The Harsh Truth About Why Your Resume Isn’t Working

Jacob Shaw
5 min readMay 16, 2021

Could it be standing in the way of your dream job?

Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash

Your resume is a very small thing that has to do a lot of work. It’s your entire professional life distilled into a few pages, upon which a decision is made: do you proceed to the next stage of a job application or not.

It’s your first chance to make an impression and convince someone it’s worth their time to learn more about you.

In my professional career I’ve come across hundreds of resumes, and there are three very simple mistakes candidates make that can ruin their chances.

It’s Too Long/Hard To Read

Resume (“résumé”) is the French word for “summary”, and it’s called that for a reason — it’s not your autobiography. Instead, think of it as a movie trailer — something short, snappy and to the point.

A resume is the first in a series of interactions — each one serving a different purpose. Your aim is to give enough information to pique the hiring manager’s interest so you get the opportunity to continue the conversation at an interview.

The truth is, I don’t have time to read a long, overly detailed resume. I have a pile of resumes to review and need to be able to quickly filter through to get to a shortlist. Studies show that the average time spent looking at a resume is less than 10 seconds. And so when I’m faced with a long resume, I’m immediately put off.

As a rule, your resume should be two pages at the absolute most, but one page if you can. And when I say two pages, I don’t mean packed margin to margin with 8pt font so you can cram as much in while keeping to two pages. Give it room to breathe.

A resume should only include the following:

  • Your name and contact details.
  • A brief intro statement about you (2–3 lines at most).
  • Your work experience — at most only list out your 5 most recent positions, and only include additional detail for the most recent 2 (or if applicable, the most relevant 2). The additional information should be limited to 3–4 short bullet points for the two roles.
  • Your education/qualifications — only the relevant ones, listed in bullet form.

I personally don’t like to see a list of skills as a separate section — it’s much more impactful to see them in the context of how you applied them in your previous roles. I also don’t need to see your hobbies and interests — I’ll find that out in the interview.

The design and layout of your resume is also important. Don’t make me hunt for information. Use headings, subheadings, bullet points and formatting (sparingly) to make it easy for me to know what I’m reading and find the information I need.

You don’t need to be a pro at design to do this — there are hundreds of free resume templates available, including in Microsoft Word and Google Docs. There is no shame in using these if the end result is a clean, elegant and effective resume.

Here’s a visual example of what I’ve described above, using a Google Docs template:

Example resume content and layout

It’s Not Relevant To The Job

Your resume isn’t just about what you’ve done; it’s also about how this is relevant to the position you’re applying for. Rather than just listing out your previous job descriptions, show how these tasks, skills and experience are applicable to this role. Don’t be shy — spell it out!

It’s very obvious when a candidate has one resume that they use for every job application. Your resume needs to sell yourself as the solution to the hiring manager’s problem; a generic resume cannot do this. You don’t need to re-write it entirely — the core of the resume is still you. Instead, highlight the most relevant parts of your experience that directly addresses what I’m looking for.

This approach is particularly helpful if you’re applying for a role where you haven’t got direct experience, but have the right transferable skills.

Start with the details in the job ad. This is the wish list of the hiring manager. Your resume needs to demonstrate, with examples, that you meet the requirements.

Often job descriptions will list out a dozen or more skills — so you need to be strategic in what you include. Here are a few tips:

  • The requirements of the job are usually listed in order of importance, so if you’re struggling to prioritize, focus on the ones listed first.
  • Where possible, try to cover similar requirements in a single bullet e.g. telephone skills, customer service and multi-tasking for a client facing position.
  • For any of your skills that don’t make the cut, make a note of these and cover them in your interview.
  • If you don’t have a specific skill they’re looking for that seems key to the role, demonstrate that you’re willing to learn and can acquire and apply new skills quickly.

It’s Vague

The final mistake many candidates make is being vague in the information they include. I think this often comes from a place of not wanting to seem cocky or overconfident — but this isn’t the time to be humble.

Use active language — be clear and direct about exactly what you did. Remove the word ‘ensure’ from your resume — it implies a passive role in the process. Words like delivered, coordinated, simplified etc. show an ownership of the role and the tasks performed.

It’s also important to talk about the impact of your work, in real terms. This means results. Say what you did, how you did it, and the impact it had. Because ultimately nothing matters if there’s no impact.

If you changed a process, did it save time? Save mistakes? Improve quality?

If you delivered a project, was it on budget? Was it on time? What were the success metrics for the project and what did you achieve?

Don’t be modest, but be truthful and fair. If you achieved the result as part of a team, say so, but also talk about your impact on the work. This demonstrates softer skills like teamwork and honesty.

Final Thoughts

Your resume is you, in document form. It has to speak for you and make a good enough impression to convince someone to take the time to meet with you and want to learn more about you.

You need to stand out among the hundreds of other candidates, and demonstrate that you not only have the skills to perform the job but are a perfect fit for the team and the organisation.

Keep it short, make it relevant, and focus on results. Good luck!