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December 24, 2010
Top Five Things That Can Kill a Résumé

The résumé is a strategic document. There's a reason behind the way it is structured and what is included so you can effectively convey your value to prospective employers. However, several things can torpedo your résumé if you aren't aware of them. Here are some pitfalls to avoid:

1.) Accidentally revealing your age. You need to neutralize your résumé so you don't tip your hand on how old you are. New entrants to the workplace and more mature workers struggle with this issue, and plenty of employers have misconceptions about what each generation of workers are capable of doing. Your goal is to make your career document as neutral as possible. Get into this mindset: If it isn't on there, it can't be discriminated against.

Specific areas to evaluate:

Your e-mail address. Does it say anything about what year you graduated, your interests, or your age? Safe bet: Use your name. If you have a common name, include a couple of random numbers with it.

Your graduation year. Unless you are going into an educational or technical field, leave it off. Human resource managers can do the math, and that can reveal your age.

Your complete work history. The 'sweet' spot is no more than 15-20 years of work history. Anything more screams your age, and after 15-20 years, you often have eclipsed what you did long ago either in accomplishments or career levels, so you'll have to do some editing. Think of it this way: We don't do business the way we did over 20 years ago, so what you accomplished then is now obsolete.

2.) Producing an error-filled résumé. You'd be surprised at how many people, including C-level executives, are marching around with résumés riddled with errors. Check everything -- including consistency of use, spelling, punctuation, grammar, and formatting. Remember, this is supposed to be your best foot forward, and if you can't even get that right, this tells a prospective employer that you won't be doing a much better job if you were to become their employee.

3.) Lacking focus or taking a one-size-fits-all approach. The truth of the matter is that résumés have to be highly targeted, laser-precise documents now, given that many employers are using applicant-tracking software to scan for relevant keywords. Even if a company isn't using this filter, you still need to immediately capture their attention and prove your relevancy toward the position opening.

It is even more critical that you create 'thematic' résumés that play up your career strengths. If you have spent time in the workforce, you likely have several different cards to play out of your deck when it comes to the types of jobs you target. As an example, I am a résumé writer, an instructor, a former television producer, a meeting planner, and a tourism development manager. I also have been in sales and marketing. Each field would be highlighted in a different résumé, and unless my experience directly relates to the document theme, I leave it off. Think relevancy. That brings clarity to the document, and helps you determine the correct keyword cloud to associate with that particular theme. That alone can improve your keyword hits or hit home to someone reading your résumé that you are a match to the position opening.

4.) Failing to include a cover letter. Believe it or not, human resource managers will say that cover letters, while maybe not immediate attention grabbers, are important components of the résumé. It's like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich -- you need to have both to make the magic combination; they simply go together. The résumé is the facts, and the cover letter is the compelling reason of how you are going to help the target company and why they should hire you. These documents cannot stand alone or independent of each other.

5.) Leaving yourself open to bias in the résumé review stage. It's an uncomfortable fact that in that back room, where the human resource administrator sifts through résumés, personal bias comes into play. It's difficult to prove, and employers deny it, but the reality is that it does happen. Use some critical thought about what you are putting down under your affiliations and involvement section of your résumé. The reasons that someone might toss your résumé out are truly mind-boggling. No matter how innocuous your experience might be, someone else on the other end might misconstrue it.

Avoid listing these areas (unless it directly applies to your target position):

  • Political activities/affiliations/experience
  • Religious activities involvement
  • Gender/racial/ethnic-specific organizational involvement
  • Specific (particularly health) organizational involvement

Many are involved in noble causes such as Lance Armstrong's LiveStrong Foundation, Race for the Cure, and the like. However, if you list extensive involvement in those types of health areas, it might give an employer cause to wonder: Does this candidate have cancer or a serious illness? Your generous donation of time and energy to these organizations is great, but it can be taken out of context. Unless you are applying for a job in a related field or company, be careful how many you list. One is fine, but more could set off an alarm.

Being aware of these pitfalls can help you be more savvy in developing your résumé and remove obstacles that could be holding you back.

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Dawn Rasmussen, CMP, is the president of Portland, Ore.-based Pathfinder Writing and Careers, which specializes in mid- to upper-management résumés. She is an active volunteer in her community and donates her time teaching a résumé writing class at the Oregon Employment Department every week to help empower unemployed professionals and workers.
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