Your CV needs to be perfect if you want a fighting chance for the job you’re applying for.
And I don’t use the word ‘perfect’ loosely.
Because that’s what hiring managers look for: the perfect candidate. They won’t settle for anything less.
A ‘perfect CV’ means that it ticks all the right boxes and leaves a great first impression on the person reading it. It makes the hiring manager think: ‘Wow, this is the applicant I want to hire!’. A CV containing even the tiniest error, meanwhile, may indicate a lack of attention to detail and professionalism – both highly sought-after qualities that employers look for in potential employees – and will most likely put them off your application.
Having reviewed my fair share of CVs over the past six years, I can assure you most of them were anything but perfect – and were easily ruled out of consideration to make room for applicants who were better able to present themselves for a potential job.
In other words, the simplest mistake will most likely be severely punished, potentially costing you the job of a lifetime – which is why I’ve put together this list of the 25 most common CV mistakes I’ve encountered, both as a CV writer and as a hiring manager, and which you should definitely avoid if you really want that job.
1. Choosing the wrong CV format
Indeed, if you’re changing careers or have a few employment gaps, the skills-based CV is your friend, as it focuses on your skills rather than your work history. Likewise, if you’re applying for an animator job, for example, an animated video CV can better showcase your skills in a way that a more traditional CV can’t.
2. Using an objective statement
Objective statements are a thing of the past, and for a couple of good reasons: they’re typically vague, and they don’t really offer hiring managers anything of value.
Consider this example:
‘Passionate and diligent individual with 7 years of experience in recruitment, seeking full-time employment with an innovative employer that will allow me to leverage my skills.’
It’s all about you and what you want.
Instead, you should focus on what you bring to the table and how that meets the needs of potential employers. And the best way to do that is with a well-written professional summary, like so:
‘Self-motivated and results-driven recruitment consultant with 7 years of experience helping businesses screen and recruit viable applicants. Obtained a 98% success rate in filling open vacancies, and successfully won repeat business worth $36,000 in 3 months.’
3. Not tailoring your CV to the job
‘When a hiring manager or recruiter reads your CV, they’re comparing it to the job posting or the job they’re considering you for,’ says founder of CareerSidekick.com and former executive recruiter Biron Clark. ‘They’re thinking, “Does this person have the skills and experience needed to step into this job and succeed?”.’
In other words, you simply cannot afford to not tailor your CV to the job you’re applying for. By doing so, you show the hiring manager that your experience and qualifications match the job requirements.
It’s also essential for passing through applicant tracking systems, which scan your CV for specific keywords that match the job requirements. If it doesn’t fit the bill, it’s quickly – and mercilessly – discarded, before human eyes even see it.
The only time when it’s okay to use a generic CV is when you’re unable to tailor it around a specific job, such as when you’re uploading your CV to an online database or when attending a job fair. Even then, though, it should still target specific keywords related to your profession and industry.
4. Focusing on duties instead of achievements
Hiring managers don’t care about your day-to-day activities in your past jobs. They know what a surgeon does, for example, so you don’t need to bore them with details like ‘Treating injuries, diseases and physical deformities through operations, using a variety of instruments, tools and devices.’
What they do care about is what you achieved in your various activities. So, continuing with the surgeon example, you could instead put a spin on that particular bullet point by highlighting your achievements like so: ‘Performed more than 20,000 cardiovascular surgeries with a 99% success rate’.
Quantifying your achievements with numbers like this tells hiring managers how good you are at what you do, and it can be just what sways their hiring decision to your favour.
5. Ignoring employment gaps
Despite popular belief, employment gaps won’t hinder your application – as long as you’re transparent about them. They will hurt your chances of getting an interview, though, if you try to lie about or completely ignore them.
You don’t need to go into great detail about any gaps. Still, you should at the very least acknowledge them and offer an explanation, whether it’s because of a layoff, you were caring for a sick family member or even if you just needed a career break. Alternatively, if gaps only last a few months, you could simply remove months from employment dates, like so: ‘2017–2018’.
Whatever you do, don’t be tempted to extend your period of employment in past positions to cover up gaps. There’s every chance the hiring manager will call your previous employers to verify your time there!
6. Using meaningless clichés
Is your CV full of meaningless clichés and overused phrases like ‘fast learner’ and ‘hard-working’? If so, you’ll need to remove them and instead offer examples that show how much of a fast learner and hard worker you are.
These types of phrases ‘are also very overused in general, so they’ve lost most of their meaning,’ says Clark. ‘The only exception is if a job posting specifically mentions one of these phrases. In that case, you should include it.’
No matter how badly you want the job, it’s never okay to lie on your CV – whether it’s exaggerating your qualifications, embellishing employment dates or completely fabricating a position you’ve never held.
The truth has a habit of coming out in the end, and your integrity and credibility are at risk, as is your job if you manage to successfully lie your way to employment. Take Scott Thompson, the former CEO of Yahoo!, for example: he had to step down from the position in 2012 after his computer science degree turned out to be a complete lie.
