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25 Common Resume & Cover Letter Mistakes to Avoid


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Applying for jobs is stressful. You put time and effort into your resume and cover letter, send it off, and hope for the best. But you don’t always hear back, and that can be discouraging, especially when you feel like you’re a great fit for the position.

The reason you aren’t getting an interview might have nothing to do with you personally, and everything to do with your resume and cover letter. A simple mistake or error could be what’s keeping prospective employers from seeing just how great of a candidate you are.

This list of common resume and cover letter errors — and how to avoid them — will help you ensure your job applications are up to snuff.

Pro tip: Make sure your resume stands out to hiring managers. TopResume is offering free resume reviews from experts. You can take things a step further and work one-on-one with a professional resume writer, having them create the perfect resume and cover letter for you.

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Resume & Cover Letter Mistakes to Avoid

1. Spelling and Grammar Errors

Spelling and grammar errors are one of the most common issues hiring managers, headhunters, and recruiters see when reviewing job seeker applications. From small issues like spelling “Lake View Street” as “Lake Veiw Street” to bigger ones, like misspelling the company’s name, careless errors give off a poor impression.

Thankfully, there are all kinds of helpful tools out there aside from your word processor’s spell check to help you make sure that the written content in your application is correct, clear, and concise. For example, Grammarly is free, and in addition to correcting typos and punctuation problems, it’s also able to detect incorrect word usages, like if you accidentally use “they’re” when you mean “their.”

2. Submitting an Application Without Having It Reviewed

Sending in an unpolished job application can make it look like you aren’t serious about the job you’re applying for. Having someone take a look beforehand can save you from glossing over potential issues. And what are friends for, if not looking over your job applications?

Colleagues, mentors, friends, family members, and classmates are excellent resources when it comes to having your resume and cover letter reviewed. They’ll see it with fresh eyes, catching errors and mistakes you may have missed.

It can be especially useful if you know someone with experience as a hiring manager or who works in the same industry as you. They’ll be able to take a look at your application and offer tips and advice you can incorporate before sending it off, saving you from making a bad first impression with a potential employer.

Try not to take your reviewer’s advice personally, and keep in mind that you don’t have to include any suggestions that don’t make sense or aren’t a fit.

3. Lying About or Embellishing Your Accomplishments or Work History

You may be tempted to embellish your past accomplishments or job history, but it’s not worth it. Chances are, your employer will find out you were being dishonest as soon as they call your references or ask you to perform a task that, in reality, you don’t know how to do.

Instead, be honest and upfront about your experience and skill levels. Only apply for jobs when the job description is a fit for you and you have relevant experience.

4. Being Unclear About Job Losses and Resume Gaps

Layoffs and job losses happen, and often they’re nothing to be ashamed of. Sometimes job seekers believe they need to beat around the bush when it comes to explaining a job loss or gap in their resume, but that can come off as dishonest or misleading.

If you lost a job due to downsizing or you were let go because of internal restructuring, it’s OK to come out and say that in your cover letter — especially if it was your most recent job or it caused a noticeable gap in your employment history.

If you lost a job due to poor performance, that’s best discussed in an interview. Use it as an opportunity to show that you can grow and improve by explaining how you’ve used the criticism to become a better employee or overcome a personal challenge.

5. Unprofessional Writing

Slang in your job applications isn’t cool, dude. Stick to professional language and pay attention to spelling, grammar, and word choice. Even if writing isn’t your forte, that doesn’t mean you can resort to using the same language you would use in a text message to a friend.

At the same time, if you don’t know what a word means, don’t use it. A thesaurus is only helpful if you use the alternative words it suggests correctly, which a lot of people don’t. If writing isn’t your thing, keep it simple and professional, and avoid flowery language.

6. Making Excuses for Shortfalls

Hiring managers and recruiters want to know what you’ve done, not what you started and didn’t finish. They also don’t need to hear excuses about why you didn’t complete a program or get a promotion.

In your application, focus on what you have done. Let your accomplishments, skills, and work experience speak for themselves and show off the goals you have reached, not the ones you didn’t. Your resume and cover letter are meant to highlight what you’ve achieved professionally, not provide long-winded explanations of why you didn’t reach a particular milestone.

7. Using an Unprofessional Email Address

Most of us have had embarrassing email addresses. Some of us may even still use them. But no employer wants to get a job application from “partygurl99” or “surf_boi_21.”

Instead, create an email address that you can use specifically for job applications. Stay away from nicknames, hobbies, and interests when choosing a new email address. Try to stick to a combination of your first and last name, if possible.

If you have a professional website or domain, even better. You can use it to set up a custom email address that will look professional, promote your website, and organize your job applications.

Make sure you update both your cover letter and resume with your new address and that you apply to job posts and respond to emails from recruiters and hiring managers using the same email account.

