There is a lot of truth to the old adage: "You can't beat someone at their own game." In the resume game, the people who "own it" are the recruiters, sources, and HR staffers whose business it is to parse hundreds of resumes each week. They can put your resume into the larger context in a matter of seconds. Their job is to constantly be on the lookout for any disqualifying factor. Here are six key red flags you should avoid:
1. Generic resume. If you want to earn serious consideration from an employer, provide the same to him or her. If it appears that you haven't taken the time to customize your resume for the specific job in which you are interested and the company where it's found, you raise the most basic red-flag question: What is the relevance of this resume to this particular job?
Solution: Customize each resume you send out and make certain you mirror the words found in the job description on your resume. Show how, when, and where you developed the talent and expertise to meet the needs of the position for which you are applying.
2. Resume appearance malfunction. Is your resume friendly to the beholder who wears bifocals? Non-standard fonts, small text with little to no space between sections, and narrow margins all raise red flags. Beyond the poor aesthetics, they may suggest you are the kind of person who is "bound and determined" to wedge too large a story into too small a space, rather than boiling down the salient aspects of your career achievements into a document which clearly speaks to the job to be filled.
Solution: Remember that your resume is not your unabridged autobiography. You aren't obligated to show everything you have ever done and every place you worked. It's a marketing document onto which you should put the things that are most germane. Use a standard font at a reasonable type size and forget all the lines, graphics, pictures, and colors.
3. Poor grammar & spelling. In an age when everyone has spellchecking capacities, there is no excuse for misspelled words. At the same time, there's no end to the ways words get mangled into other words with different meanings. When either happens, it stands in sharp opposition to your claim of being a "good communicator." Moreover, it raises the red-flag question: "If this candidate is too lazy or incapable of checking his or her own resume, what will be sloughed off if they were on the job?" Every career expert would agree that careful proofreading is critical.
4. Resume timeline gaps. Is it easy to follow the sequential steps of your career with dates set apart, flush right? Are there multiple gaps in years without explanation?
It's perfectly acceptable—even meritorious—to address those legitimate gaps with just a phrase or two without going into great detail. You might, as the last bullet under a given job say something like: "Left position to pursue additional educational opportunities" or "Left position to deal with a family member's chronic medical problem which was ultimately resolved."
5. Resume evasiveness. There are many things that job hunters typically try to "fudge." Yet, overgeneralizations, squishy language, and omissions are not generally regarded well.
For example, job hunters in their 50s and 60s believe they can avoid age discrimination if they omit dates when degrees were earned. But just the opposite is the case. In attempting to skirt the age issue, you actually bring attention to it with your unstated but very clear message: "I don't want you to figure out how old I am based on when I attended college." Worse, you may potentially also raise the red-flag question: Is this job seeker trying to mask anything else of significance?
6. Key phrase banalities. Some job hunters aren't certain of how to go about the process of writing an effective resume, and so they resort to words and phrases found in resume-writing books and other templates that might be good starting points, but not ending points. By adhering too closely to them, you are likely to sound like everyone else, without conveying any understanding of what you are really trying to convey. Using hackneyed phrases like "hard worker," "out-of-the-box thinker," "team player," "excellent communications skills," etc., offer your own conclusion about your talents and work ethic. But they do nothing to cause the resume reader to believe you or to come to the same conclusion. Instead, show examples of your out-of-the-box solutions and talk about times when your actions really did benefit your team.
If you take the time to lower these red flags, you will raise the likelihood of gaining the respect and positive attention of those who own the resume game.
Arnie Fertig is the head coach of JOBHUNTERCOACH.COM, where he utilizes his extensive background in HR Staffing and as owner of a recruiting company to help mid-career job-hunters land their next job. Arnie provides one-to-one coaching services to individuals throughout the U.S. in all aspects of the job hunt, including: resume writing, personal branding, utilizing social media, enhancing networking skills, preparing for interviews, and negotiating compensation.