You could also go to jail. In 2019, an Australian woman received a 25-month jail sentence for lying on her résumé to land a $185,000-a-year job in regional government.
8. Including your headshot
Unless you’re an actor or a model, or you’re converting your CV for an international application (particularly in countries like Germany, Japan and the UAE), steer clear of CV photos.
Remember: space on your CV is limited, and including your headshot only wastes that space. It also opens you up to all kinds of potential discrimination.
At the end of the day, most hiring managers are far more interested in your professional background than in your appearance.
9. Using skills graphs
Skills graphs might look cool, but they don’t quite offer an accurate representation of your abilities. After all, how you rank your skills is a matter of personal bias.
(Skills graphs are also often ignored by ATS software – more on that next.)
The best way to offer tangible evidence of what you’re capable of is to do so in plain old text. For example, instead of giving yourself a score of 9/10 in Microsoft 365, mention that you’re Windows Certified (if you are, of course). Likewise, instead of ranking your team management skills, mention how you led a team of 7 sales assistants in consistently exceeding sales targets by 20%.
10. Not writing for ATS
One of the most common CV mistakes to avoid is not taking applicant tracking systems into account when writing your CV. And I’m not just talking about adding relevant keywords throughout your CV, as I touched upon earlier (but, do be careful with going overboard with keywords).
Make sure the formatting of your CV is clean, organised and easy to follow. Use headings to separate CV sections, and avoid adding images, charts and tables to your CV. (These make it hard for ATSs to process your CV, which might end up in the ‘no’ pile as a result.)
Likewise, spell out all abbreviations and acronyms. For example, some ATSs might not understand what NRWA means. Instead, write it out like so: ‘NRWA (National Résumé Writers’ Association)’. This also helps human readers who aren’t familiar with industry-specific jargon understand what exactly you’re talking about.
11. Including salary details
Unless the job advertisement specifically requests you to include salary details in your CV (which is highly unlikely), do not – I repeat: do not – mention anything about past or current earnings or even salary expectations. Again, it just wastes space and, most importantly, it tells employers that you only care about money and not the company or job.
The only time you should mention anything related to money on your CV is when describing things like how you improved profits for the company or how you implemented a successful plan within budget, for example. Everything else, leave it for the interview or negotiation stage.
12. Using unusual fonts
Sure, Great Vibes is a beautiful font, but there are two issues with using unusual fonts like this in your CV: one, it can be hard to read and, two, it’s not supported on all word-processing software.
The best thing to do is use a more suitable font like Arial or Calibri, which are both supported by virtually all software. (On that note, do shy away from outdated fonts – and generally all serif fonts – like Times New Roman, which are best used in print documents.)
Speaking of fonts, avoid using more than two different font styles in your CV, and keep the font size between 10pt and 12pt. That said, section headings can be as large as 16pt, and your name at the top of the document can be as large as 22pt.
13. Writing in the third person
Writing in the third person only manages to create distance between you and the person reading your CV. You want to make your CV sound like you’re talking directly to the hiring manager, so it’s better to use the first person when describing your background and qualifications.
That said, you should drop personal pronouns wherever possible when writing in the first person, as this saves space. It might seem like it doesn’t save a lot of space, but it certainly adds up when you remove 78 unnecessary ‘I’s and 24 ‘my’s from your CV, giving you that little bit of extra room to add in that important bullet point or skill you were forced to remove.
14. Not using action verbs
‘Rather than starting bullets with “responsible for”, begin with a verb like “led” or “organised” or “managed”,’ says Clark. Action verbs like these are more impactful, and they help you better describe your experience, skills and accomplishments to potential employers.
Clark offers this example of a bad bullet and a good one:
Bad bullet: Responsible for managing 5 customer support associates.
Good bullet: Led and trained 5 customer support associates, handling 250 inbound customer requests per day with a 98.6% customer satisfaction rate.
15. Switching between tenses
One of the most common mistakes to avoid is switching back and forth between tenses. Not only does this make your CV hard to read, but it also confuses readers as to what you did when.
Stick to the past tense (e.g.: ‘oversaw’) for past events and accomplishments, and use the present continuous tense (e.g.: ‘overseeing’) for ongoing activities. The present continuous tense uses the present tense of ‘to be’ before the verb, so its correct application would be ‘I am overseeing’. However, to save space, it’s perfectly fine – and encouraged – to drop ‘I am’ completely.
On that note, always put your current activities first and past accomplishments last in bulleted lists.
16. Including personal information
Your CV is a professional document, not a dating profile. This means there’s no place on your CV for personal information like your height, hair colour, date of birth, marital status, sexual orientation or religion.
Of course, there are instances when it’s perfectly acceptable to include some personal information in your CV (like your height and eye colour if you’re applying for a modelling job, for example, or the number of children you have if you’re hoping to land a job in childcare), but it’s generally best to leave these things out for more traditional jobs.
