The Biggest Mistake That Job Hunters Make

Some tips on how to avoid waxy buildup on your most important selling tool.

September 9, 2008, 6:15 PM

May 28, 2009 — -- In school we're taught how to dissect amphibians, analyze current events and compose sonnets. We learn how to locate Kazakhstan on a map, catch a football and avoid catching STDs. We even learn how to calculate how many hours it takes two cars leaving the same destination but traveling in opposite directions to be 500 miles apart if Car A travels 60 miles per hour and car B travels 70 miles per hour.

But many of us leave academia without knowing how to write a winning resume. And according to career experts, it shows.

Sure, we know the basics: run spell check, avoid text-message-speak, leave off the details of our annual pilgrimage to Burning Man. But judging from the letters I receive each week from readers -- and the gripes I regularly hear from hiring managers -- many of us could use a little help looking good on paper.

For suggestions, I consulted a handful of savvy resume writers, career coaches and recruiters. Here's what they had to say.

Q. What's the biggest resume mistake that job hunters make?

Relying too heavily on the same generic buzzwords every other candidate is using is one of the quickest routes to the round file, said Kristen Fife, a Seattle-based recruiter who works in the high-tech sector.

"Instead of 'excellent verbal and written communication skills' I would prefer 'trilingual (English, German, Dutch) marketing manager with experience creating localized international Web-based ad campaign resulting in a $3 million increase in revenue over six months across the entire business unit," Fife explained via e-mail.

In addition, "Don't write '10, 25 or 30 years of experience' on your resume," said Russ Riendeau, senior partner at The East Wing Search Group, an executive recruiting firm based in Barrington, Ill. "Years of experience doesn't prove you're good. Give impact, results, data."

In other words, tell them how many people you managed, how much money the department earned or saved thanks to you and the percentage you were able to increase customer retention or staff productivity.

"Not providing a context for the information," is another variation of this no-no, said Miriam Salpeter of Keppie Careers, a resume and job hunting consultancy in Atlanta.

"Increased sales by 12 percent in a depressed market when most sales were down year over year" tells a far more compelling story than "increased sales by 12 percent year over year," Salpeter said.

Tailoring Your Resume: Does It Matter?

Q. A lot of coaches recommend candidates tailor their resume to each job they apply for. How important is this?

According to our experts, very.

"Job seekers tend to simply list their jobs and job descriptions, without connecting them to the job they are applying for," said Steven Greenberg, founder of Jobs4.0, a job site for candidates age 40 and up, and a frequent speaker to job seekers and HR groups.

"You can't expect the hiring manager to connect the dots," Greenberg explained. "You have to do it for them. Try applying for fewer jobs, and customize your resume each time."

"The top quarter of the resume needs to tell the employer why you are qualified for that job," Rebecca Warriner of Woodland Recruiting in Mercer Island, Wa., said via e-mail. "Candidates can save time by not working on a highly customized cover letter."

This isn't as daunting as it sounds. Sometimes customizing your resume is as simple as moving the most relevant selling point to the front of each job description, said Salpeter, the career coach from Atlanta.

Q. Are objectives obsolete? Or is it still valuable to mention the type of job you seek at the top your resume?

"Typically, objectives are a waste of space on a resume," said Salpeter. "The objective is to get the job, so it's a bit redundant to include that at the top of the resume. Most objectives I see tend to be pretty self-serving: 'Seeking an opportunity that will allow me to grow professionally, learn on the job and use my writing and editing skills.' The employer is interested in what you can do for him or her. Listing your needs doesn't help you stand out."

Instead, Salpeter said, try giving a quick summary or a short bulleted list of the relevant skills you will bring to the job.

"This is the section that needs to be customized for every resume you submit," said Warriner. "I tell my clients to think of this as their 'mini cover letter.' The employer should be able to read it in 5 to 10 seconds and know exactly why you are qualified for the job."

Keywords: 'Vocabulary of the Industry'

Q. What's the deal with keywords? Are they necessary?

If you want to get the interview, yes, they are.

Whether a human or a software program initially screens your resume, keywords -- those almighty words and catchphrases that map to the job description -- are one of the primary things your resume will be scanned for, Warriner explained.

That said, "include keywords" is just a technical way of saying "make sure you speak the employer's language."

"Usually that's the language that's on their Web site and in their ad," explained Salpeter.

Unfortunately, said Riendeau, "Most candidates don't do research to find the vocabulary of the industry they're applying into, so the reader shreds the resume before page 2."

This isn't rocket science. It's talking about "builds" and "ship dates" if you're applying for a job in the software industry or "production" and "page proofs" if you're dealing in print publishing.

And while experts advise sprinkling keywords throughout your resume, don't overuse them. Nor do you want to use any terminology you don't understand.

"You have to be able to substantiate the keywords you use," said Sherri Edwards of Resource Maximizer, a career coaching firm based in Seattle.

The last thing you want is show up for an interview and not be able to detail your supposed experience as "a project manager" who's well-versed in "product positioning," "cost reduction" and "new media."

Q. How about education dates? If you're over 40 or 50, should you ditch them or keep them?

There's no denying that age discrimination is alive and well in the workforce. But our experts agree that trying to obscure your age by leaving off your education dates won't fool anyone.

"Isn't the HR manager going to meet you at some point anyway?" said Greenberg. "Your goal is to get a job, not to waste time trying to fooling people into giving you interviews."

"All of the recruiters I've asked about this topic have confirmed my instinct that deleting dates is a bad idea," said Salpeter. "If you delete dates, some people will assume you did not earn a degree. Others will assume you are 105. Neither will help you get the job."

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michelle Goodman is a freelance journalist, author and former cubicle dweller. Her books — "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube" -- offer an irreverent take on the traditional career guide. More tips on career change, flex work and the freelance life can be found on her blog,

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