Updated: Jun 29, 2022
Are you making a New Year's resolution to start seriously looking for that new job? Or to dust off your resume, just in case a fantastic opportunity pops up? When you pull out your resume and take a close look, is it something you're proud to share? If you feel your resume doesn't reflect your professional story, you're not alone. I work with many clients who have incredible careers but whose resumes suffer one of the cardinal sins of resume writing.
To be clear, lots of resumes have bad grammar, misspellings, tiny margins, crazy fonts, and too many icons and columns. While these stylistic issues can be deadly, I'm talking about the bad writing habits and poor strategic choices that cannot be fixed by copyediting or formatting. Below are the seven most common issues I see in the resumes I review.
#1 Adding and not editing (aka kitchen sink resumes).
At least 50% of my clients send me a resume they call a “working document.” I like to call it a kitchen sink resume because the writer has continuously added on experiences and roles without cleaning up what's already there. These resumes typically dedicate as many words to first jobs and college experiences as to recent professional accolades.
Many of you with this problem just haven't had a reason to do a comprehensive review of your resume, thanks to a successful career propelled through promotion and luck. Others of you have been too busy in that career to sit down to the task. Or maybe you've told yourself that one of those older details could be "good conversation starters" or "interesting" to your interviewer. Whatever the reason, your resume has become bulky and incongruous.
A kitchen sink resume signals to a potential employer that (1) you haven't taken the time to revise it (and you're not ready for or committed to this job search), (2) you don't understand the skills and experiences needed for the job, and/or (3) you truly believe that what you accomplished when you were 20 is as relevant as your most recent work.
You need to do the hard work of deciding what’s relevant to your reader.
While it's great to keep a running list of your professional accomplishments (what some call a "master resume" or "CV"), before sending your resume to someone, you must ruthlessly edit your resume with a clear narrative in mind and do the hard work of deciding what’s relevant to your reader. Read the job description and learn more about the role and industry you're targeting. After each line of your resume, ask yourself the following questions:
"Will this potential employer care about this detail?"
"How is this accomplishment/skill relevant to the particular job they're looking to fill?"
"Would I want to talk about this in an interview? Can I describe how this experience/skill/accolade is transferable and relevant to this new role?"
Don't make the very people you want to impress parse through a dense resume to find what they’re looking for.
#2 Listing just the basics.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are resumes that have very little meat to their bones. I've worked with plenty of clients who haven't had the time or inclination to include more than a basic outline of their professional journey. While I love a clean, one-page resume, these bare bones resumes give the reader, at best, your underlying credentials. At worst, these resumes are lackluster. They make you seem disinterested and flat.
Make sure you use that precious resume real estate to show how you're exceptional in your work. Describe, in powerful, example-laden detail, your skill set and show an employer why they would be fools not to bring you in for a conversation. Your resume is a marketing document, not a business card, and you need to show your reader that you're a serious candidate, with a rich professional life, and ready to bring value to their company.
#3 Describing the job, not your impact.
Equally boring are resumes that read like a long list of job descriptions. In these resumes, you spend so much time describing your role that you fail to include your impact in that job.
Professionals these days have complicated, multidimensional roles involving numerous systems, complex subject matter, and the intersection of many different teams and people. You may think someone outside of your company or industry needs more context to appreciate the nuance of your work and complexity of the expertise you bring to the table. So you feel you have to list it all out.
Your bullets should showcase the metrics of your success, the milestones that prove your worth, and show the value and impact you brought to each role.
Don't get me wrong, you do need to provide a summary of your responsibility (it's also helpful to give a company overview if your employer isn't well known). However, I prefer a "hybrid" resume that limits this overview to two or three lines. The meat of the resume should be the bullets that follow, emphasizing the specific ways in which you excelled in that job. Your bullets should showcase the metrics of your success, the milestones that prove your worth, and the value and impact you brought to each role. A resume should never include a bullet that could describe someone else. Make sure every line is uniquely and distinctly you.
#4 Making your bullets too dense.
I do love a good bullet point. They draw the eye and help a reader quickly ascertain what you've accomplished. But you lose all of that fantastic punch when a bullet becomes four or even five lines long. Be discerning with your word choice. Can you make your point with one verb instead of three? Isn't "launch" more powerful and confident than "conceive, design, develop, and implement"? Be especially critical with adjectives, as it's always more powerful to show rather than tell. It's more informative to say you "redesigned" the company newsletter and grew its readership by 4x in 18 months than you "drafted effective, coherent, and widely-used" newsletters. Zero in on the action, content, and impact, and create those golden nuggets that highlight your best self.
