Resumes & Cover Letters

7 Red Flags on Your Resume—and How to Fix ‘Em Fast

Make sure your resume is free of these transgressions

You’ve been sending out applications left and right and yet there’s been nary a nibble. It’s not you—you’re great. You match all the job requirements (and quite a few of the “nice to have” skills, too). You wrote an engaging cover letter. Your background itself is on-point. So what gives?

It might just be your resume. What looks perfect to you, your school’s career adviser, or even some of your colleagues can come off as gimmicky, careless or unhelpful to the folks doing the hiring. So what are they really looking for? We chatted with four hiring managers and recruiters: Aimée Starck, recruiter at Creative Circle; Sandy Pinos-Chin, director of human resources at; Yair Riemer, chief marketing officer at HR tech company CareerArc; and David Waring, cofounder and editor at, who has used Mediabistro’s own job board to hire writers and marketing executives. Here, they reveal applicants’ biggest resume blunders.

1. Easily avoidable mistakes. 

Typos, misspelled words and grammar errors are at the top of all four experts’ stop-reading-right-now lists. And it doesn’t matter if the role you’re applying for is content- or editorial-related—no mistakes.

“[Whether you are] applying for a coding job, a writing job, a design job, if you are not spell checking and making sure that content is correct on your resume, I am really not interested,” Starck says. “Don’t tell me you’re detail oriented but you can’t pay attention to your grammar on a one-page resume.”

For those getting creative, aim for consistency above all. “Make sure the bullets are the same size and they’re indented the same amount of space from the margin,” Starck says. “If you’re using periods at the end of your bullets, make sure that every bullet has a period.”

And don’t think you can get away with widows just because you’re not an InDesign pro. “If you have a couple of lines that flow into the next page, there’s a way to make it shorter,” Pinos-Chin says. “I know that’s a pet peeve of recruiters, to have to print out empty pages or a page with one line is annoying. I’ve had resumes that come in and it’s like, ‘You couldn’t delete the extra space? I just printed out 13 pages of nothing.’ It comes across as careless.”

Finally, for the love of all that is aesthetically pleasing, save your .doc as a PDF. If it’s a huge file, compress it.

2. Confusing chronology or formatting.

We know, it’s boring, but the general format for resumes hasn’t undergone a huge evolution—so don’t go crazy manipulating yours.

“We’re still looking for a bulleted itemization of the major types of responsibilities you had at each of your employers,” Pinos-Chin says. “One of the things I see a lot is that instead of organizing their resume chronologically, they’ll organize it based on their skills and then make a short list of their employers. That, for me, is a turn-off because it’s hard to understand the progression of the things you worked on. It’s also hard to understand if you used a skill at your first job or more recently or across the board.”

Sometimes resume experts suggest using skill-based formatting to hide employment gaps. However, recruiter Starck urges applicants to just be honest. “They’re going to get to the bottom of it regardless, so I would be up front about it,” she says, whether [the gaps are] due to family obligations, illness or unemployment.

Employers do want to make sure you’re not out of the loop, so be sure to stay informed about your industry. “It’s important to… make sure that if you’re trying to get back into the industry that you can talk intelligently about [trends],” says Starck.

And in case you were wondering: Comic Sans MS? Still a no-no. Graphics? Keep them in your portfolio. Head shots? Save for your dating profile. While Riemer is willing to make exceptions for art directors or graphic designers, he says it’s still best not to take risks that may distract your resume’s reader.

3. Exceeding one page without years of relevant experience to back it up.

“You don’t have to include all of your work experience—only the relevant work experience,” says Riemer. “If you worked as a lifeguard or summer camp counselor five years ago, but since then have interned at three Internet startups in the marketing department, and you’re applying for a full-time, entry-level job at an Internet company, it’s probably OK to leave out that your summer camp group won the annual kickball tournament.”

