5 Resume Mistakes Recent Grads Can’t Seem to Avoid

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I have no way to prove it, but I do believe I’m the nation’s foremost authority on college students’ resumes. And I don’t even hire college students.

I’m the adviser for a student newspaper at Florida Atlantic University, a large (28,000 students) public institution less than a mile from the beach in sunny South Florida. Every spring for nearly a decade, I’ve collected the staff’s resumes and taken them to local, state, and national media professionals for a blistering critique.

And every year, only a handful don’t stink.

While much of what I’ve learned is particular to working in media – TV, online, radio, and yes, even newspapers – many of the biggest mistakes are so basic, they apply to every impending college graduate.

Even more interestingly, I can find none of this excellent advice online. Perhaps my Googling skills are deficient, but here’s what I’ve heard from hiring managers at companies as diverse as the National Enquirer and National Public Radio…

1. Your resume isn’t your Facebook page

Want to know what bosses look for in a resume? Very little.

A resume is supposed to hit your highlights, not tell your life story. Most employers don’t want to know if you “Spent a month last summer biking the east coast of the United States” or were the “Founder of the Delray Monkeys climbing club” – actual entries from resumes I’ve collected over the years.

It’s not that your potential boss doesn’t care about your intriguing hobbies. He just doesn’t care right now. If the rest of your resume is strong, you’ll likely get at least a phone call and probably an invitation to meet in person. That’s when you can impress everyone with your well-rounded life.

2. Forget the objective

One of the most common questions students ask me is, “Should I list an objective on my resume?” So it’s the most common question I ask the hiring pros I talk to. Their answers range from “Yeah, I guess” to “I don’t care.”

In other words, I’ve yet to meet anyone with strong feelings either way. But they all feel strongly about this: A poorly written objective will hurt you more than a good one will help you.

I’ve seen silly objectives like these:

  1. So vague it says nothing: “To gain experience and knowledge in a field I am interested in pursuing for a career.”
  2. So long it’s hard to read: “To obtain gainful employment that allows me to utilize and strengthen skills (writing/editing skills, computer skills, interpersonal skills, problem-solving skills, professional flexibility, etc.) that are vital to the numerous fields.”
  3. So obvious it’s scary: “To work ethically in a professional environment.” (As one hiring pro told me, “It seems like this person has to struggle to stay ethical – I mean, it’s just his objective.”)

Bottom line: A good objective won’t land you a job, but a bad one can cost you a job. So don’t bother.

3. Don’t forget your references

Second-most asked resume question: “Should I list my references?” And the answer is always “Hell yes.”

References – from a mix of professors and adults you’ve either worked or interned for – are like a big flashing billboard on the bottom of your resume that says you’re awesome.

And don’t worry: Employers aren’t going to call your references before they call you. Bosses are busy people, and it’s a waste of time to ask someone else about you until they ask you about you. Worry about it if you get a phone call. Because it’s quite possible your references are the next call.

4. Forget all about high school

Unless you invented a cold fusion engine or a new alcoholic beverage, nothing you did in high school will impress an employer. If anything, it will just make potential bosses wonder, “Did this person peak in high school? Why isn’t there more here from college?”

Think of it this way: When you were a high-school senior, did you give a damn when freshmen boasted about what they accomplished in middle school?

5. Don’t get sketchy about skills

Don’t list computer programs you barely know under “skills.” Instead, place them in two distinct categories: “expert” and “knowledgeable.”

What’s the difference? Knowledgeable means you can open a file and edit what’s there. Expert means you can open a blank document and create what the boss needs from scratch.

If you exaggerate your computer skills, you will get caught. I’ve heard horror stories from former students of mine. While your professors might have let you slide on some of your assignments, employers won’t.

And here’s one bonus piece of advice a young person might not ever think about: Design your resume so it prints out nicely in black and white. Even though you’ll probably email a resume to potential employers, they’re likely to print out the ones they like – so they can discuss it with others. Very few jobs these days are filled without the input of more than one person.

Once you land that job, check out Money Advice for Recent Grads and Tips to Help Recent Grads Build Credit.

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  • caitlyn cook

    Thanks for the tips! However, I don’t appreciate your gendered language. Not all my bosses are a ‘he’. I’ll be careful when writing my (resume) documents and you be careful when writing yours! Cheers

    • http://twitter.com/KarlaBowsher Karla Bowsher

      Hi Caitlyn,

      These days, most linguists will tell you that, while it can also function as masculine pronoun, “he” doubles as a neuter (gender-neutral) pronoun.

      Plus, while “he or she” may be preferred in Standard American English (which is pretty much used only in academia), it’s awkward and stuffy-sounding in everyday English.

      Karla