How to Avoid Common Résumé Mistakes

Employers may receive thousands of resumes for one position. Because of this, they are often looking for any reason to eliminate a candidate. While resume writing is a creative process that allows writers to "break the rules" when appropriate, some rules should not be broken.

These are the rules pertaining to typos, misspelled words, grammatical errors, and consistency. To quote Frank Fox, Executive Director of the Professional Association of Resume Writers and Career Coaches, "We have always said that 'in resume writing, there are no rules . . . except that there should be no typos, misspellings, or grammatical errors.'"

To some extent, this also covers formatting, as the general trend is to write tightly and concisely. For example, some broken grammatical rules are acceptable, such as the use of sentence fragments to make the writing crisp. But if you are going to break the rules once, do it consistently; a resume that uses complete sentences in one section and fragments in another can be distracting to the reader. (And resume writing typically uses fragments, as it helps get the information across in fewer words.) Remember, you are not writing for yourself. You are writing attention-grabbing copy that will show how you can meet the needs of your audience, such as a potential employer, someone offering an internship, or the admissions personnel for graduate school.

Basic Guidelines

What rules can be broken, and which ones should not?

One of the primary differences between resume writing and business writing is that the resume falls somewhere between the "hard sell" of advertising and business writing. Ad copy, for example, frequently uses short, to-the-point wording. Very often, this wording does not come out in the form of a complete sentence. Similarly, as noted above, resume writing is comprised of succinct, to-the-point copy in the form of sentence fragments or with wording missing typical elements such as articles. Words such as "it," "the," "a," and "an" are articles and are frequently omitted to save space, allow for quick reading (remember how long a resume reviewer typically spends scanning a resume), and make the point. Additionally, the subject—the implied “I”—is left out. Instead of writing, “I oversaw the production of...,” eliminate the “I” and the article, opening with the verb: “Oversaw production of…”

Before you begin your resume-writing journey, get your hands on a good grammatical reference guide. If you want to go for the best, pick up the latest edition of either the Gregg Reference Manual or the Chicago Manual of Style. They are a bit pricey but worth it, particularly if you find yourself doing other types of writing as well. Otherwise, there are plenty of good reference guides to choose from. The Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) is an excellent online resource for writing-related issues. The home page is found at: https://owl.english.purdue.edu/

The grammar and spell check functions in Word and other processing programs can also be helpful, but keep in mind that they will flag sentence fragments, and will not catch misspellings when the wrong word is used (see below for examples).

The following is a general list of some common errors. It is by no means exhaustive. The Chicago Manual of Style contains well over 300 pages on grammatical and punctuation issues alone. If you are especially grammatically challenged, ask someone more comfortable in this area to proofread your resume for you. Do not rely solely on your computer's grammar and spell check or other online tools as your only source. It is also helpful to print a hard copy and review the resume in that form, as it can be easier to catch mistakes. Reading aloud and backwards from the bottom up can also be helpful methods to trick your brain into seeing what is actually on the page, rather than what you know is supposed to be there.

Action Verbs

Begin your sentences with action verbs when describing your experience. Then, show the results of those actions, and explain how you accomplished those results. Bear in mind that action verbs are not the same as keywords. Keywords are nouns or short phrases. Both keywords and action verbs may be combined into the same sentence, such as:

Implemented project management system, increasing production rate 50%.

"Implemented" is an action verb; "project management system" is a keyword phrase.

Active Versus Passive Voice

The active voice shows the subject of the sentence doing the action, as opposed to an action being done upon the subject. Consider the following example:

The bone was eaten by the dog.

This is an example of passive voice. The dog is doing the action (eating), but the subject of the sentence is the bone (bone=noun, was=verb). Written in the active voice, the sentence reads:

The dog ate the bone (dog=noun, ate=verb).

Two things are notable. The subject of the sentence, the dog, is doing the action—eating. Secondly, the resulting sentence is shorter by two words. This equals "tighter" writing, which is what you want to aim for in resume writing. Help your reader see the point quickly and efficiently.