Starck echoes the sentiment of brevity. “I have 10-plus years of experience under my belt,” she shares, “and I still have a one-page resume. You should really be curating and tailoring your resume to reflect the job you’re applying for.”

In the same vein, there is such a thing as sharing too much work history.

On the decade cut-off, Waring is in agreement. “However,” he says, “if you have experience that is particularly relevant to the position that you are applying for that goes back further than this, I would include it.”

4. Padding for length (or any reason).

We’ve heard the one-page rule so many times, it feels like an absolute. And while most of the hand-wringing comes from folks trying to squeeze their life onto a single sheet of paper, applicants who are fresh out of college or who are looking for internships have the opposite problem: what if there isn’t enough to fill a page?

“I would personally rather see a resume that is less than one page than a full-page resume that is full of fluff,” Waring says. “If they are applying to a position they feel might require experience they do not have, then why they are still a good fit should be in the cover letter.”

Waring suggests that students and recent grads include the following areas: education, relevant coursework, leadership and interests, achievements and skills. Think: Adobe Creative Suite, Tweetdeck, fluent in Spanish, not soft skills like “is a team player” or “possesses meticulous attention to detail” —Starck says these are things you have to show, not tell.

“Academic accomplishments are key,” Riemer emphasizes, “specifically if you have studied or researched any of the elements required for a job. Something as tangential as a research project or paper in school can separate you from someone else with little practical experience because it at least shows an interest in the role.”

5. Obvious objective statements.

Some recruiters love seeing objectives, Pinos-Chin says, while others loathe them. However, the objective as a whole has transformed from the redundant “I’m looking for a fulfilling career in children’s publishing with growth potential where I can build on my leadership skills” to more of a value statement about yourself.

“I am a self-motivated leader with a knack for problem-solving” might work for a developer position, Pinos-Chin offers as an example.

“Tell me something that’s useful to me,” Pinos-Chin adds. “What’s useful to me is an elevator pitch about why you’re awesome.”

6. Getting too personal.

Should you include the hours you’ve clocked at the homeless shelter? What about your love for Korean barbeque? Waring says he likes seeing a smidgeon of personal information in a hobbies or general interests section, but “no more than one or two lines, unless the experience is particularly relevant to the position.”

Riemer says that in some cases, “if you’ve done research on the company culture and see that volunteering or team-building activities are core to the specific firm you’re applying for,” adding a section that highlights your interests there can give you a boost.

Pinos-Chin agrees that understanding your audience is key. She cautions applicants not stray into TMI territory, however. This means avoiding anything politically charged or divisive. “It’s about mitigating the prospect of, ‘What if I’m applying and the person who reads my resume happens to be somebody on the complete other end of the spectrum,'” she explains. “Just be aware and consider that it might not be the distraction you want to add to your resume.”

7. Forgoing keywords.

You need to include keywords, and not just because some large companies use programs to pick and choose applicants that check certain boxes. Put them in your bullet points, not just in the bottom “skills” section.

“As recruiters, we don’t have time to look at every little thing. We’re going through hundreds and hundreds of resumes and LinkedIn profiles and all kinds of things,” Pinos-Chin says.

“I judge [the lack of keywords] more harshly on content-related people, especially in the digital space,” Pinos-Chin adds. “Being able to optimize content for the Web and for search is so essential. Keywords should be a natural part of how you think. You need to make that association—and not making it shows a lack of awareness.”

Riemer agrees. “This is an important point,” he says. “Keywords matter, but you shouldn’t write your resume for a machine. If you have expressed the key components of the role and industry, then that will kill two birds with one stone—and also take care of any algorithms looking for those keywords.”

The bottom line is your resume isn’t a task list; it’s a sales sheet.

“An effective resume markets you and identifies your accomplishments and strengths,” Riemer says. “Hiring managers want to see that you’ve achieved success, not just shown up and completed tasks. Consider the document an opportunity to really impress and craft a strong introduction about yourself, rather than just a summary of work history.”

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