Common resume mistakes I have seen after reviewing >10,000 resumes

During thirteen years in executive search I have reviewed over 10,000 resumes. I still find that many resumes have errors in them. Why is this important?

Because a resume represents you. The reader does not know you. So, the resume must show how great you are. You want the reader to think: ‘Wow, this candidate looks amazing, I want to meet him/her’. Getting the first interview is great, but not the only function of your resume. You should aim to go into the interview as the candidate that is already perceived to be a great fit.

A good resume will enable you to interview more efficiently. Otherwise you would waste time clarifying things that should have been obvious from your resume. Interviews are about getting more insights into the role, building a relationship with the interviewer, and highlighting how you can add value. Any minute you waste clarifying things is a minute you have lost (e.g., clarifying the overlap of education and work experience because the degree you took was part-time). If your resume is unclear, you might answer the same clarifying question many times during each interview round.

Your resume needs to stand by itself. This is because you will likely meet many people during the interview process who received no or a minimal briefing on you. Headhunters do not get to talk to every single person involved in the hiring process, usually only the hiring manager and HR. Interviewers hardly ever brief the next interviewer extensively, often the briefing consists of ‘you should meet this person, here is the resume’.

There are two major areas that need to be optimized, layout and content.

Layout issues

Recently I saw a resume that gave me an instant headache. That is not the reaction you want from a recruiter.

Here is what to avoid:

  • font size too small: minimum should be 9 or 10. Only use 9 if you have a lot of white space.
  • a weird font. Stick with common fonts that display well everywhere.
  • too long or too short: two pages should be the maximum unless you have 20+ years of experience. Even then, 3 pages is the absolute maximum.
  • not enough white space: white space is easy on the eyes and makes it less cluttered. It makes your resume look organized.
  • too much continuous text: use bullet points instead. It is extremely tiring to read continuous text on a resume.
  • too many boxes/ frames/ lines. There should be none, especially no boxes shaded in grey. These make the resume look old-fashioned, a risk particularly for older candidates. Also, this makes your resume non-ATS compliant which can doom your application.
  • excessive use of bold, underlining, italic. Some people bold or underline a third of their resume. That is far too much. Use only one way of formatting (bold or underlined). Use it sparingly (5-10 %).
  • YYYY date format is terrible: e.g., a job from 2017-2018: you could have been at this company for two months, or 24 months. Makes a big difference. Use MM/YY date format instead.
  • not using action verbs: action verbs (e.g., drove, executed, sold) are better than nouns.
  • no link to your LinkedIn profile. Make it easy for your interviewer to look you up online (especially if your name is common).
  • family name not CAPITALIZED. This is the global best practice. It shows that you are a global citizen and do not have an ethnocentric way of thinking (you don’t assume that every person on the planet will be able to differentiate a family name from a given name). This is esp. important in Asia as some Chinese candidates will put the family name first (as is tradition), some might use the western way of putting given name first.
  • a career goal section is unnecessary and old fashioned, use a summary instead. The summary must be in bullet points: you only have 30 seconds to convey the most important info before a reader decides next step (discard or read more).
  • extracurricular activities/ awards/ academic papers sections are too long: this might be a backlog from your first resume as a fresh graduate. Once you have two years’ work experience, cut this section down to the minimum. Leave only the most impressive 2-3 achievements.
  • no ‘languages’ section. Do not forget English. It makes a difference if you are native or fluent. Of course, nowadays Mandarin is paramount for anyone working in Financial Services in Asia. Mention both your written and spoken skills.
  • no ‘interests’ section: interests make you interesting (no pun intended) and are a great conversation starter. You are a human, not a robot. This can help you build rapport with the reader who is (hopefully) also a human.
  • no ‘IT skills’ section: IT skills are getting more important every day. Mention if you know Python, Tableau, Alteryx, or similar software (and ideally also your capability level with these).
  • mentioning the phrase ‘References available on request’. That is obvious, don’t waste space, delete this.
  • adding biographic data like address, gender, photo, or parents’ occupation. Delete all of these.

Content issues

Once you have fixed your layout, it is time to improve the content.

Here are common content mistakes:

  • not customized. You need to customize every resume to the job you are applying for.
  • not enough project outcomes/ impact/ results. Include more numbers. This is not about confidential data but rather showing the impact of your work.
  • too many acronyms and abbreviations. Never assume the reader knows an acronym. Always err on the side of caution. Even in science papers the overuse of acronyms is considered a problem now.
  • no info on your employers. There are millions of companies in the world, how can you assume that the reader knows all of them? Give background and a ranking e.g., Fortune 500 ranking or from an industry publication. Even if it is a bank that the reader has heard of, like HSBC, where in this giant corporation were you? Which part of the bank were you in? Which geography were you covering? Were you in Consumer Banking, Corporate Banking, Transaction Banking…?
  • not mentioning the exact size of the team reporting to you, and not mentioning your reporting line.
  • job title missing or misleading. You write AVP but you were in fact a Senior Manager (which would be equivalent to AVP in most other firms). Do NOT change your title, write ‘Senior Manager (AVP equivalent)’ instead.
  • not explicitly mentioning your promotions. No, you were not at that company for six years as a Director. You probably joined as an Analyst or Associate, then got promoted. Spell it out, show your progression and mention the dates when you were promoted.
  • location missing or misleading. Do not write India/ Hong Kong when you were based in India but only travelled to Hong Kong for two weeks per year or were just virtually staffed. If you want to highlight the international nature of your work, do that separately but do not confuse the reader.
  • education start date is missing or misleading. How is the reader supposed to know if you did a two, three or four-year program? If you did a part-time degree, spell that out, otherwise it is confusing to the reader as education will overlap with work experience.
  • currencies not mentioned. You saved 30 million. Which currency? Do not just write $. Use USD, SGD, HKD instead.
  • typos and grammatical errors: these will instantly disqualify you. After all these edits, use your editor’s proofread function to find typos and grammatical issues. However, be careful as it is often accidentally deactivated for part of a document. In addition, you always need to proofread yourself to catch ‘false friends’ and other errors.

After fixing all these issues, your resume will be a powerful tool in your job search process.

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