Common Resume Mistakes

I’ve been hiring in the tech industry for the past ten years or so. In that time I’ve looked at hundreds—if not thousands—of resumes from people applying for a variety of positions on my teams. While the positions may differ, the majority of the resumes share the same quality: they stink.

See, here’s the thing: While I’m a hiring manager it’s not the only thing I have to do with my day. There are staff meetings and progress reports and design meetings and scheduling development and any of the myriad of other of tasks which land in the lap of a software engineering manager. By the time I carve out an hour to sift through all of the resumes I’ve received for an open position, the average resume crosses my desk in less than 30 seconds. If you can’t make a good impression in that amount of time then, I’m sorry, but I need to move on. I have too many other constraints on my time.

Therein lies the problem with the average resume: the average part. It doesn’t stand out from the pack. The same words, used in the same way, conveying the same lack of information.

Are you average? No? Then why in the hell is your resume? Let’s fix that…

What follows are tips for how to make your resume stand out from that big, tall stack through which I have to sort every time I have an open req to fill.

  • Don’t get fancy with the design. Unless you’re a graphic designer, please stick with a more traditional formatting for your resume. Anything else is at best jarring for the hiring manager and at worst actively distracting. The most important part of your resume is the content, not the layout. As with any good design, the layout and formatting should take a back seat to the content it supports. It should enhance the content, not be the focus of attention. This means you should probably stick with black on white and use minimal (or no) images. In truth, this will probably help to get your resume more noticed than a tightly designed document. Many companies use online job app services now. Those services require you upload a resume file, which they then—for better or worse—scan for keywords. A beautifully designed ‘Shop job of a resume will not parse. No parsing: no keywords. No keywords: no attention for your resume. You don’t get hired.
  • Order by most important/impressive to least. Remember that 30 second skim I mentioned above? When listing out your experience, your resume is more likely to leave an impression in those few moments if you organize it so the most important or impressive bullet points are at the top of each section. This is where my eye is most likely to alight during my skim so logically I’m most likely to pay attention to things I see here.
  • Do not include a picture of yourself. I cannot recommend against this strongly enough. Your resume is not about how you look. It is about what you can do. Including a headshot removes attention from your accomplishments and places it squarely on that photo of you. Furthermore a resume which includes a headshot puts me, as your hiring manager, in an incredibly awkward position. Suddenly I’m opened up to the possibility of accusations of not hiring you because you’re female or overweight or older or younger or have piercings or appear to follow a particular religion or are of a certain ethnicity… Job seeking is hard enough. Don’t cripple your chances by making the hiring manager feel uncomfortable. Instead, use that room on your resume to tell me more about how great you are.
  • Expect to be Googled and make it easy for your reader. Oh, don’t look so surprised. Yes, people who look at your resume will be Googling both you and any company or organization you list on it. If you recognize this and make it easier on them by including URLs to everything then you’ll leave a very good impression on your reader. Also, if you have any pseudonyms by which you’ve done relevant work (for instance, many in the Open Source community may be better known by a handle than the name on their birth certificate), make sure to mention that name somewhere on your resume. I can’t be impressed by your accomplishments if I can’t find them.
  • Stop being cliché. “People person.” “Team player.” “Responsible.” “Motivated.” “Hard worker.” Stop it. Just stop it. None of these phrases mean anything to a hiring manager. Even if they once did, they’ve since been so diluted that they’ve been washed clean of any meaning. Don’t describe yourself with empty adjectives like everyone else does. Do it by listing all the cool things you’ve done.
  • Be specific. Don’t tell me “Managed a project for a large client.” Tell me what you did—specifically—while managing it and just how large that client was. Tell me what you did and why I should care that you did it. Don’t say, “Organized company events.” That tells me nothing. It could have been a birthday party for a group of five or it could have been the 30th Anniversary Bash for a company of three thousand. Be specific. At no point should your reader be left wondering, “Well, what’s that mean?”
  • Ignore the “only one page” crap. And while we’re on the subject of specificity, don’t leave out details just because you want to keep your resume on a single page. This precept is an archic throwback to the days of analog resumes. Newsflash: we’re digital now. One of the perks of going digital is that no one cares if your resume is more than a page long. Everyone is just going to skim it on their computer or device anyway. Unless someone’s wasteful or inefficient, odds are good that they won’t be printing out your resume until/unless you reach a later stage in the process (like an interview). That said, practice moderation in all things. Just because you now have license to exceed a single page doesn’t mean you need to send a novel. Don’t forget that the hiring manager’s time is at a premium. Don’t waste it. A maximum of a full two pages ought to be plenty of space for you to say what you want without overwhelming the nice person who has to read the thing.
  • Numbers Numbers Numbers. Quantify as much as possible. You didn’t just help land a client. You helped land a $2 million client. You didn’t just improve processes. You streamlined a process which reduced client response time from two days down to four hours, retaining $500K in business and saving an average of $150K in staff costs. This goes hand in hand with the edict to Be Specific. If you currently don’t have numbers then start collecting them.
  • Update early and update often. When I say you should start collecting numbers, I mean you should do it on your resume itself. Most people only update their resumes when they’re about to start a job search, and that’s a mistake. By the time you start editing the file several years could have passed since the last update. That’s several years of memories you now need to dredge. What are the chances you’re going to remember everything you’ve done in that time, let alone numbers associated with your accomplishments? If you answered, “Pretty bad” then you win a gold star. If you want your resume to best reflect your skills and abilities, you should update it frequently to be sure it includes your latest and greatest accomplishments. I have a repeating Remember The Milk task to remind me to update my resume every month (or at least consider doing so).

    Once you hear this tip it’s one of those “duh” moments, but it’s not something most people would usually think of on their own, myself included. I first heard this tip to update your resume regularly from Andy Lester in his excellent book Land the Tech Job You Love. I highly recommend it for all job seekers, technical or otherwise.

  • Save that sucker. You can’t update what you can’t find. Many people end up having to rewrite their entire resume from scratch each time they need to update it because they’ve lost the file for some reason. Do yourself an immense favor: use a version control system for this and all other important files in your life. Version Control: It’s not just for code, dammit. I use and recommend Github for this purpose. Not only is your file safe and backed up, it’s also stored offsite and safe in case of disaster or harddrive crash. Truthfully, what I have is a git repo in a Dropbox directory, so in my case the file is well and truly backed up in several locations.

    Also recommended: if you use Github, shell out the minimal monthly charge for private repositories and use that for your resume. No one wants to get a pull request on their own resume.

Hopefully these tips will help improve the chances of your resume turning heads the next time you’re looking for a new job. Good hunting!

2 thoughts on “Common Resume Mistakes

  1. Zorak

    I’ve been looking at a lot lately too (we’re still on a hiring binge)

    Other cliches:

    – don’t write an Objective. I don’t care. Especially if it’s a vapid one like “to obtain a position that will let me use my skills while furthering my knowledge blah blah blah”

    – don’t say your references are available upon request. I take that as a given.

    – one page may be dead, but I’d still aim for two. Three, tops.

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