17. Confusing your CV for a novel
This isn’t the time to write the new War and Peace.
Try to keep your CV to one page long, highlighting all the important information in the top half of the page. Feel free to go over one page if you have a lot of relevant experience that is worth mentioning, but two pages should be your cut-off point.
That said, if you’re in an academic or scientific field and you’ve got a particularly long list of publications and patents to your name, no one will bat an eye if your CV is 10 pages long.
18. Listing wrong contact details
The whole point of adding your contact details to your CV is so that hiring managers interested in your application can contact you to schedule an interview. But if you’ve listed an old phone number or misspelt your email address, it’s unlikely to happen.
If an employer is really interested in you, they might find other ways to contact you, but most will simply give up trying, and you will potentially miss out on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Ultimately, you need to make sure all your contact details are correct and up to date.
19. Using an inappropriate email address
If you’re still using the email address you hilariously set up back in high school or college, it might be time to change it before you send your next job application – bigbooty87 @ example dot com might have been funny back then, but it certainly won’t earn you any brownie points with potential employers.
Instead, opt for a more professional-sounding email address, preferably containing your first and last name or a variation of it, like johnsmith @ example dot com or jsmith87 @ example dot com.
20. Leaving out social media links
Whether you include links to your social media accounts in you CV or not, hiring managers will likely check them out anyway to determine whether you are who you say you are and to assess your potential as a viable candidate. So, it’s best to include them.
Setting up a LinkedIn profile is a good first step, as it has become a key part in 21st Century recruitment. If you already have one, make sure to regularly update it with new achievements, skills and publications. You can also link to your Facebook, Twitter and even YouTube and Instagram pages, if appropriate.
That said, you should only ever link to your professional social media profiles. If you must link to your personal profiles, make sure you do a little spring-cleaning first. This means removing alcohol-fuelled holiday snaps and anything else that you wouldn’t want a potential employer to see, or at the very least adjusting your privacy settings.
21. Including references
Another common CV mistake is dedicating an entire section to references. It’s simply an outdated practice, and it wastes valuable real estate that could otherwise be used to talk about your accomplishments.
Don’t add the phrase ‘References available upon request’, either. The hiring manager knows – or, at least, hopes – you have references, and they will ask you to supply a list only when they need one (usually once they’ve made you a job offer).
If you must include your references, the best thing to do is to create a separate list and attach it at the end of your application.
22. Choosing a generic file name
Recruiters receive hundreds – if not thousands – of applications each day, and it’s often hard to keep track of who applied for what. This is especially true when applications are given generic file names like ‘CV.doc’.
Of course, they can easily change the name of a file, but why give them that bit of extra work? Instead, give your file a more descriptive name that targets the job you’re applying for, such as ‘John-Smith-Chartered-Accountant-CV.doc’.
23. Sending a PDF
PDFs are great because they ensure the formatting of a document doesn’t mess up when it’s opened. However, some ATS programmes can’t ‘read’ PDFs and will usually filter them out as a result. Instead, send your CV as a Word document, and try to use simple formatting.
Only send your CV as a PDF (or any other file format) if the job advertisement specifically asks you to.
24. Not proofreading
A recent survey of 379 recruiters revealed that CVs with typos and grammatical errors were an instant deal-breaker for a staggering 79% of respondents. This only emphasises the importance of proofreading your CV before sending it off – especially if you’re applying for an editorial position, for example, and you list something silly like your ‘excellent attenshun to derail skills’.
That said, grammar and spelling issues aren’t the only thing you need to look out for. Double-check everything: facts, statistics, job titles, employment dates, formatting and, as touched upon earlier, your contact details.
It’s also important to be consistent in how you present information. For example, if you list dates as ‘September 2018–October 2019’, make sure you don’t abbreviate month names elsewhere in your CV.
25. Not asking for feedback
There’s a reason why good writers enlist the help of professional editors to go over their work: they become too close to their writing that they can’t help but be a little biased when self-editing.
That said, you don’t have to hire a professional editor to review your CV before you start applying for jobs, but it is a good idea to ask a couple of friends or family members to go over it. Indeed, they might be able to offer you some valuable feedback or spot an error that you couldn’t, ultimately saving you from potentially embarrassing typos like ‘Native Spinach speaker’. If you know a hiring manager or CV writer to read through your CV, even better!
Recruiters spend most of their day reviewing CVs, and their initial review involves spotting anything that doesn’t quite match the job requirements, or that raises a red flag – whether it’s an innocent typo or a blatant lie. So, if you’re guilty of making any of these common CV mistakes, now is the time to fix them!
Have you made any other potentially catastrophic errors that hindered your chances of landing an interview? Got a question about CV writing you need answering?
I’d love to hear from you – just join the conversation below!
PS: If you’re struggling with writing the perfect CV, help is at hand. Our professional CV writers are just a click away, and can help you create a job-winning document in as little as five days!
This is an updated version of an earlier article originally published on 24 August 2017.