The Most Common Resume Mistake

elevator interiorI’ve done the math, and I figure I’ve read and reviewed well over 50,000 resumes throughout my career. Some were excellent, many were very good, and some were … well, they were awful. Most, though, were just okay. Mediocre. Lukewarm. And when I think about the resumes that I’ve seen that were just ‘meh’ in that way, there’s a common thread: the most common mistake that people make when writing their resume. I’d like to share it with you here, so that you can make sure you’re not making it as well.

A jobseeker – let’s call him John – once told me about unexpectedly being in an elevator with the CEO of his company. The CEO asked his name, and said to him, “The market is getting more competitive, and we have to make sure every single employee is helping us be as competitive as we can be. Tell me what you do for this company.” John started listing his responsibilities, counting them off on his fingers. The CEO listened for a few seconds, then shook his head impatiently, and interrupted John. “That’s your job description. That’s not what I want to know. Tell me what you do for this company.” John drew a blank, he didn’t know what to say. I’ll bet the rest of the elevator ride felt really long. A few weeks later, a lot of people were laid off, and John was one of them.

Where did John go wrong? The CEO asked him what he did for the company, and John told him, right? Wrong. John told the CEO what his duties were. The functions he performed. John didn’t talk about what those functions did for the company.

Every job has tasks; the things you do to make your job happen. An accountant creates and works with spreadsheets. A salesperson makes phone calls and gives presentations. A project manager creates Gantt charts, delegates responsibilities, and tracks project budgets. But no employee performs these tasks for no reason. Everything you do during the course of your job connects to the overall success of the company you work for. Your job exists for a reason; if it didn’t, the job wouldn’t exist.

When I read a resume, I don’t want to see a list of tasks. And yet, this is it: the most common resume mistake. I’ve seen tens of thousands of resumes where the work history is literally just that. A list of duties; a job description. When you’re writing your resume, your work experience is the single most important section. More so than any other part, it will determine whether you’re shortlisted for an interview or not. That real estate is far too valuable to fill with tasks.

The first fix for this situation is to shift your thinking about your resume and think of it as a marketing document. Marketers know that you won’t sell a product by listing features, you have to sell the benefits. A car has to have seats and an engine that runs, but no one buys a car for that reason. You buy a car because it will take you places that you need and want to go. A TV has a screen that lights up when you push a button on the remote. But you buy a TV because the things you watch on it are entertaining.

Your resume is no different. Your job duties are like the seats and engine in the car. What a prospective employer really wants to see is what that ‘car’ did for the company.

For each of your roles, here’s what I want to see: a description of your job, in plain language, that tells me what your ‘car’ did. 

The salesperson shouldn’t tell me how many times they picked up the phone and called people. They should tell me how much revenue they produced for the company, or how many new customers they secured. An accountant shouldn’t tell me how many spreadsheets they created. They should tell me how they protected the company against financial risk, or ensured that the company was compliant. A project manager should tell me the size and scope of the projects they managed, and how many of them were brought in on or under time and budget.

I hope that you never find yourself in a situation like John did. And just to be clear, it was absolutely wrong and unfair for that CEO to put one of his employees on the spot like that. But it serves as a useful reminder of where to put your focus on your resume: not features (or tasks), but rather your benefit, your value to a company as an employee.



Photo by Derrick Treadwell on Unsplash