42 Resume Dos and Don'ts Every Job Seeker Should Know
February 23, 2016
If things are supposed to get easier over time, why hasn’t the task of resume-writing gotten simpler? Actually, it feels like we’re heading in the opposite direction—every month, we learn about a fresh resume commandment, like “Thou shalt not use a resume objective statement” or “Thou shalt not send a traditional resume to a creative company.” It’s enough to make any professional a little frustrated.
Fortunately, we’ve rounded up the ultimate list of resume dos and don’ts, from the traditional rules to the brand-spanking-new ones. Take a look, then pull up your resume and make sure it’s recruiter-ready.
Showing Off Your Experience
1. Do Highlight Your Most Relevant Experiences
Rule #1 of resume writing is that you should be turning in a different version for each role you apply to, tailored and targeted to the position. After all, your resume should demonstrate you have the specific set of skills, experience, and accomplishments necessary to do the job—not just a set. Make it easy for the hiring manager to see why you’re the right fit.
2. Don’t Freak Out if You Have No Relevant Experience
Whether you’re fresh out of college or switching to a brand-new industry, you can help bolster your lack of relevant work experience by listing your transferable skills, related side projects, and relevant coursework. Read more about how to do this here.
3. Do Optimize for Applicant Tracking Systems
Many large organizations (and even some smaller ones) use applicant tracking systems to weed out unqualified applicants. The systems scan your resume for contextual keywords and phrases, mathematically scoring them for relevance and sending only the most qualified ones through for human review.
As you can guess, this strategy isn’t perfect. To ensure your resume makes it past the ATS and into the hands of a human, keep your formatting simple, include the right keywords (but don’t go overboard), and quadruple check for spelling mistakes. (More on how to do it right, here.)
4. Don’t Steal the Job Description’s Exact Wording
That said, you shouldn’t take exact phrases straight from the job description. If a company says it’s looking for candidates who “learn rapidly” and “have a diverse knowledge of programming languages,” your skills section shouldn’t read “learns rapidly” and “has a diverse knowledge of programming languages.”
Instead, find a different way of saying the same thing—maybe devote a resume bullet to a software you learned in two weeks, or list the seven different programming languages you’re familiar with.
5. Do Use Data
You’ve probably heard that recruiters love reading resume bullets with numbers, like “Increased sales in Northern region by 300%.” And they do! So use them whenever possible.
Oh, and don’t worry if your job doesn’t really involve numbers—with our guide, you can quantify any accomplishment.
6. Don’t Include Anything Confidential
Seems like a no-brainer—but Google’s Head of HR says he sees confidential info on resumes all the time. When deciding whether to leave something on your resume, use the New York Times test. In other words, if you wouldn’t want it published next to your name on the front page of a major national newspaper, take it out.
7. Do Include Soft Skills, Too!
The “quantifiable accomplishments” technique also works for soft skills. Make sure each bullet point describes a skill the hiring manager is looking for, then use facts and figures to show—not tell—just what a “skilled manager” or “effective communicator” you are.
Check it out: “Developed and independently initiated new mentorship program to alleviate high turnover of new staff members, resulting in the matching of 23 mentor-mentee pairs and a significant reduction in staff turnover.”
Sounds like a “skilled manager” to us!
8. Don’t Include Obvious Skills
Because everyone assumes you know how to use Microsoft Word. And the internet. Use your valuable resume space to highlight skills that actually make you stand out.
9. Do Consider Volunteer or Other Non-Work Experience
Although it’s nontraditional, if volunteer work has taken up a significant chunk of your time or taught you skills applicable to the job you’re applying for, think about putting it on your resume. Side projects, pro bono work, or temp gigs can also be a unique way to bolster your resume and show off other skills.
10. Don’t Include Work With Controversial Organizations
Maybe that volunteer work was fundraising for a politician, or answering the phone at a LGBT-resource organization. Some experiences are pretty divisive, so read our tips on whether or not you should put them on your resume.
11. Do Include Personal Accomplishments
If you’ve done something cool in your personal life that either shows off your soft skills or engages your technical skills in a new way, you should definitely include it. Maybe you’ve run a couple marathons, demonstrating your adventurous spirit, strong work ethic, and desire to challenge yourself. Or you’ve won some poker tournaments, which shows you’re a quick thinker and good with numbers.