#5 Capitalizing EVERYTHING.
Maybe you work in a heavily regulated space or with government agencies. Maybe your company has many divisions or it is standard to name each large cross-divisional project. While this issue is more stylistic in nature, capitalizing every defined term or using lots of industry jargon makes your resume challenging to read. Try to read something that’s in all caps. Are you SHOUTING to yourself? Now read something Spelled Out In This Way? Does it take you twice as long to read? That's because you have been taught to Pause. Before. Each. Capitalized. Word. Using lots of industry jargon can similarly make your resume difficult to skim and suggests an unattractive self-importance (there's always a tricky balance between self-promotion and modesty when writing a resume, which is why "showing" not "telling" is a great strategy).
Make your resume easy to read.
As your primary marketing tool (with your LinkedIn profile!), your resume should be easy to read. Don't dumb it down, just make it accessible. Only capitalize proper names and titles. Use acronyms and industry speak sparingly and only where it is customary to do so.
#6 Not explaining gaps.
One of the most challenging problems I see is when a client leaves an elephant in the resume. While removing irrelevant or distracting information from your resume helps build a cohesive career story, if your resume shows a big gap or an unconventional career jump, your reader may wonder why. Was she fired for bad behavior? Is he flighty and jumps around from job to job? Did his company fail? How many seconds has your reader now dedicated to these questions instead of focusing on the ways in which you're perfect for the job. They become unsure and don't bring you in for an interview, or if they do extend an interview, you find yourself spending more time explaining those gaps instead of talking about how you're a great fit for the role. In all of these scenarios, you have lost control of the narrative and, inadvertently, punched holes in your candidacy.
Do not lose control of your narrative.
I generally believe you should talk about unconventional career moves or gaps in your resume. Maybe your company went out of business during Covid-19 and you've been freelancing and learning new, applicable skills. Or an old boss recruited you to join his new firm after only 6 months on the job. Often, these gaps tell a powerful story, showcase different qualities, and give personality to your resume. I understand and have worked with clients whose gaps are too complex, personal, or nuanced to integrate into the confines of a resume (that's where cover letters can be helpful). However, there are many artful, tidy ways to explain transitions and you should explore them before leaving a reader to wonder. And of course, it goes without saying, never, ever, lie or use dates to hide unemployment.
#7 Making yourself an extra special snowflake.
Sometimes I pick up a resume and honestly cannot tell what the writer does in the first 30 seconds of scanning it (which may be 4x more than the average recruiter spends reading a resume). Maybe you've held a number of different titles, assumed a variety of responsibilities in a single role, or worked in a range of different industries. Or maybe your executive summary is cluttered as you struggle to show how unique, passionate, and multi-faceted you are. You're a truly special unicorn, and anyone should be so lucky to have you, right? However, despite impressive credentials, great vocabulary, and tight bullet points, you're just too out of the box. Your resume appears unwieldy and you've failed to convince your reader that you understand what is needed to succeed in the role.
Does your resume tell your reader you are qualified for the job in a 30-second scan?
If your resume suffers from this problem, start by revising your executive summary to begin with a sentence like this one: [Your title/industry position], with [## years,"over a decade", etc.] of experience in [industry/sector/subject matter expertise]. Make sure you are choosing keywords and experiences that align with the roles you are targeting. Follow this sentence with two or three that highlight your key competencies, interests, talents, and/or top career achievements.
Now, go through your resume and make sure each role provides supporting examples for this new summary. While this isn't a foolproof formula (and you may decide to ditch or revise this new executive summary), you'll create a more coherent resume in the process. This exercise forces you to put clear labels on who you are and what you've done so your reader can quickly determine if you're a good candidate.
While most of the resumes I see suffer from one of the above problems, I am always struck by how powerful, stunning, and unique my clients' professional stories are once I remove the distractions of bad resume habits. Don't underestimate the importance of a good resume, and definitely don't let a bad one get in the way of your next big career move.
Need help revising your resume or updating your LinkedIn profile? Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.margaretgerety.com/contact.