, even though they’d just used their suggestions to revise it.

As for this guy telling you that your resume needs more personality — your resume really doesn’t need to have personality. It needs to be clear and easy to quickly skim, and it needs to highlight your most relevant achievements, and it should be written like a normal human, not a jargon-spewing robot. That’s it. Most resumes don’t have personality, including most good ones, and that’s fine. Hiring managers don’t care. They care about your achievements and whether you’re a match for the job.

As for this charlatan’s claim of awkward phrasing, I’m not seeing it.

This sounds to me like he’s negging you to get you to buy his service. Don’t give your money to someone like that.

And more broadly, I don’t think you need a resume writer at all. This resume got you interviews everywhere you sent it to. That’s far better feedback than this guy is giving you.

(If you do decide to use one though, I don’t think it’s cheating. I do think there are loads of downsides to them, like that they often make your resume look like it was written by someone else, unless you find a really good one, but it’s not cheating. Having someone else write your cover letter, where it being your words is very much the point, would be cheating.)

{ 84 comments… read them below }

  1. Cordelia Naismith

    I’m trying to imagine what a resume with personality would look like. Nothing I’m thinking of would make me more likely to give somebody a job.

          1. So Very Anonymous

            Didn’t a later episode suggest that she had had to write out her resume by hand under some… duress?

            Either way, Hotch definitely did know what he was getting.

            1. Chicago Recruiter

              Thanks for the CM reference… my friends like to tell me I am the only person under 70 who watches CM/CBS in general.

    1. Bookworm

      I wonder if he’s one of those types who thinks personality means working in the word “rockstar” as much as possible.

          1. Christina

            Oh god…my former boss in communications used to say this All. The. Time. because she thought it made her sound like she knew what she was talking about. It will forever trigger my eye twitch now.

      1. Chris

        My personal favorite was the person who was ‘excellent’, ‘superb’, or ‘outstanding’ at every single thing they did on the job.

        1. H.C.

          That reminded me of an infographic resume I’ve received once where the applicant gave himself an ‘A+’ on all relevant (and some not-so-relevant) skills.

    2. Naomi

      I’m wondering if there’s a resume counterpart to the “creative” cover letter where the applicant commented on the interviewer’s sensual wrists and implied he might pick their pocket. You can’t deny that one had personality…

    3. Riverpebble

      I’m thinking something with a good layout that lets the content shine instead of burying it, along with an attractive color scheme that offers decent contrast in grayscale as well (because people do still print these things out). But yeah, I’m not sure that really qualifies as “personality”.

      1. ZuKeeper

        And printed on rainbow paper! And yes, I have seen a resume with headers in Comic Sans and every page (many, many pages) on a different bright colored paper.

        1. babblemouth aka One Of The Greatest Minds Of The 21st Century

          I once received a CV in pink Comic Sans. Part of me wanted to print it out, frame it and hang it in the office like a work of art (and then the boring part of me kicked and pointed out it would be pretty mean).

    4. grlgoddess

      Not one, but TWO full colour photos (one headshot, one full body with his jacket slung over his shoulder), printed with coloured text on a coloured background (not colour paper, they just set the background fill to green and light blue). For a retail job.

      1. Chris

        I’ll go one better – A half-page photo with a maniacal glare, followed by ‘In the Name of God’, then personal bio information about their religious and marital status, and preference in foods, followed by work-relevant information.

  2. michelenyc

    I had something similar happen to me only it was a website telling me that my resume was only going to be 40% effective. I didn’t put much stock in it especially since I just accepted a position that pays 25% more than my last salary. It really is just a way for them to make money.

  3. AMT

    When I was a budding teenage writer, I encountered a literary agency that responded to my manuscript with: “We read your work and it needs the help of a good editor.” Followed by a flyer for their in-house editing service, of course. I later learned that they were on a well-known list of shady agencies and this was their standard response to every submission.

    1. Trig

      That’s a particularly transparent ploy, but to be fair, most manuscripts could use the help of a good editor! The author of just about every novel I read thanks their editor profusely in the attributions section.

      1. AMT

        Yep, my early work definitely needed editing! But literary agencies that pitch their own editing services are notoriously terrible and frowned upon by the publishing industry, so I’m guessing that paying for their editing services wouldn’t have led to a book contract even if they did eventually agree to represent me.

        1. shep

          I am always morbidly fascinated by those Writer Beware horror stories.

          I had a very close brush–as a contract editor, not with my own material, thank goodness–with what looked like a VERY promising independent publisher that was starting to pull deals from reputable agents even I had on my wishlist. I contracted edited for a month or two until they gave me a fundamentally awful (from the plot down to the punctuation) manuscript and I was like NOPE. SQUAD OUT. I finished my copyedit, but submitted my resignation at the same time and waived any fees I would be owed.

