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Top 21 Resume & Cover Letter Mistakes to Avoid

By Kristia Ludwick

resume deskMy husband and I have been small business owners and employers for over ten years. During that stretch, we’ve received a good number of low quality resumes and cover letters whenever we post for open positions in our office.

Job applicants can avoid mistakes and errors by reviewing their resumes before applying for jobs. When we hire employees, we look for detail-oriented, reliable, and professional people. We can usually detect those qualities just by glancing at an applicant’s cover letter and resume.

If you’re looking for a job, you need potential employers to place your resume in the interview pile. However, you only have a few seconds for them to make that decision, and your cover letter and resume need to be perfect.

Read through the following list of common mistakes found on cover letters and resumes before applying for jobs. Review your cover letter and resume, making sure they do not have any of these costly errors.

Mistakes to Avoid On Your Cover Letter and Resume

1. Spelling and Grammar Errors
Use spell check to save yourself a lot of embarrassment. We received one resume where the applicant incorrectly spelled her address. Instead of “Lake View” Street, she lived on “Lake Veiw” Street. That error demonstrated a lack of preparation.

However, keep in mind that spell check does not correct the misuse of words (e.g. their vs. there, you’re vs. your, or passed vs. past).

2. Submitting an Unpolished Cover Letter and Resume
In addition to proofreading your resume, ask friends and family members to review it. They should look for errors, and assess the flow of information. Don’t take their critiques personally; instead, really listen to what they have to say.

3. Lying About or Embellishing Your Accomplishments and Work History
Be honest about your skills, accomplishments, and work history. Overstating these things can come back to haunt you, when your potential employer calls your references, or expects you to perform at a certain skill level on the first day.

4. Presenting Yourself Negatively
Submit a professional and upbeat cover letter. Instead of telling a potential employer that you left a job “due to hard times,” explain that the company laid off employees. Use a forthright approach instead. For example, “The company eliminated the position due to company downsizing”.

5. Writing in an Unprofessional Manner
Writing informally and using slang looks unprofessional. Cover letters should not include the same language you use in text messages. Keep that 4 ur phone!

resume pen hand

6. Using Excuses for any Potential Shortfalls on Your Resume
Employers want to read about your actual work experience, accomplishments, skills, and education; they do not want to read excuses. For example, we received one resume where the applicant stated that she started to attend a college, but had to withdraw because the faculty did not provide her with enough guidance. That sort of information, even if true, does not concern employers. List your actual work experience and specific skills, and leave out the unnecessary explanations and excuses.

7. Using a Personal Email Address
Email addresses with words like “freak” or “party,” or that include numbers demonstrate a distinct lack of professionalism. Create an email account specifically designated for your job search. Use your name in the email address and leave thefun” address for your personal life. Make sure to include this new email address on your resume and cover letter, and respond to job listings using this new email address, to cut down on confusion. Have the email forwarded to your primary email address or check the email account daily, to make sure you don’t miss out on any job opportunities.

8. Copy and Pasting Your Resume into an Email
When responding to a job posting by email, send your resume as an attached Word document or PDF file. If you cut and paste your resume into an email, you lose your page alignment, and your resume arrives looking jumbled and messy. Some employers stipulate that they cannot open email attachments in job postings. If you have to copy and paste your resume into an email, send a test email to yourself first, to review the formatting.

9. Including a Broad and Generic Objective on Your Resume and Cover Letter
Writing a broadly based objective on your resume gives the appearance of a form letter instead of a thoughtful, tailored document written specifically for the position. A generic objective shows prospective employers that you haven’t put a lot of thought into applying for the position. In addition, your resume won’t stand out from the other resumes.

Clearly define your goals. Also, include your goals and your objective in the cover letter, the first document prospective employers read.

10. Using Objective Statements in General Applications
If you apply to a company and not to a specific job posting, remove the objective statement from your resume. The objective statement won’t help your resume, and recruiters may try to pigeonhole your qualifications based on the objective statement, limiting your opportunities with the company.

11. Writing Too Much Personal Information About Yourself
Keep your cover letter and resume professional, and focus on your experience, achievements, job skills, and education, explaining how these qualifications make you the best candidate for the job. If you want, you can include a single bullet point at the end of your resume to include brief details about your hobbies and outside interests.

12. Forgetting to Use Keywords
When you post your resume online, use keywords to help prospective employers and recruiters find your resume. Recruiters and employers use keywords to search through banks of resumes to find the right candidates. Instead of using a title like “Energetic Salesperson Can Close Sales Today,” try something like “Experienced Direct Sales and Business Development Manager.” The keywords may look strange, but they help recruiters and employers to quickly find qualified employees.

13. Referencing References
Many resumes include a section for references, or a note stating “References available upon request.” Recruiters and prospective employers will ask for references when and if they need them. Save precious space on your resume by removing references, focusing instead on your work history and accomplishments.

14. Ignoring Important Accomplishments and Details
When working on your resume, you need to include information about your work history and your job duties. Highlight important accomplishments in addition to providing information about day-to-day job duties. Include information about time-saving changes that you implemented, and your direct impact on revenues.