Learn more here on how to include these in the right way.
12. Don’t Include Random, Unrelated, or Off-Putting Hobbies
That said, remember that hiring managers probably don’t care if you love basketball, are active in your book club, or are a member of a Dungeons and Dragons group. Eliminate anything that’s not totally transferable to work-related skills (or a really, really epic conversation starter).
13. Do Think of New Ways to Frame Your Accomplishments
Don’t have the exact experience for the job you’re applying to? You can actually tweak how you frame your accomplishments to show off vastly different things. Career expert Lily Zhang explains with examples here.
14. Don’t Go Overboard
Meaning: Don’t oversell your high school babysitting experience. In fact, anything from high school should probably go.
15. Do Show How You Moved Up (or Around) at Past Companies
It can be tempting (and more simple) to combine multiple roles at one company, but you should actually be highlighting your different job titles. After all, it says a lot about you if you were promoted within an organization or were able to transition your role.
Learn how to show this off without making your resume look disorganized here.
16. Don’t Use an Objective Statement
There’s only one situation in which you need an objective statement: when you’re making a huge career change. Making the leap from, say, business development to marketing means your resume could definitely use a clear explanation that you’re transitioning roles and have the necessary transferable skills. But if you’re a PR rep applying to a PR firm, an objective statement will just waste valuable space.
17. Do Consider a Summary Statement
A summary statement, which consists of a couple lines at the beginning of your resume that give potential employers a broad outline of your skills and experience, is the most ideal if you have years of experience you need to tie together with a common theme. They’re also good if you have a bunch of disparate skills and want to make it clear how they fit together. Here’s more on when you need one and how to put it together.
18. Don’t Try to Hide Gaps
While it’s okay to glaze over gaps a little (for example, by just using years to show dates of employments instead of months and years), you should never outright lie about them. Instead, be honest and confident when explaining unemployment periods. Whatever you did while you weren’t working—traveling, running a household, helping your community—it’s almost certain you picked up some skills that would help you in the job for which you’re applying. So mention them!
19. Do Tell the Truth
For obvious reasons, anything that’s not 100% true doesn’t belong on your resume.
Choosing Your Words Carefully
20. Don’t Use Clichés or Jargon
Because hiring managers are really, really tired of seeing descriptions like hard worker, team player, or detail-oriented on resumes. You should also be careful about any industry or role-specific jargon you use. In many companies, if you want to your resume to land on the hiring manager’s desk, you’ve got to get it past HR first—which means putting everything in terms a layperson can understand.
21. Do Use Real English
Using unnecessarily big words doesn’t make you sound more intelligent or capable. Not only are hiring managers totally aware of what you’re trying (and failing) to do, but “resume speak” can obscure your real experience. So, instead of “utilized innovative social media technique to boost readership and engagement among core demographic” say, “posted on Twitter three times a day and brought follower count from 1,000 to 3,000.”
22. Don’t Use Negative Phrases
You should also be careful of using words with negative connotations—even if you’re using them in a positive light. Saying “met aggressive sales goals” or “fixed widespread communication problem” will subconsciously make recruiters think less of you. Instead, write “delivered on ambitious number of sales” or “proposed and implemented solution to make company communication easier and more efficient.”
23. Do Use Powerful Verbs
Skip the tired and all-too-frequently used “led,” “handled,” and “managed,” and go for verbs like “charted,” “administered,” “consolidated,” or “maximized,” which make you look both confident and competent. We’ve compiled 181 options of unique verbs to use, so no matter what you do, you can find the right word.
24. Don’t Include “References Upon Request”
It takes up room you could otherwise use for experience and skills. And, um, it looks presumptuous.
25. Do Include Your Contact Info
Pretty basic, but you’d be surprised how many job seekers put together an amazing resume—and then don’t include enough “here’s where to find me” info. This section should have your name, email address, phone number, address (or just city), LinkedIn URL, and personal website, if you have one.
Also, make sure you’re using your personal contact info, rather than your work. Because that’s a recipe for disaster.