          Several years later, lo and behold, this indie has gotten some serious negative press of late.

    2. all aboard the anon train

      To be fair, most manuscripts that we get from lit agents do need the help of a good editor for a lot of different reasons. I can think of several published authors who still need the help of a good editor.

      But your experience is super shady. If they came back and said you needed a good editor, I wouldn’t think much of it, but adding a flyer for an editing service is sketch. They were probably hoping budding teenage writers like you would shell out a lot of money to get their work published.

  4. Mark in Cali

    You mentioned to the OP to write more about accomplishments rather than job duties. Am I hearing however that it’s acceptable to list job duties and not every bullet point has to be an accomplishment? For example, I do a monthly forecast with little resources in terms of market research (my department won’t pay for good data nor do we collect it ourselves), so it’s actually a difficult part of my job and an important one. So I would phrase it more like an important duty:

    Analyzes limited monthly market and sales date to forecast program outcomes used for management’s planning.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      You don’t want to just list all your job duties, but not every single bullet point needs to be an accomplishment. It’s okay to have a mix, although it should be weighted more heavily toward accomplishments. What you list would be fine if it’s also accompanied by some accomplishments. (But it should be “analyze” and not “analyzes” — don’t ask me why; it’s just the convention.)

      1. Dawn

        I think that if you’re providing an analysis that then gets directly used by management for planning the future of programs at your company, that is an accomplishment in and of itself! Maybe not one with a percentage attached to it, but if I got a resume with a bullet point that said “Provided market and sales data analysis to management for planning future programs” I’d definitely be like “dang, this is a Big Deal!”

        OP, if you’re already reading Ask a Manager then I promise your resume can’t be that bad!

      2. Mark in Cali

        Right, yes, the old “I (blank) . . .” format for bullet point.

        Ok, this helps, I knew the resume should be accomplishment focused, but it’s good to know it’s fine to just have duties listed too. I usually have one bullet of a few key duties, and then the rest accomplishment type statements.

        Thanks!

  5. March

    Generally if someone is in the business of selling you a service, unpaid advice they offer that relates to said service should be taken with a grain of salt.

    In this case, they make money by telling you how bad your resume is so that they can hopefully get you as a paying client. Of course it’s in their best interests to tell you that your resume is bad.

  6. wanda

    Wait, does the OP need a resume or a CV? CV’s are pretty different… a good resume would be a pretty awful CV.

    1. TootsNYC

      This was what I expected to hear–that the format was wrong for an academic CV (since this is a grad program).

      But I would think that a CV would need to be a different format, not to have more personality. And awkward phrasing is or isn’t awkward, no matter which format you use.

      1. Claire

        I don’t think it’s a graduate degree but rather a graduate program, which hires a big cohort of newly graduated employees and gives them short stints in a number of different roles before settling them somewhere. That’s how I started with my current employer and it’s a pretty common thing in my industry and location, which I suspect OP might share based on timing.

    2. TL -

      Depends on the field she’s applying to, entirely.

      OP, it probably would be more helpful to contact admissions and/or people who have applied (successfully) to similar programs and see what their suggestions are as to CV formatting *and* whether or not it really matters.

    3. Annby

      I’m American, so take this with a grain of salt, but my understanding is that “CV” is the British (at least) term for what Americans call a “resume”.

      1. TL -

        Kinda! It can mean a different thing in academia as well.
        For instance, they would expect you to put every publication/poster on your CV, whereas you wouldn’t on a resume, and they’d expect more emphasis on who you worked with, rather than where.

        Also, American resumes are generally a lot shorter than other countries’ CVs.

        1. Cordelia Naismith

          Yeah, this. In academia in the USA, you don’t submit a resume, you submit a CV — and the format for CVs is very different from the format for resumes.

        2. Blue Anne

          I haven’t found American resumes to be shorter than other countries’ CVs. When I moved back from the UK, my CV was pretty much ready to go as a resume.

          If anything, people were telling me that I would probably need to expand on it because they thought CVs tended to be shorter!

      2. Chris

        Yeah, the major differentiation in length and content between resume and CV is definitely an Americanism, in my experience.

      3. Ask a Manager Post author

        What Americans would call a resume, British people call a CV.

        Some Americans say CV when they mean resume.

        Complicating matters further, American academia does require CVs.

        1. Traveller

          I’m in Canada, currently recruiting to hire someone in Hong Kong (which I assume follows British conventions).

          The local team in HK calls everything CVs. They generally look alot like Canadian or US resumes. The good ones are 1-2 pages. Sometimes they are 3-4 but definitely not more.

          There are a few though that include date of birth, marital status, visa status and other information that makes me feel like I shouldn’t be looking at it!!