While the following is not always the case, one way to look for passive voice is past tense of "to be" verbs. These are "was," "were," "been," and "being." Also watch for "have", "had,” and “would.” These are all flag words showing that the phrasing can likely be tightened.

First Person

Most resumes are written in first person but without actually using "I." Third person is when the resume refers to you as Ms. Jones or by your first name, or uses words such as “he/his,” “she/hers” or “they/them/their.” Some marketing pieces work well in third person, and some resumes do as well, but they are the exception. For most resumes the use of an implied first person is preferable. If you are having trouble with the first person usage, write out your accomplishments first using "I" to ensure that you are staying consistent with your wording, and then go back and cut out the reference to yourself. For example, you might write:

I reduced production costs by 50%.

This would then be changed to:

Reduced production costs 50%.

Begin with your action and then show the result.

Tense

Remain consistent with your use of tense (past, present, or future). When describing what you already did on the job or in school projects, use the past tense. These are again your action verbs that typically end in "-ed": managed, maintained, supervised, etc. Past tense verbs also include words such as oversaw, overcame, ran, etc. When referring to jobs or projects you are currently involved with, use the present tense, but for that particular job or project only. For example, use the present tense for your current position if you are employed, and use the past tense for positions prior to the current job. Using the preceding words, they would be used as: manage, maintain, and supervise, and oversee, overcome, and run.

Use of Articles

Articles are "a," "an," and "the" and should be omitted when possible. Why? You do not need to use unnecessary words in your resume; these take up valuable space. Again, the tighter your writing, the better. Eliminating articles is one of those rules broken for resume writing. As with all rules, use it consistently. If some sentences use articles, but not all, your resume will not "flow" and could be distracting to your reader, something you want to avoid at all costs.

Punctuation

Punctuation exists to make reading easier. Otherwise, sentences would run together and the reader would not know when one sentence ends and another begins. Notations such as commas and parenthetical marks also let the reader know when to pause and when information is included as a side thought.

Periods mark the end of a sentence. In resume writing, incomplete sentences, also called fragments, are used frequently. The primary issue is to be consistent in your use of periods throughout your document. Because you are likely using a combination of paragraphs and bullet lists, consistently using periods throughout is visually appealing. You may also need to use a period with some abbreviations.

Commas denote a slight pause or separate items in a list and are used in compound sentences. A compound sentence joins two main clauses with a conjunction. Conjunctions are "and," "but," "or," "nor," "for," "yet," and "so." When writing a compound sentence, use a comma before the conjunction.

The serial comma is used following the last item in a list, as in the following sentence:

She went to the store to buy bananas, apples, bread, cheese, and milk.

The serial comma is the one preceding the word "and."

The use of a serial comma is an issue under continual debate among experts, so it follows that resume writers do not agree on the subject, either. Those who support the use of the serial comma argue that it helps prevent ambiguity, particularly if the list contains grouped items that require the use of "and" as in the following example:

His collection of photographs included prints, slides, black and white, and color. Without the serial comma separating "black and white" from "and color," the sentence could be confusing.

Commas are also used following an introductory phrase of a sentence, such as: Because I'm going to write my resume tomorrow, I'm going to get a good night's sleep tonight. "I'm going to get a good night's sleep tonight" is a complete sentence. "Because I'm going to write my resume tomorrow" is an introductory phrase, not a complete sentence on its own. If you are unsure if you are dealing with an introductory phrase, read the section following the phrase in question. If it is a complete sentence, then you know you have an introductory phrase, and therefore need to include the comma.

Semicolons help distinguish complex items in a list; they can also join two separate, but related, sentences. Semicolons used in a list are most helpful when the listed information contains commas or other information that needs a clear separation that cannot be achieved with a comma. When using semicolons in a list, determine if the information can be clearly presented using commas. If not, then use the semicolon to separate pieces of information.

