IT Employment

Avoid these five resume killers

To land a job in this brutal market, you need to leverage every advantage you can find. Give yourself an edge by steering clear of these resume problems.

I've looked at thousands of resumes during the course of my career as a technology recruiter, and I know which characteristics will send them straight to the rejection bin. No pretty font or fancy format will save them if they include certain fundamental flaws. Let's look at some of these resume sinkers and see how you can sidestep them.

Number 1: The overblown objective
The first trap lurks in that sentence on the resume known as the objective. The objective is supposed to tell the recruiter what you want to do. No more, no less. Sounds benign enough, eh? Well, sometimes people want to make it more. They try to turn it into a sales pitch and manage to exclude any useful information.

Don't push the team player bit
An objective is not a chance to impress recruiters with an eloquent description of just how eager you are to take on any challenge and be a team player. For example:

Objective: To showcase my unending desire to enrich your company by performing marvelous feats of incredible, selfless acts of corporate heroism.

What’s wrong with that? The objective doesn’t tell recruiters anything. Talk is cheap, and all they want to know is what job you are applying for. They don’t want to have to guess. Fancy talk can be patronizing and has no real purpose.

Be explicit about the job you want
Your objective should stick to the basics. If you are applying for a specific job you found in an ad, just use the following format and you can’t go wrong.

Objective: The position of Lead Developer, listing # A-2 JAVADEV, posted on Gimmejob.com on Friday, Feb. 31, 2009.

This one nails the fundamentals. You have told the recruiter exactly which job you want, exactly where you saw it, and exactly when it was posted. And the recruiter knows exactly what to do with it.

Number 2: The poorly executed bluff
If you are a developer trying for a job, you have two ways to present yourself to a company:
  • #1: I have just what you need, and I want you to see that right away.
  • #2: I do not have just what you need, I know it, and I'm trying to bluff you.

Now there's no real problem with #2. Many a company has had to make do with a bluffer, and everything worked out just fine. But recruiters hate ambiguity on a resume, so you must handle your bluff carefully.

For example, let's say you are going for a lead developer job that requires work experience with the entire life cycle of integrating an Access database into an existing Web infrastructure, as well as experience with several languages, including Visual Basic and HTML. If you fall into category #1 above, you can present your skills by tying them directly to the systems required for the job. So you would say something like the following:
  • Utilized Visual Basic and HTML throughout the life cycle of an Access database created for interfacing with a Web infrastructure.

  • Reading that, the recruiter knows what you used and how you used it.

    Now, let’s say you are not a real whiz with either VB or HTML, but you really want this job. You think that if you get an interview, your experiences in other areas might translate, which puts you in category #2. Rather than spell out the fact that you've never really done much more than “patchwork” in either language, you might consider a more vague approach:
  • Experience with Web applications and databases using Visual Basic and HTML.

  • The recruiter doesn't know what you did with what but knows you have used those things, and it might be enough to get you an interview. Your skills are still front and center, so your bluff is likely to succeed.

    If you have the relevant skills for the job, you should be in good shape if you make that clear. But if your skills may be perceived as marginal, work your bluff carefully so that vagueness doesn't knock your resume from consideration.

    Number 3: The mug shot
    Most Americans don’t include a photo in their resume, but some international applicants do. I’ll tell you this: If you do it in the United States, it’s a resume killer.

    Recruiters don't want to see your photo. In fact, they don’t want to know any of your personal information, no matter how cool it makes you look. No marital or family status, no church memberships, and no hobbies. Why? Because companies actually go to great lengths to avoid finding out that information. You can’t very well sue an employer for religious discrimination if it doesn't know where you go to church, right? That's why they don’t want to know!

    Number 4: The block party
    For me, nothing kills a resume faster than looking at the paper and seeing huge, thick, black blocks of text. I don’t want to wade through that stuff, and I won’t. Neither will 99 percent of the other recruiters out there. If your description of a previous job is any longer than this paragraph, it is too long.

    Don’t put your interview answers on your resume. Include a good, concise description for each of your previous jobs, using no more than two or three sentences. Make sure you include any proper nouns, like product names or version numbers. The details will break chunks of text and provide the recruiter with nice specifics.

    Number 5: Wallflower skills
    If you don't showcase your skills in your resume, they may be overlooked. After all, the average recruiter spends only about seven seconds looking at a resume before deciding how (or whether) to route it. The recruiter checks for specific skills, languages, platforms. The following tips can help your skills get noticed.

    Put relevant skills in bold type
    Find the skills in your resume that apply to the job you want and make them stand out. Don’t boldface everything or it will lose its effectiveness, but make it easy for a recruiter to see where you have used Java in a job that requires this language.

    List relevant experience first
    Put your most relevant job at the top. Let's say you want a programming job and have a long work history of programming. Let’s also say that you have been filling in for the past six months as a manager at your brother’s grocery store but want to get back into software development. Don’t put the manager’s job on top. Consider a resume format other than chronological, so that your real work history is not buried under unrelated work.

    Match the skill name to the ad
    Use skill names exactly as they appear on the ad. If the skill has more than one name (programmer/developer for example) use the one the ad uses. That's the word the recruiter is most likely to look for. Assuming a recruiter will know alternative terms is an unnecessary gamble.

    Don't overlook forgotten skills
    You may think that some of your skills will be viewed as obsolete, but in some cases, they might be a key selling point. I call such skills The Forgotten. The most famous example is The COBOL Revival, which serves as a good object lesson on the importance of remembering The Forgotten.

    In the late 80s and early 90s, things were tough for COBOL programmers. Jobs were scarce and pay was in the tank. The language, it was thought, was a dinosaur that was on the fast track to Obsolete City. Shortsighted job seekers banished the skill from their resumes for fear of appearing behind the curve. Then, along came Y2K issues in the mid- and late 90s. Companies began to realize that COBOL programmers were needed to avert what could be a true catastrophe—and many of those who kept COBOL on their resumes landed some great Y2K-related contracts.

    The upshot is this: Put every skill you have on your resume somewhere, no matter how archaic some of them might be. If you are going for a short resume, at least attach a “skills list” to the back tucked out of the way. BASIC? List it. Fortran? List it.

    The subtle advantage
    Job seekers in this environment face stiff competition. Avoiding these resume pitfalls can give you a slight advantage. And that small advantage may be what lands you the gig.
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