          1. Blue Anne

            Yeah, there are definitely some weird regional variances across countries. When I was working in the UK at a small tech company, we got a lot of applications from Eastern Europe, and it seemed like it was a convention there to include a picture of yourself on your resume. Marital status sometimes, too.

            Visa status seems like it would be useful though? Working in the UK I usually mentioned near the end of my cover letter that although I was an American citizen, I didn’t need work visa sponsorship.

            1. Marillenbaum

              In my graduate French course, we were required to do a French CV. Apparently, you were expected to include a photograph, as well as a section on hobbies. I’ll admit, I was kind of horrified–the potential for hiring discrimination seems like it would be rampant.

        2. Phyllis B

          Okay, so what IS the difference between a resume and a CV? (And while we’re on the subject, what exactly does CV stand for?) I always thought a CV was the British equivalent of resume, but now I’m not sure.

          1. Dee

            They’re not quite the same thing – a CV is a comprehensive job and education history – so it can be ALOT longer than a resume and not as focussed. Where i am CVs are the norm, although i only do a resume as i think CV’s are a bit outdated for most fields. Most CVs will list (if you went to a good one!) high school attended onwards, every single job you ever held, accomplishments in university etc. They can be very long and rarely directly relevant to a role if you’ve had over 10 years work experience. If i get an interview i usually have to mention that i submitted a resume and my resume highlights my direct jobs relevant to …. otherwise i sometimes get weird questions because i haven’t listed everything!

            1. ceiswyn

              A British CV is the equivalent of a US resume. 1-2 pages, very focused.
              A US CV doesn’t really have a British equivalent, except in academia.

          2. MegaMoose, Esq

            A CV as used in American academia or the sciences primarily varies from a resume in that it is going to include an exhaustive list of one’s publications and awards and courses taught and the like, as opposed to a 1-2 page summary of accomplishments relevant to the job one is applying to.

            1. wanda

              Yes, for academic CVs the longer the better, as a measure of your accomplishments. “The Professor is In” recommends that people looking for tenure-track faculty jobs add a line to their CV a month.

  7. KAM

    Just FYI, I know exactly what was meant by “back-end support and administration”, so if the system used was mentioned, it’s likely to be recognized by someone else in the field!

  8. 2horseygirls

    I submitted my husband’s and my resume to the same company. His was 97% perfect (insert eye roll – of course it was . . . that’s just him ;) )

    Mine, on the other hand, sucked and I wouldn’t be able to get a minimum wage position on third shift with it.

    Fun tidbit: I *wrote* my husband’s resume, and used the same template for mine.

    Granted, his career reads like a perfect resume; mine, still perfectly fine but arias don’t play when you open it or anything . . .

    Bless their hearts. Delete.

  9. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2

    If you’re not getting interviews – then, yes, have SOMEONE look at your resume and cover letter. I did that for a friend.

    I noted that his resume and cover letter looked like it was boilerplate, written by someone at the unemployment office. It was. Suggested he touch it up – he wound up getting interviews….

  10. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2

    Oh, I always put on my resume = “native born U.S. Citizen, valid passport” … eliminates questions of sponsorship/visa.

    1. BouncingBall

      I’m so curious why you would do this? I’ve never seen that before. Do you work in a field that typically sponsors a lot of work visas for foreign workers? Or do you have a name that would make American employers think you were from another country? Not that your name should matter because, as well all know, Americans come with a wide variety of names. But I’m sure certain names could still be problematic sometimes, unfortunately.

    2. Jacob

      Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination based on national origin (among several other protected classes). It’s really ooky that you’re pointing out that you’re a native born U.S. citizen. That really should not mean you get preferential treatment to someone who isn’t native-born.

    3. Cath in Canada

      It’s obvious from my CV that my education is all from the UK, so I have a line at the top to clarify matters. But I’d never do that if I wasn’t obviously an immigrant.

      (My line has gone from “Status in Canada: work permit, sponsorship required” to “Status in Canada: permanent resident, no sponsorship required” to “Citizenship: Canadian and British”)

  11. Photoshop Til I Drop

    IME, resume and/or CV writers usually spout one-size-fits-all advice with very little understanding of the specifics of certain professions.

    I was lectured by a crone at a job fair, who told me that my resume full of short-term freelance assignments was proof that I was a terrible job hopper and that no one would ever want me. She insisted that I needed to stick it out in one place for at least two years. Apparently I was supposed to finish a three-month assignment, then become a squatter for the next 21 months.

  12. Julie

    Like Alison said, highlight your accomplishments instead of just listing your job duties. You would strengthen those by giving concrete examples and quantifying your impact whenever possible. I don’t know what field you are in, but the MIT Communication Lab has examples online that might be helpful. But otherwise, anyone who tells you that your CV (which has landed you interviews!) is “pretty awful” is either shady or incompetent–and in all cases, unprofessional.

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