Colons anticipate something to follow. Colons introduce an element or series of elements. When used within a sentence, the word following the colon is not capitalized unless it is a proper name or begins another complete sentence.

Capitalization

Proper nouns and names should be capitalized, such as the names of schools and universities. Headings should be capitalized consistently throughout the document. Do not capitalize a word just because it seems important. That said, position titles are often capitalized, even if not technically a proper noun. In resume writing, it often makes sense to capitalize position titles, as it denotes a specific position and draws attention to that position. For general use, if you are unsure about the capitalization of a word, consult a manual.

Numbers and Figures

How numbers should be presented is another topic of debate. A generally accepted rule is to write-out numbers one through nine and use digits for 10 and above (pick a rule and stick with it). For resume writing, the “best” approach is to show all numbers in number format for consistency and to save space. Similarly, figures, particularly money, should also be shown consistently throughout, and as a general rule, aim for a short format. For example, $10M uses much less space than ten million dollars.

Whichever approach you use, be consistent. Do not decide to write a number below 10 in one section and then list it numerically in others.

Typos and Misspelled Words

What you do not want to be consistent with is typos and misspelled words. Relying on your computer's spelling and grammar check is not enough. Many words can be missed that are spelled correctly but used in the wrong context or with a completely different meaning, such as affect/effect, or their/there/they’re.

Words Commonly Used Incorrectly

The following is a short list of commonly misused words. Your grammar and spell check will often not pick out these words if they are used wrong, because they will be spelled correctly but used in the wrong context. Keep an eye out for words used incorrectly. If in doubt, ask someone else to proofread your resume for you.

Accept/Except

To accept is to receive something. She accepted his apology. Except is a preposition that means but or with the exception of. I would use accept, except it is not the correct word.

Affect/Effect

To "affect" is to influence or change. He affected her emotions. An "effect" is the result of something, as in cause and effect.

And/Or

This usage implies three outcomes, not two. I will write a resume and/or a cover letter means that the person will either: (1) write a resume; (2) write a resume and a cover letter; or (3) write a cover letter.

Assure/Ensure/Insure

To "assure" is to convince or to guarantee. The administrator assured him that his resume had been received. "Insure" means to guard against loss. I insured my car. "Ensure" means to make certain. I ensured that I insured my car.

It's/Its

This is one of those cases that is an exception to the rule. While the apostrophe typically denotes a possessive, in this case, "it's" means it is, and "its" is the possessive.

Their/There/They're

"Their" is a possessive; something belongs to them and it is theirs. "There" is where something is; it is over there. "They're" is where they are; they're (they are) over there.

Then/Than

"Then" is when something will happen and means next or consequently. I will go to the store and then go home. "Than" indicates a difference. Chocolate is better than vanilla.

To/Too/Two

"To" is a function word indicating an action or process. I want to write my resume. "Too" indicates an excessive amount of something. I am too tired to write my resume. "Two" is the number that follows one and precedes three.

Utilize

"Utilized" means use. Use "use."

Whose/Who's

"Whose" is a possessive. Whose resume is it? "Who's" means who is. Who's at the door?

Your/You're

"Your" is a possessive. It is your turn. "You're" means you are. You’re correct.

For a helpful guide to commonly misused words, Oxford Dictionaries provides a list at: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/words/commonly-confused-words

Another option is to conduct an online search for "commonly confused words" and you will find plenty of results to choose from.

Parallel Structure

Words, formatting, and grammar should be parallel. That is, they should be consistent. If you have a list of bolded achievements and the first one begins with an action verb, every item in your list should begin with an action verb. If you begin with a noun or noun phrase, all items in the list should begin with a noun or noun phrase.

Similarly, you should keep your writing parallel within your sentence structure. Use of adjectives and nouns must be parallel in structure. Consider the following examples:

Correct:

The program was motivating and thrilling.

Incorrect:

The program was motivating and a thrill.