26. Don’t Include Anything That Could Be Discriminated Against
While it’s illegal to discriminate against a job candidate because of his or her age, marital status, gender, religion, race, color, or national origin, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen subconsciously. Don’t give recruiters the chance, and just leave these details off.
Making it Look Amazing
27. Do Keep it to One Page
Recruiters read a lot of resumes, so they don’t want to have to spend a ton of time looking over yours. Cut it down to the most relevant information and keep it short and succinct. Laszlo Bock, Google’s senior vice president of people operations, recommends one page of resume for every 10 years of work experience as a good rule of thumb.
28. Don’t Squish it All In
That being said, don’t try to squeeze as much information as possible into that one page. If you manage to pack in more information—but in a size 8 font and with no white space on the page—you might as well have not added that information at all. Cut it down to an amount of information you can comfortably fit on the page, in a readable font and with enough white space to make it easy on the eyes.
29. Do Consider a Creative or Digital Resume
Resumes that look like infographics, data visualizations, or even videos or multimedia presentations can be a great way to stand out from the crowd. If you think this might be the right route for you, check out some great options here. (Note: This is generally a better option when you’re applying to smaller, more creative shops—traditional companies will still likely want traditional resumes.)
30. Don’t Spend All Your Time on the Design
While making your resume look nice is important, recruiters say job seekers spend far too much time worrying about it (that is, unless you’re working in a design field). Focus on the content, make sure the right information is highlighted, and just make sure it looks nice enough to make the information easy to digest.
31. Do Start From a Template
Want your resume to look well designed—without the extra time? We’ve found 41 of the best resume templates ever. They’ll make formatting a breeze.
32. Don’t Use More Than 2 Fonts
And really, it’s best to stick to one basic font. Unless you’re a designer and know a lot about typography, it’s easy to choose fonts that clash or are distracting.
33. Do Make Sure Your Job Titles or Companies Stand Out
Of course, you want to make sure the most important information stands out and is easy to skim. Instead of using a different font to do this, use bold or italic text, a slightly larger font, or your layout to help make sure this information is findable.
34. Don’t Go Overboard With Text Effects
If every other word is bolded, italicized, or in ALL CAPS, at best, your resume will be distracting—at worst, annoying. Use emphasis sparingly, for your most important info.
35. Do Align Your Dates and Locations to the Right
This small change will make your resume way easier on the eyes. You should be able to make a “column” of dates and locations for each job by creating a right tab.
36. Don’t Use More Than Two Lines Per Bullet
This strategy will make your resume easier to skim (which is good, because most hiring managers will spend less than 20 seconds reading it). Again, cut it down to the most important information.
37. Do Use Digits
Because 4 and 22% take less time to read than “four” and “twenty-two percent.” Plus, using digits saves you space.
38. Don’t Send it as a Word Document
Sending your resume off as a .doc file will most likely result in all of this careful formatting getting messed up when the recruiter opens the file. Save your final version as a PDF to make sure everything stays just as is.
Getting it Written
39. Do Swap Resumes With Colleagues
Look at how they describe their duties and the company. Chances are, you’ll get some inspiration for your own descriptions. Plus, having some fresh eyes look at your resume is always beneficial. Ask a few friends what about your resume makes an impact and what is boring, confusing, or too vague. If the same things keep popping up, it’s probably time to edit.
40. Don’t Forget to Spell Check
And proofread. Multiple times. For help, check out this editor’s guide to perfecting your resume.
41. Do Create a Master Resume
Remember rule number one on tailoring your resume? Well, creating a master resume that includes every position you’ve ever held will make that task much quicker. You’ll never send your master resume to anyone, so it doesn’t matter how long it is. Just write out each and every job experience you’ve ever had. With all of the possible corresponding bullet points.
Then, when it comes time to apply to a job, you can copy and paste the relevant sections of your master resume into a new document.
42. Don’t Send the Wrong Message
Want to make sure you’re spending enough time on the right things in your resume? Run your resume through a word cloud generator like TagCrowd. This will create an image representing the most frequent words, with the most common ones showing up larger and darker. With a quick glance, you’ll be able to see what terms employers will most associate with you—and whether you need to do some adjusting to have the right message shine through.