In today's competitive job market, landing a plum new gig seems harder than ever. And no matter how qualified you are, your cover letter-and-resume combo has to really shine if you’re going to land an interview.
To make sure you get noticed for the right reasons, be aware of these common job application mistakes — and never make them again.
Did You Follow Instructions?
Sure, it can feel like jumping through hoops when you apply for a job: Write this cover letter detailing such-and-such, use this subject line, put all material in the body of an email — except for this one thing you need to send as an attachment, and so on. But following such mandates is an employer's first line of defense against people he or she won't hire.
"Earlier this year when we were looking to hire a new blogger, we asked candidates to include their resume in the body of the email only and not to attach it," says Ian Aronovich, president and co-founder of GovernmentAuctions.org. "By employing this tactic we were able to weed out nearly 85 percent of applicants because they weren't able to follow simple directions."
Don’t Apply for Just Any Position
There may be a company you'd kill to work for in any capacity, but you don't want to convey that outright in your application. For one, it looks unprofessional. Pat Kelley, author of Hiring Right: A Business Blueprint for Lower Turnover and Higher Profits, says that leaving the box for "position applied for" blank, or answering "any," is a huge no-no. "I'm looking for someone who has specific goals and specific skills," she explains.
Also, by saying you'll take any job, you can come off as desperate. "On an application or a resume, don't say something like, 'I'm a hard worker and I really need a job,'" Kelley says. "I'm not running a social services agency; I'm looking for people who can make a contribution to my company. Working hard is nice, but it's not enough."
Watch That Sloppy Grammar
We all know that typos ensure your resume and cover letter will find their way to the trash, but it's not just about running spell check. For example, headhunter Rikka Brandon says her number-one pet peeve is seeing "manager" spelled as "manger." (And please don't ever confuse "your" and "you're" if you know what's good for you.)
Another error that Word won't catch is a tense change. "Don't put a few bullets in past tense and others in present for the same job title," says Tracy Vistine, lead recruiter with Messina Group, a national staffing firm. Have a trusted friend (or, hey, your mom) read over your CV to make sure you catch every last mistake.
Don’t Include Archaic Elements
Putting an objective at the top of your resume is a thing of the past, says Rasheen Carbin, co-founder of two recruiting and staffing startups. "This is an outdated practice and does nothing to illustrate your skills or experience," he says.
Another element that makes him cringe: "Saying that you'll 'provide references upon request.' Again, this is outdated. Plus, I assume that you would provide references for anybody who's trying to hire you."
Of course, resume standards might vary by industry — and by company — so do some research before you submit.
Highlight Accomplishments, Not Responsibilities
Under each position, you're supposed to discuss your duties, right? Sort of.
Headhunter Jim Giammatteo, author of No Mistakes Resumes, says one common mistake puts more resumes in the trash than all others: focusing on responsibilities instead of accomplishments. "Anyone can be responsible for anything. It doesn't mean he or she was good at it," he explains. "Show the person reviewing your resume what you did."
Also, skip fluffy terms and overblown clichés like "innovator," "team player,” and “detail oriented."
"Being detail oriented is usually a great attribute, but a big problem occurs when you use this buzzword on your resume — it gives me an automatic signal to start scouring your application for errors," says Shayleen Stuto, talent coordinator at Nashville-based TechnologyAdvice.
Career consultant and former HR manager Henry Dotson adds that empty statements like, "I'll be a great addition to your company," are also resume red flags. "It comes off amateurish," he says. "It's assumed that you will be a great addition to the company — if you weren't, why are you applying?"
Is Your Resume Overdone?
"Really long resumes that capture too much work history or display sporadic employment will hurt an applicant's chances," says Certified Professional Resume Writer George Bernocco. He suggests keeping your resume to two pages max. If you're not sure what to cut, start with any experience that's not relevant to the job at hand. Then cut down your direct experience to 10 to 15 years tops.
And don’t forget: First impressions stick. We all remember Elle Woods’s Legally Blonde CV — soft pink paper and a subtle scent, natch. But following suit in the real world can be a major faux pas, says Vistine, who warns against using a "signature" color for headings and contact information.
Another common issue Bernocco sees is a candidate using multiple font types and sizes. Unless you’re a skilled designer, "consistency makes a resume stand out more than using five fonts."
Don’t Use Passive Voice or List Too Many Skills
Your resume should command attention succinctly. Rather than using passive voice ("deliverables were hit prior to deadlines"), make your accomplishments active ("I hit my deliverables prior to deadlines"), says former hiring manager Balki Kodarapu. (Use this handy article to help you verify which voice you're using.)
Active voice forces you to use the first person, which is great because speaking about yourself in third person is another application don't, according to Olivia Carr, marketing and administration executive at Flexiworkforce.com. "Your authenticity becomes lost when you start referring to yourself as 'the candidate,’" she says. "While you may feel that talking about yourself in the third person gives your CV a more professional tone, writing in the first person gives it a sense of life.”
The "skills" section is another one people tend to overdo, listing every technical proficiency, however limited. Streamline it by eliminating outdated talents. "There's no better way to say you're a dinosaur than to list technical skills that went out the window 10-plus years ago," says Joseph Terach, founder and CEO of Resume Deli.
Terach also warns against stating, say, that you completed an intro course in Excel — this is the equivalent of saying that you don't know much about it. "It's better to explain how you use software in your experience section to accomplish specific on-the-job tasks," he says.
Don’t Include Unsolicited Salary Requirements
Many applications will ask you to outline previous and current salaries, and some will even encourage you to fill in how much you'd like to make in the position you're seeking. But career coach Lavie Margolin, author of Winning Answers to 500 Interview Questions, warns against including salary requirements on your resume — especially if you weren't prompted to do so. "This is an easy way to eliminate candidates if they are looking for too much, and it makes people appear too money focused," he explains.
Is Your Email Too Long?
Sometimes a potential employer doesn't require a cover letter, only an email-submitted resume. In this case, it can be confusing to know what to write in the email's body. John Bowers, sales manager for Liquivision Technology, Inc., who's responsible for the initial stages of the hiring process, explains that you want to channel Goldilocks: Don’t be too short ("Here is my resume”) or too long (multiple paragraphs summarizing your experience).
Just right looks like this: "Hello, my name is John Doe and I would like to thank you for taking my resume. I hope to hear from you soon. Sincerely, John Doe."
In traditional cover letters, go beyond what the job can do for you. Pamela Hobart, who does first-round screenings for Fueled, a mobile apps agency in Manhattan, warns against egocentricity. "I am so tired of 'me, me, me' cover letters that are all about how interested [the applicant] is in apps."
Bottom line: Your application should focus on what skills and experience you bring to your employer, not the other way around.