Sentence Fragments

Sentence fragments lack a noun or verb to make a sentence complete. Sentence fragments are often used in resume writing. Consider the following:

Oversaw all aspects of inventory control.

The preceding statement is a fragment because it is missing the subject "I" at the beginning.

Maintained personnel and public safety.

This is a fragment for the same reason as the previous sentence.

Fragments end up in resumes as a result of the "telegraphic" style of writing. Again, be consistent in your writing style, and fragments will not stand out or seem inappropriate in the resume as they do in other forms of writing.

You do not want to employ the use of fragments in your cover letter, with the exception of information provided in a bullet list.

What Not to Include

Personal Information

Do not include personal information such as your marital status, religion, race, etc. Employers are not allowed to ask questions about these things, and including them on your resume might cause you to be discriminated against, but you would never know for sure. The only exception is if you are applying for international jobs, in which case some of this information is considered standard. Consult a professional or a manual on international resumes to determine standard practices for the country in question. More and more, however, resumes are leaning toward a standard U.S. style approach.

Do not include a photograph with your resume or a URL for your personal website that tells visitors all about your hobbies, summer vacation, and your dog. The only people likely to use a photograph with their resumes are those in the entertainment business such as actors. Similarly, unless your website is a professional site that includes additional information not included on the resume, do not direct visitors to the site. (Employers may search your name online and find information about you anyway, so consider if you need to take steps to “clean up” your online image.)

Letters of Recommendation

Do not send these with your resume. Save them for later, such as following an interview, unless otherwise directed. Some job postings request that letters be included as part of the application process. In this instance, you need to determine if it is worth potentially having your references contacted early in the process. If it is a position that you are definitely interested in, providing the information can be worthwhile. Basically, consider how much you need and want to protect your sources of recommendation, as they may be contacted even if you are not yet being seriously considered.

Specific Salary

Generally, avoid including your current or desired salary. Oftentimes a job posting will request that you include such information. If possible, include a range, rather than a specific figure. (You never know if the starting rate is higher than what you imagine, and you risk a lower starting salary in that situation.) Similarly, do not list concrete salary figures on your resume. If you must address the salary question, aim to address the issue in your cover letter, where again you can note a range, and focus the letter on other information, such as what you bring to the position.

A Creation Date

Do not list a creation date on your resume, even if you are posting it online. Often, online resume databanks have a system that denotes when your resume was posted. Similarly, in Word, it can be helpful to go into the Properties and remove (or add) certain types of information, such as editing time, the document author, etc.

References

Do not list references on your resume. At the most, you may include "references available on request" or something similar for visual appeal, but even this is debatable. It is an outdated practice. It is assumed that you will provide references at the appropriate time if requested by the employer.

Avoid Buzzwords, Outdated Phrases, and Clichés

Some phrases are certainly overused, as are some descriptions. Almost everyone is a “team player,” for example, with “strong communication skills.”

Also note that several outdated phrases should be avoided. Multiple sources of research have noted that “multitasking” is an ineffective work practice, so avoid including that on the resume. Also watch for other outdated phrases, such as being an “out of the box” thinker, creating products or processes that are “user friendly,” and avoid kitschy descriptions, such as “domestic engineer.”

Avoid Anything that Can Work Against You

Have you been fired? Have you received unfavorable reviews? Is your GPA only a 2.0? Do not include anything in your resume that can automatically disqualify you from the running. The resume is not the place to explain why something went wrong in your past. It is the place to highlight your best-selling qualities. If you do have something unfavorable in your past, be prepared to talk about it (in the best possible light) at the interview, but do not shoot yourself in the foot by putting it on your resume.

All of the sample resumes and cover letters included in this guide are written by professional resume writers who are members of one or more professional resume writing organization, such as Professional Association of Resume Writers and Career Coaches, The National Resume Writers' Association; and Career Thought Leaders. Many of the writers hold one or more certifications in resume writing.

Become a Vault Basic Member

Complete your Vault Profile and get seen by top employers