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7 Common But Critical Résumé-Writing Mistakes (and How-to Avoid Them)

By Michelle Dumas

Have you been struggling in a job search that that has been unsuccessful? Have you been sending your résumé for positions that you know you are qualified for, but the phone remains silent? Do you worry that the problem might be your résumé? While your résumé is only a part of the big-picture of a job search, it is an essential part. Generally, your résumé is your first and only opportunity to make a great impression. If it doesn't accomplish this, your job search will come to a standstill. If your résumé is generating disappointing results and your job search has stalled, you should check your résumé and revise it against these seven common errors.

1. Writing a broad or general résumé in order to keep your options open.

Will the recipient of your résumé immediately understand who you are as a professional, what it is you have to offer, and how you will fit in their company? If not, you need to rewrite. Many people will write a "general" résumé out of fear that focusing too precisely will exclude them from certain opportunities. This strategy almost always backfires. Résumé readers are notoriously lazy and give your résumé only a few seconds before making the decision to screen it out or screen it in. You must immediately and clearly convey your focus (level and type of position you are seeking) and how you would add value within their organization. If your focus is ambiguous and you haven't made it crystal clear how you will "fit" in the company, the reader won't make the effort to figure it out.

2. Including an objective statement at the top of your résumé.

Objective statements are inherently self-centered because they are designed to tell the reader what you want. If there is one major rule to keep in mind as you write your résumé, it is that all of the content should be written to be employer-centered. Objective statements are an outdated technique. Instead, establish your résumé's focus in the summary or profile section. A profile is fundamentally different from an objective in that it is employer-centered, conveying to the reader what you offer them, rather than what you want from them.

3. Writing an autobiographical style résumé.

Your résumé is a marketing document. It is not an autobiography. While the decision about how far back to date your résumé really depends on the individual circumstances, generally it is standard to go back 10-20 years. If experience earlier than that is still relevant, you can always summarize it in a couple of sentences without the use of dates. Always think in terms of relevance and impact. Does a particular piece of data or achievement support your personal brand and value proposition? Does it help promote your qualifications in relation to your current career goals? If not, you probably should not include it. In fact, by including irrelevant data, you dilute your focus and make the recipient wonder if you truly understand the position you are targeting. If you feel really strongly that particular data may be relevant to at least SOME recipients, you can always create an addendum that you choose to use selectively.

4. Including personal information.

If your résumé is meant for the U.S. market, it should not include a photo, your birth date, mention of unrelated hobbies or interests, info about your family, info that reveals your religion, or any other similarly personal data. Including such data in a résumé meant for the U.S. market may actually eliminate you from consideration, as hiring decision-makers may be concerned about discrimination suits.

5. Describing your job scope and responsibilities in detail.

Think about it: What a person is supposed to do and what they actually do are two different things. Being "responsible for" doing something certainly doesn't mean a person does it. Many people make the mistake of selling features (responsibilities) rather than benefits (achievements/results) in their résumé. It is very important to place the emphasis on achievements, quantifying results whenever possible. Document the ways in which your work have benefited your employers and quantify whenever possible. By including past achievements and results, you demonstrate your future potential. Always remember, you won't get hired for what you know how to do, you will get hired for what you do with what you know how to do.

6. Focusing solely on the achievement and forgetting about the results.

Just telling the reader that you have achievements isn't very effective unless you present them in terms of the results and benefits they have produced for past employers. You should always try to think in terms of the "so what" of your achievement. What did you improve, save, increase, enhance, etc? What impact did the work you do have on the companies? At the root, every single job is designed to solve a problem, save money, make money, or improve efficiency. It is crucial that you understand and be able to communicate the impact of your performance. Whenever you can do so, you should use numbers to illustrate your results, but even if you are unable to quantify achievements, the emphasis should still be on the results/benefits of your work.

7. Using the same structure and résumé writing techniques that you were taught in college.

A common error made by experienced professionals is overemphasis of education. As an experienced professional your history of accomplishments and proven ability to produce and deliver results is far more important than your degrees. Only new graduates with very little or no experience should list education at the beginning of the résumé. The most important thing is that you prioritize and organize your selling points, listing categories of primary importance first. The best structure in almost all circumstances is a combination reverse chronological order. This includes a profile/summary section, a reverse chronology of your work history and achievements, education, and other qualifications such as professional affiliations.

Do you still feel at a loss about how to improve your résumé, even after reading these tips? If so, consider hiring a professional résumé writer. Hiring a résumé writer is an investment, but it is an investment that will often pay you back many times over by dramatically shortening your job search, positioning you to win coveted positions, and preparing you with the pitch you need to negotiate top compensation.