Work & Money

An HR pro on how to avoid the most common resume mistakes they see

Plus tips for crafting one that’s concise and that will work for automated applicant tracking systems.

Plus tips for crafting one that’s concise and that will work for automated applicant tracking systems

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Whether you're applying for a summer job or a position that comes with a corner office, the first step in becoming a successful applicant is usually a strong job application that's anchored by a well-written, smartly packaged resume. Whether a potential employer is looking at your resume via email, through an online applicant tracking system, or on a professional networking website such as LinkedIn, it needs to showcase your experience and expertise in a compelling and focused way. 

As the Director of Talent at Georgian Partners, Kathryn Christie reviews hundreds of resumes on a regular basis. We asked the talent acquisition expert to share her top tips for job-seekers, including the common mistakes and missteps to avoid when it comes to writing and formatting your resume. 

Don't just list your job responsibilities

This is a big mistake that Christie encounters often, so when describing your work history, emphasize impact and not just responsibility. "Stop writing 'responsible for' and then finishing the sentence," says Christie. "You see it on so many resumes. For me, that doesn't show me what you actually did … I know what may have been on your job description, but what did you actually do with those responsibilities?" What she wants to see instead are examples of impact, innovation, and execution. "All those things that I'm looking for in a candidate, I don't get when they just list their job responsibilities."

Don't forget to quantify your impact

Try to quantify the impact that you had in your current and previous roles on your resume. "In sales it's easy to just write out what quotas you hit, how much money you brought into the organization and in other roles it can be difficult," says Christie. But even in a people operations role, notes Christie, you could share improvements in engagement-survey scores as an example of impact. 

Ensure that it is easy to read

If you choose to get creative with fonts, colours and layouts, be sure that your design decisions don't negatively affect legibility. "For me, it's all about ease of reading. So if there are a lot of icons and stuff busying the resume, then it's harder for me to get through and understand chronology," says Christie, noting that she does enjoy seeing nicely-formatted resumes. 

Keep in mind that recruiters may only have a few seconds to skim your resume initially, and most will be looking at hundreds of applications every week. "I want to be able to see profile and education right away, and then I want to see the progression of your career — and if it's formatted nicely, awesome," says Christie. 

Make your information friendly for applicant tracking systems

These days, many job applications are not received directly by a hiring manager or someone in human resources. Instead, resumes submitted online are often funnelled through automated applicant tracking systems (ATS) that display the information to reviewers on a proprietary interface, stripped of any design formatting. "We're [usually] reading resumes within an applicant tracking system that is displaying it to us in [its] format, so it's almost easier just to have it as a basic linear description of your experience," explains Christie. 

Tailor your resume for every job, and include what's important about each role you've held

Christie recommends that you really think about the job description and tailor your resume to the role. "If you think about what you do on a day-to-day basis, in most jobs you could write two pages about what you do in that one job. When you're thinking about condensing all the jobs you've had into a two-page resume, you want to show how you've progressed [and learned] the skills necessary for this job," says Christie. Instead of simply trying to fit in everything you've ever done, you want to tell a story with your work history that shows how you've developed the skills needed to be successful in that role.

Speak to the key points in the posting

With applicant tracking systems, you'll be more likely to get through the initial screening stage if you check off the right boxes and key words. According to Christie, many will use screening criteria — for example, looking for a specific certification or license, or a certain level of experience — but beyond that, it's important to have the right language and terminology on your application and resume. 

"Go to the bottom of the job description, and look at that last piece that says 'role requirements' or 'qualifications', and make sure you're mirroring that language when you're describing your experience in your resume," says Christie. "Realistically, you probably won't meet 100% of the criteria on there, but the first few bullet points are usually going to be the most important from a screening perspective." You want to make sure you have those key words and job titles mirrored on your resume, if possible. And, if your title doesn't reflect your current duties, you can use the job description to explain fit and make sure that you're not unintentionally screened out because you haven't mirrored the language of the job posting. 

Keep it concise

While the old rule about keeping your resume to one page can safely be ignored, according to Christie, it's still important to try to be concise. "Realistically, as a recruiter, if I'm in a recruitment cycle, I'm taking 30 seconds to a minute to look at a resume, so if it's five pages, I probably won't get into the good detail of each of the areas, I'll just skim the whole thing," says Christie. "I always say one to two pages is ideal."

Think twice before adding a photo 

"Some people have visceral issues with that," says Christie, who says it doesn't personally bother her to see a candidate's headshot on a resume. "For me, I'm fine with it because I'm probably going to look at their LinkedIn [profile] anyways." 

Still, it's an unnecessary inclusion that takes up valuable space. "I just don't think it's necessary at all," says Christie. "I'd rather see impact and what you did, and what value you brought, as opposed to taking out the whole top corner of the resume with a photo."

And of course, make sure it's error-free

According to Christie, it's crucial to proofread your resume — and any professional online profiles — very carefully. "It amazes me that at this day and age, with spell check and everything, that I still get resumes that are just full of errors," says Christie. "I'm not hiring a writer, usually, but that to me signals a lack of care taken ... a lack of attention to detail, and it shows me some pieces of the puzzle that I don't like to see." In the past, she's even seen resumes and profiles where a job-seeker has spelled their current company name or alma mater incorrectly. "I will look at the resume; but, if I'm deciding between [applicants with] similar experience, the one that's been well taken care of and put together is usually the one that wins out," adds Christie. 


Truc Nguyen is a Toronto-based writer, editor and stylist. Follow her at @trucnguyen.

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