8. Copy and Pasting Your Cover Letter and Resume into an Email

What looks great in a resume template or PDF doesn’t necessarily look good when copied and pasted into an email. Most of the time, you lose formatting, page alignment, spacing, and any typographical emphasis, such as bold and italics.

Whenever possible, save and send your resume and cover letter as a PDF file. PDFs save and lock formatting, fonts, alignment, and more to keep your application looking nice and clean.

If the employer can’t receive email attachments, look over the application requirements to see if they have an application form or page on their website they would like you to use. If not, and you have to resort to sending your resume and cover letter through email, send it to yourself as a test first. If it looks terrible, make any changes you can to improve it.

9. Writing a Broad or Generic Objective

The point of including an objective is to tell the company your career goals are a match for the position they’re hiring for. Saying something broad or generic like, “My goal is to be a graphic designer at your company” doesn’t tell hiring managers anything they don’t already know. It can also make it look like you didn’t put much thought into your application.

Instead, tailor your objective for each employer and use the job description to inform what you say. For example, “Experienced graphic designer seeking a position where I can use my skills to increase user engagement, build brand awareness, and stay on par with modern design best practices.”

Not only will this make you look like a good fit for the position, but it will also help your application to stand out since so many others are likely to use generic objectives.

10. Using Objectives in General Applications

Applying for a general opening as opposed to a specific position? Don’t bother using an objective at all. This can end up making an employer think you’re only right for a certain kind of position, instead of considering you for something else you could be a fit for.

For example, if you say that you want to be a blog writer, they might not consider you for a copywriting position, even if you would be open to that as well.

11. Including Too Much Personal Information

Your resume and cover letter are meant for your professional experience, skills, and achievements, not your personal ones.

Unless a job posting specifically asks for personal information, like your hobbies or interests, stick to your professional qualifications. Use your cover letter to explain why you’re a match for the position detailed in the job listing and your resume to back it up by detailing your career history to date.

12. Including Too Much Information, Period

Although potential employers want to know about your work experience and qualifications, they don’t need to know your life story.

A good rule of thumb is to keep your resume to a two-page limit and your cover letter to one. Focus on including the most relevant and important information you want to communicate to a hiring manager.

Because they may have to review and sort through hundreds (or sometimes thousands) of applications, potential employers don’t have time to search through irrelevant information in your application to find out why you’re a great fit. That information should be easy for them to identify. Limiting the content on your resume and cover letter can help to make sure that the right details are front and center.

13. Deleting Important Details

While keeping it concise is important, don’t delete important information when trying to cut down or customize your resume and cover letter. You should never sacrifice relevant experience, skills, or accomplishments just for the sake of making space.

If you find your resume and cover letter are too long even after cutting out unnecessary content, you can rewrite sentences and descriptions to be shorter and use bullet points to turn long paragraphs into shorter sections.

14. Forgetting to Use Keywords

Keywords are common industry terms that can help to describe your job title, responsibilities, and experience. For example, “direct sales,” “business development,” and “manager” are all keywords that could be used to refer to someone who has management experience in business development and direct sales.

A lot of job seekers don’t realize how important keywords are, but with so many job applications being handled digitally, hiring managers and recruiters often use software to sort, review, and organize applications. Most applicant tracking software platforms allow employers to search potential hires using keywords, which means if you aren’t using the right keywords, employers won’t find you.

For example, instead of writing “good at getting likes on social,” be more specific: “Experienced social media manager familiar with Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.” That way, you should show up for searches using keywords like “Facebook,” “Instagram,” “Twitter,” and “social media manager” instead of none of them.

You can get ideas for keywords by reviewing job descriptions you’re interested in and paying attention to the hard skills they require. Once you choose which to target, sprinkle them into your cover letter and resume when and where they make the most sense.

15. Including References in Your Resume

Often, job seekers include a list of references at the end of their resume. Some may even just include the line “references available upon request.” Although this is well-intentioned and meant to make it easier for hiring managers to get in touch with your references, it takes up valuable space on your resume.

If an employer wants to see your references, they will let you know.

Plus, it’s a good idea to tailor your references to each job, if possible. Not all references are a fit for every position, so if you feel a job interview goes well, reach out to the potential references that make the most sense and ask them if they would vouch for you.

16. Omitting Important Accomplishments and Details

Your resume is the perfect place to brag about your professional accomplishments. Did you increase sales? What about customer retention? Or maybe you implemented a new plan that saved your company and simplified a complicated process.

Your accomplishments on the job are some of the best selling points you have at your disposal. Employers want to see what you did for another company so they can get an idea of what you could do for them. Noting your biggest accomplishments on your resume is the best way for you to demonstrate what you could bring to the table if you were offered a position.

17. Forgoing a Cover Letter

Sometimes job seekers choose not to include a cover letter with their job application. But unless a job posting specifically says not to include one, neglecting to include a cover letter can get your application sent to the rejection pile without a second glance.

