Resume Dos and Don'ts

Feb 15, 2011

Resume writing can be challenging, but it's an essential skill for anyone in the job market. Whether you're searching for work now or just making some updates and improvements, the following tips can help you build an irresistible resume.

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resume writing

The resume is a key tool when you're looking for a job. Along with your cover letter, it gets your foot in the door for an interview. Your resume needs to show would-be employers why, out of all the other applicants, they should bring you in for an interview. Before you submit your next job application, review these dos and don'ts to make sure your resume is polished and persuasive.

Do…Get into a marketing mindset.

When it comes to your resume, think like a marketer - the employer is the potential buyer, and you're the 'product.' Your resume is a marketing tool, and it's main purpose is to sell you to potential employers. Entice them to choose you the same way that Domino's entices customers to choose their pizza or Walmart entices shoppers to choose their store. In other words, find out the employer's needs, problems, and motivations, then show them how you're the perfect solution.

Do...Keep it short.

There's a lot of debate among career experts about the appropriate length of resumes. In the vast majority of cases, either 1 or 2 pages is OK. Remember, a resume is not the same as a curriculum vitae (C.V.), which is a complete record of your life's work. C.V.s are only used in a few industries, such as education and research. Resumes should be concise marketing tools.

Do…Start with the most important info at the top.

Even if your resume is only 1 page, don't expect HR staff or the hiring manager to read every word. The top 1/3 of the page is the most important, so pack the most critical information in there. You can do that by starting with a 'Summary of Qualifications' or a 'Career Profile' section at the top (right after your contact info). You can even make the font a little bigger compared to other sections so it really pops.

Do…Use action verbs.

When describing your accomplishments, start sentences or phrases with strong action verbs. You can find lists of action verbs online, but here are a few examples:

  • Persuaded
  • Supervised
  • Evaluated
  • Coordinated
  • Designed

Do…Tailor your resume to each position.

It's important to tweak your resume for each job to make sure you're highlighting the most relevant work experience and other qualifications. Your resume doesn't need to include all your experience, skills, or achievements. Depending on the position, you should be selective about what to include. The exception is education: any degree above high school should almost always be included, even if it doesn't seem directly relevant to the position you're applying for.

Do…Use keywords.

These days, your resume often gets scanned into a computer program and searched for keywords before it's touched by human hands. That's why it's critical to use keywords an employer is searching for. You should be able to find lots of keywords in the job description, though you shouldn't copy its exact language. Instead, incorporate terms the employer is likely looking for into your resume. If there's no job description, try to get inside the employer's head and figure out what keywords they could be searching for.

Keywords toward the beginning are often weighted more heavily than those toward the end, so include the most important terms at the top of your resume (especially in the 'Summary of Qualifications' or 'Career Profile' section).

Do...Format well.

Layout is important. It helps direct the eye to key information, and shows that you pay attention to detail. Bulleted lists and bold headers are usually good, and left alignment is usually better than justified. There should be plenty of blank space so it doesn't look cluttered. Make sure your resume looks clean and that formatting is consistent throughout.


Little errors on your resume can make you look sloppy or incompetent. Cruel as it may seem, there are some hiring managers that will automatically put your resume in the 'No' pile if there's just one typo. Check for spelling and grammar, as well as consistency in the layout and accuracy of information. If you can, have someone else check over your resume before submitting it.

resume tips

Don't…Just list your job duties.

A common mistake on resumes is listing duties rather than accomplishments. A job application is the right place to list your duties. A resume is the place to state your accomplishments as clearly and specifically as possible. In other words, don't rehash the job description. Show the potential employer what you've accomplished and what impact it had.

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It may be tempting to 'pad' your resume to more closely match job requirements, but resist the temptation. If the employer finds out, even years into the job, you'll likely get fired. Even worse, you'll gain a bad reputation if the word gets out, and you could find yourself blackballed from future opportunities.

However, there's a difference between lying and good marketing. The following things are not considered lying:

  • Selectively choosing what information to present
  • Highlighting different accomplishments on different versions of the resume
  • Presenting yourself in the best possible light

Don't...Be flashy.

It's important to use a layout that catches the eye, but you also want to make sure information comes first. Avoid colored paper, fancy or in-your-face fonts, and clip art. Use no more than two different fonts. In a resume, words are your main marketing tool. There are exceptions, though, so think about what the employer wants to see. For example, if you're applying for a graphic design position, the layout could showcase your design skills.

Don't...Exclude key information.

There are certain things you should always include on your resume:

1. Contact information

Include your home number, cell number, e-mail, and professional website if you have one. It's best to have a complete address, although some job seekers aren't comfortable with that due to privacy concerns. At minimum, you need to include your city, state, and zip code.

2. Dates

Make sure to include the years you started and finished each job. If you're still at a job, use 'present' instead of the current year (e.g., '2010-present'). Dates of educational degrees are optional and are usually not included unless you're a recent graduate.

3. Locations

Most employers expect to see the city and state of each job you've held. If a position primarily required telecommuting, include the city and state of the main office and a note that indicates you were a telecommuter.

Don't...Get personal.

First, your resume should never include the pronouns 'I' or 'me.' Write in short phrases that exclude pronouns, such as 'Collaborated on the award-winning project...'.

Second, except in very rare cases related to a particular industry, you shouldn't include a photo of yourself or personal info, such as your age, race, social security number, marital status, religious affiliation, or sexual orientation.

Finally, there are certain details of your previous jobs that are 'too much information.' Don't include your salary, reason for leaving past jobs, or specific contact information of past supervisors. This information goes on the job application, not the resume.

Don't…Put 'References available upon request.'

This was standard in the past, but it's now considered an outdated practice. If the employer wants your references, they know to ask you for them.

Follow these tips and you'll be well on your way to a first-rate resume - and a job interview on your calendar!

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