By Laura Gassner Otting, President, Nonprofit Professionals Advisory Group
Each job seeker who comes to me in need of résumé editing or job search counseling is unique. Each has had a different career and each carries individual goals for the future. That being said, many of them make the same mistakes on their cover letters and résumés as they travel the job search highway.
Here are the ten most common mistakes I encounter:
1. "Insert Job Here": Most job seekers are looking broadly at any available position that fits within their interests and skills set. Therefore, they send out undirected résumés and, even worse, form cover letters differentiated only by the value in the "insert job here" space. Spend a few extra minutes to learn about the organization, and personalize your letter and resume reflecting what makes your candidacy special.
2. Read and Follow Directions: Does the application call for a writing sample and a salary history? Are you being instructed to mail by post all materials, or would the organization like applications submitted electronically? Job description writers pay to advertise specific directions for a reason. Follow them.
3. Think About the Message You Send: Rehearse the voice mail message you plan to leave. Consider a more serious e-mail address. Does your home voice mail play strange music or have a silly outgoing message? Is your résumé printed on purple paper? All of these things factor into a headhunter's first, and indelible, impression.
4. A Poor Résumé: Too many résumés cross my desk and end up in the trash can. The really good ones grab my attention and get read, and even better, get forwarded onto a hiring committee. The really bad ones list tasks and skills, rather than accomplishments and results. Stop writing about your hobbies; start writing about the change you brought to an organization and the constituency it serves.
5. Spell Check: Nine out of ten résumés I have seen claiming that the applicant is "detail oriented" have a typo on it somewhere. Some of these typos are tricky, like extra spaces and missing hyphens. Others, sadly, are not. Don't forget to look over headers and addresses, even your name – several weeks ago I consulted with a Phylllis who had just sent out a hundred résumés in a mass mailing – for pesky mistakes.
6. Dream, Within Reason: If I've seen your resume cross my desk for jobs way out of your range, I won't be inclined to believe your interest or fit when you apply for something perfect. Of course you can move into increasingly senior positions – I spend all day every day helping job seekers do exactly that – just don't try to skip too many steps up the ladder or you might become the boy who cried wolf.
7. Know Your Weaknesses: I am always willing to consider imperfect candidates. No candidate ever has everything the search committee wants. I'm never inclined, however, to consider applicants who are imperfect but think they are the best thing going. If you are missing a key skill or some years of experience, own the weakness, but then describe how your other skills and experiences will help you compensate or catch up quickly.
8. Curiosity is Key: Nothing saddens me more than a candidate who seems ideal at first, but then asks me no questions about the organization I am representing. If they aren't curious about the position or the group, then I begin to second guess whether they are really the right fit. Once a hiring manager's excitement is dampened, it's hard to get it back. Note: questions based on the salary or benefits do not count.
9. Thank You Notes: Call me old fashioned, call me a prig. I like thank you notes. Thank you letters are the perfect opportunity to remind your interviewer why you should be hired, or for you to insert into the equation a key fact that you forgot to mention when you met. These letters are so uncommon, sadly, that candidates who thank me for spending time with them stand out in my mind. I become more attached to them, I campaign for them more vigorously, and they get hired more often.
10. Get a Second Opinion: Send your résumé to a friend, a colleague, a mentor or a résumé professional who can give you an outside perspective. Often, job seekers think that they have been exceptionally unambiguous about their proudest career moments when, in fact, their résumés are unclear to anyone who wasn't sharing the same conference room. An outside pair of eyes will shed light on your résumés' strengths and weaknesses, and help your materials shine.