Cover letters give you an opportunity to highlight your relevant work experience, specialized skills, and selling points in relation to a specific job. They can be used to communicate your personal interest in a role or industry and to introduce yourself as an applicant and individual to a potential employer. By not including one, you risk missing out on a chance to tell an employer why they should hire you.

18. Using a Generic Cover Letter

If you aren’t customizing your cover letter for each job you apply for, it could be one of the reasons you aren’t getting calls for interviews.

Cover letters should be personalized for each job you apply for, highlighting skills, experience, and selling points related to that specific job posting. They also offer an opportunity for you to demonstrate your knowledge about the company and what they do.

If you use the same cover letter for every application, chances are you’ll end up sending potential employers irrelevant information about your suitability for the position.

If you want to save time and still benefit from customized cover letters, you can create a few different versions of your cover letter. When applying for a job, choose the cover letter that best suits the role and company and make tweaks to the company name, keywords, and who the application is addressed to. Whenever possible, avoid “Dear Hiring Manager” and use an actual name instead.

19. Poor Formatting

Bad formatting can negatively impact the first impression you make on a potential employer. If your application looks like a jumble of disorganized information, it doesn’t speak highly of your visual communication skills or computer abilities.

There are plenty of resume and cover letter templates available for you to use online. Many word processors, like Google Docs and Microsoft Word, also offer matching resume and cover letter templates you can customize to suit your needs.

Remember to use bullets, spacing, headlines, and titles to make your resume easier to scan and read. Dividing your content into sections and subsections can also help with readability and make your resume easier to digest.

20. Not Mentioning Requirements From Job Postings

Most job postings list certain skills or experience they require an applicant to have — for example, a minimum level of education, experience in a certain industry, or a specific certification.

If a job posting lists requirements and you happen to have them, make sure you highlight them in your resume and cover letter. One of the first steps hiring managers will take when reviewing resumes and cover letters is to discard any applications that don’t meet the job requirements. Make sure to clearly point out that you’re a qualified applicant so reviewers don’t have to dig for that information.

22. Including Irrelevant Work History

A common resume mistake is to include all of your job history starting from your first part-time job in high school. Unless a previous job is relevant to the one you’re applying for or it fills an employment gap, you don’t need to include it on your resume.

For example, if you’re applying to be a technical editor, and you’re educated and experienced in your field, your potential employer probably doesn’t need to know you worked at a golf course for a summer when you were 16.

Stick to education, experience, and skills that are relevant to the company and job posting. Including dated jobs and experience just takes up valuable space on your resume that you should be using to highlight what makes you a fit.

23. Forgetting to Add Links

Most applications are sent and received online, which means you have an opportunity to link to important points of contact like your LinkedIn profile, portfolio, and website.

If you have a LinkedIn profile, and it’s up to date and relevant, include it in your contact information and make the link clickable so hiring managers can easily view your profile straight from your resume or cover letter. The same goes for your professional portfolio, samples, website, or even your email address.

Making these elements clickable saves recruiters and potential employers from having to search for information and shows that you care about the little things. Plus, it can help direct them to the items you want them to see instead of those you don’t, like older portfolios or websites you haven’t gotten around to removing, that might be discoverable using a web search.

24. Ignoring the Tone of the Job Posting

There are all kinds of job postings out there. Some go for clever and quirky, while others are prim and professional. How a job description is written can affect how you word your application.

For example, there’s a big difference between how you would write a cover letter for a casual job posting that uses conversational language and asks you to include a picture of your dog and one that uses industry jargon and formal writing.

The tone you use helps hiring managers determine whether you’re a culture fit for the company outside of your qualifications. Many companies today put emphasis on strong teams who get along and work well together, so demonstrating your ability to notice and adapt the tone of your application based on the job listing can help show employers you’ll be a great hire.

25. Not Tailoring Volunteer Experience

As an individual, any volunteering experience you have is great. But as a professional, you should be choosy about which volunteering experience you include on your resume. If it isn’t relevant to the job itself, it just takes up valuable space you could use to highlight your accomplishments and skills.

And if the experience is too dated, it doesn’t do much for your application. For example, if you volunteered once for a charity six years ago and haven’t done anything since, there’s no point in listing it on your resume.

Include volunteer experience that’s relevant and recent, and make sure you’re putting it on your resume for a reason instead of just including it to demonstrate that you’re a good person.

Final Word

The job application process is a lot of work for both applicants and employers, especially in a competitive job market. Small mistakes like a careless typo or overly long application can be what sorts your resume and cover letter into the rejection pile. The time and effort you put into your job application now could be the difference between being overlooked and getting an offer letter.

Which common mistakes surprised you the most? Do you tend to make any of them?

Brittany Foster is a professional writer and editor living in Nova Scotia, Canada. She helps readers learn about employment, freelancing, and law. When she's not at her desk you can find her in the woods, over a book, or behind a camera.