How to Avoid Common Résumé Mistakes

Employers may receive thousands of résumés for one position. Because of this, they are often looking for any reason to throw out a résumé. While résumé writing is a creative process, allowing 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 Résumé Writers and Career Coaches, "We have always said that 'in résumé writing, there are no rules . . . except that there should be no typos, misspellings, or grammatical errors.'"

Some broken 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 résumé that uses complete sentences in one section and fragments in another can be distracting to the reader. 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 résumé writing and business writing is that the résumé 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, résumé writing is compiled of succinct, to-the-point copy that often comes out 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 résumé reviewer typically spends scanning a résumé), and make the point.

Before you begin your résumé-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 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 (or a few someones) more comfortable in this area to proofread your résumé for you. Do not rely solely on your computer's grammar and spell check.

Action Verbs

Here they are again. Begin your sentences with action verbs or nouns when describing your experience. Show the results of your actions, and then say how you accomplished them. 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; increased production rate by 50 percent.

"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 résumé writing. You want your reader to 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" or "had."

First Person

Most résumés are written in first person but without actually using "I." Third person is when the résumé refers to you as Ms. Jones or by your first name. Some marketing pieces work well in third person, and some résumés do as well. For most résumés the use of 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 percent.

This would then be changed to:

Reduced production costs 50 percent.

You 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 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. Using the preceding words, they would be listed 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 résumé; these take up valuable space. Again, the tighter your writing, the better. Eliminating articles is one of those rules broken for résumé writing. As with all rules, use it consistently. If some sentences use articles, but not all, your résumé 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 résumé writing, incomplete sentences, also called fragments, are used frequently. If these are in a bulleted list, it is up to you to decide whether or not to use a period at the end of each item. There are technical rules regarding lists, but because résumé writing often breaks the rules, they will not be covered here. The primary issue is to be consistent in your use of periods throughout your document. You may 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." For example, the use of a serial comma is an issue under continual debate among experts, so it follows that résumé writers do not agree on the subject either. 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."

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 résumé 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 résumé tomorrow" is an introductory phrase, not a complete sentence on its own.

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.

Colons anticipate something to follow. Dashes look back to something already said. 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. If you are unsure about the capitalization of a word, consult a manual.

Numbers

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). However, when a number begins a sentence, it must always be written rather than listed numerically. Another argument says that all numbers should be treated the same to allow for consistency throughout the document and to save space.

Whatever you decide to do, do it throughout. 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.

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. Ask someone else to proofread your résumé 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 résumé and/or a cover letter means that the person will either: (1) write a résumé; (2) write a résumé 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 résumé 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 résumé. "Too" indicates an excessive amount of something. I am too tired to write my résumé. "Two" is the number that follows one and precedes three.

Utilize

"Utilized" means use. Use "use."

Whose/Who's

"Whose" is a possessive. Whose résumé 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 are correct.

For practice and more commonly misused words, see "Words Commonly Confused" by V. Bell, J. Cheney, P. J. King & M. P. Moore at http://homepage.smc.edu/reading_lab/words_commonly_confused.htm or do 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. These will sometimes find their way into a résumé. 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 résumés as a result of the "telegraphic" style of writing often used. While you do not want to aim for fragments, they will likely find their way into your résumé. Again, be consistent in your writing style, and fragments will not stand out or seem inappropriate in the résumé as they do in other forms of writing.

You do not want to employ the use of fragments in your cover letter.

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 résumé 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 résumés for more information.

Do not include a photograph with your résumé 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 résumés are those in the entertainment business such as actors.

Letters of Recommendation

Do not send these with your résumé. Save them for later, such as following an interview.

Specific Salary

Do not include your current or desired salary. Oftentimes a job posting will request that you include such information. Do not list concrete numbers on your résumé. Instead, if you must, address the issue in your cover letter. (See the section on cover letters for more information.)

A Creation Date

Do not list a creation date on your résumé, even if you are posting it online. Often, online résumé databanks have a system that denotes when your résumé was posted.

References

Do not list references on your résumé. At the most, you may include "references available on request" or something similar for visual appeal, but even this is debatable. It is a practice that is dying out. You can safely leave the line off the résumé because it is assumed that you will provide references at the appropriate time if requested by the employer.

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 résumé that can automatically disqualify you from the running. The résumé is not the place to explain why something went wrong in your past. It is the place to highlight your best selling features. 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 résumé.

All of the sample résumés and cover letters included here are written by professional résumé writers who are members of one or more of the following organizations: Professional Association of Résumé Writers and Career Coaches; The National Résumé Writers' Association; and Career Masters Institute. Many of the writers hold one or more certifications in résumé writing.