For example, “Implemented new core methodology for appraising homes that provided immediate feedback to homeowners and to the home office, eliminating the need for costly time away from the office. The company still uses this methodology for appraising homes today.” Revenue-based accomplishments also grab the attention of prospective employers. For example, “Created and implemented new retention plan that resulted in a first-year profit of $3 million from return customers,” or “Increased company sales by $8 million within the first eighteen months on the job.”

15. Forgoing the Cover Letter
You may decide to forgo a cover letter entirely when applying for jobs, in order to save time. This mistake might cost you a job; your cover letter gives you the opportunity to introduce yourself and to highlight your special skills to recruiters and potential employers. Don’t skip the cover letter. Instead, create several versions of a cover letter and then adjust them before sending them to a specific employer, to be more specific.

16. Using a Generic Cover Letter
Using a generic cover letter can limit your job opportunities. Make sure to not only state your past accomplishments and the skills you can bring to the job, but also make sure to refer to the specific company and position for which you are applying. Also, explain why you are a good fit for that particular position and show that you have researched the company and know what it has to offer.

One strategy is to have a few versions of your cover letter for different types of positions that you will only have to slightly adapt each time you apply for a new job. Lastly, whenever possible, address the person that will be reading your letter by name.

17. Forgetting About Formatting
Use formatting in your resume to make your resume easy to navigate, scan, and read. Recruiters and hiring managers scan resumes received for a job posting, and quickly sort them according to the qualifications of the prospective applicants. Bullet points, headlines, and titles can make your resume easier to peruse. Sections and sub-sections can also help prospective employers to quickly review your resume.

18. A Cover Letter and Resume That Is Too Long
Hiring managers and recruiters have to quickly scan and sort hundreds or even thousands of resumes. Using lengthy cover letters and resumes works against you. When possible, use one-page resumes and cover letters that span less than one page. These guidelines will also force you focus on the most relevant and important details about your background and cut out any surplus of information.

19. Eliminating Important Details 
Make sure you don’t eliminate important details from your resume and cover letter just to decrease the length. You should be able to highlight your important accomplishments and background with concise and relevant descriptions. Be judicious with your writing, but don’t sell yourself short!

20. Including Incomplete Details About Past Employers
When you apply for jobs, include a brief description of your past employers’ business functions, revenues, and industry niche, as applicable. Assume that headhunters and recruiters don’t know anything about the companies where you have worked.

21. Ignoring Requests for Information in Job Postings
Many job postings include requests for information in addition to resumes. If a job posting indicates that applicants “must demonstrate a deep knowledge of Sales Force Automation, hold a Six Sigma Black Belt Certification, and have a proven track record in B to B sales,” your cover letter and resume need to highlight your skills, years of experience, and measurable outcomes that specifically relate to these items listed in the job posting.

For more examples of mistakes to avoid, check out these funny resume errors and bloopers.

Final Word

A competitive job market means that first impressions matter, and you must avoid mistakes at all costs. Your cover letter and resume need to showcase your achievements, skills, and experience that set you apart from the other applicants. If you have errors, you don’t get a second chance.

Are you looking for a new job, or have you recently been through the job hunting process? What mistakes have you caught yourself making on your resume and cover letter?

(photo credit: Shutterstock)

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Kristia Ludwick
Kristia writes about family finances, frugal living, and food at Family Balance Sheet. She spends her offline time raising her two daughters, helping her husband run a small business, and training for her first half-marathon.

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  • Matthew Butensky

    How about not forgetting the second page of my resume! Big mistake! Since that incredibly embarrassing experience I’ve been testing out some cloud computing software so that I can retrieve my documents online just in case I forget them!

    • Adam Williams

      Thanks for the comment Matthew. You definitely want to be prepared and make sure you have everything with you.

  • http://www.bestsamplecoverletter.com Phil

    I think the most important thing that I see get overlooked is that people don’t have their resume and cover letter proof read (just like you mentioned). I’ve seen some embarrassing typos, that just get people moved to the “no pile” right away.

    • http://www.rabbitfunds.com Adam Williams

      Agreed. I think people are either in a hurry, don’t realize it matters, or are embarrassed to have someone else review their resume. Even though criticism is hard to hear, it’s better that it come from a friend than a potential employer.

  • http://www.jobcred.com/en/ Van Beek @ JobCred

    Thanks for this extensive list. I like to stress that it is not just the cover letter that shall not be generic (16). Also the resume/CV should be tailored to the specific opportunity. It depends of course on how much you have done that is worth mentioning. But you want to keep your resume very relevant to the job opportunity. This means, taking things out that are not relevant and stressing items that the reader should definitely catch. I think that relevance is more important than being too long (18) or having a resume that is short enough. A little longer resume that is very relevant is not a big issue for most employers and recruiters.

    • http://www.familybalancesheet.org Kristia

      I agree, a resume that is relevant to the job opening is very important. By putting some effort into tailoring your resume, you are showing the potential employer that you are a serious candidate. Thanks for your comments.

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