Most of us know what key things we should put on our résumés -- recent jobs, important awards, academic degrees related to the job, and of course a clear and easy way for your potential employer to contact you. But how much do you know about the things you should never put on a résumé? Are there résumé items so heinous they might disqualify you from even being considered for the job?
You might not be aware that résumé styles have changed quite a bit in recent years. Things that were de rigueur on résumés 10 years ago are passé today. Read this list of 10 résumé killers to find out why that objective you spent an hour writing is a waste of space, why a potential employer might throw your résumé straight into the garbage if you mention your religion, and why references have no place on a modern résumé. Let's start with our first no-no: a picture is not worth a thousand words.
There are certain jobs where your looks are a crucial factor. If you're aiming for a gig as an actor or a model, the casting director or agent will want to see your 8x10. In virtually every other situation, a photograph included with a résumé is a fatal flaw.
Here's why: employers have to be careful not to open themselves up to accusations of illegal discrimination. If you include a photo of yourself with your résumé, the employer now knows roughly how old you are; has a general idea of your ethnic background, and can see if you're attractive, overweight, or suffering from an obvious disability. To avoid the perception that they either rejected or hired you based on these attributes, many employers will simply throw away a résumé with a photo attached.
This basically falls under the same category as a photograph. Your potential employer doesn't need to know your hair color, height or weight, or ethnicity. They don't need to know about any disabilities you have. Not only do they not need to know, they really don't want to know, because they're legally prevented from discriminating against disabled people.
There are a few exceptions, jobs for which certain physical attributes are a necessary part of getting the job done (think actors or prison guards in certain situations). In legal terms, this is known as a bona fide occupational qualification (BFOQ). If the employer specifically asks for this information because of a BFOQ, you should provide it. However, most employers will not, and will address the matter during the interview.
Age is a category that employers have to be very careful about, because age discrimination can open them up to lawsuits. For that reason, you should leave your age off of your résumé. However, there are some other things to be careful of related to your age.
If you're an older worker, you can leave specific dates off of your educational history. It's sufficient to say that you have a degree in economics. Pointing out that you received it in 1978 can give the impression that your education is dated and irrelevant. Of course, they're going to find out how old you are at the interview, but at that point you'll have the chance to wow them with your up-to-date skills and emphasize the value of your experience.
It seems logical that your ability to manage a household full of the chaos of multiple kids would make you an ideal job candidate, since you can put those skills to work in an office environment that is sedate by comparison. The problem is, employers don't see things the same way. When they see an employee with kids, they see an employee who's going to take a lot of sick days to take care of them; who's going to ask to leave early to pick up Timmy from soccer practice, and who's going to need a very expensive health insurance plan.
It can work the other way, too. Employers might dislike people who don't have kids, or see a young married woman as someone who will undoubtedly be taking maternity leave within a year or so.
In the end, it's illegal for a company to discriminate based on a candidate's family situation. Don't give them the temptation to do so.
It's not that employers don't care about your hobbies (actually, for the most part, they really don't). The real reason to leave your hobbies off of your résumé is because the space on your résumé needs to be used in the best possible way to show off how you're a great candidate for the job. Your comic book collection is just not relevant when applying for a management job.
"But I want to show them that I'm a well-rounded person with varied interests and a stake in the community," you might argue. That's admirable. Save it for the interview -- and only if they ask.
There are exceptions to every rule, of course. Maybe it's a management job at a company that produces comic books. Maybe your hobby of researching and cataloguing historical documents is relevant when applying for a job as curator at a history museum. But 99 percent of the time, employers don't need or want to know about your hobbies.
The reasons to leave this information off of your résumé are twofold. First is the old horse that we've been riding all across this list: Employers have to be careful about discrimination. The other reason is, why take a chance that your potential new boss really hates people with your political or religious views when you don't have to? It may be illegal for a company to discriminate based on politics, but good luck proving that the staunchly conservative human resources worker tossed your résumé in the trash because you listed your membership in the ACLU and Democratic Party, and not because you were genuinely unqualified for the job.
There are, again, some very narrow cases where not only is it fine for an employer to ask about your religion, but it might be to your benefit to do so. However, unless you're applying for a job as a priest or a nun, you probably don't have to worry about it too much.
Up to this point, the items on this list have been mainly about avoiding things on your résumé that are unnecessary and might disqualify you from even being considered for a job. Now we're going to change gears a bit and get into résumé style. None of these résumé elements are absolutely fatal flaws, but if you want the best shot at the job, you should leave them off.
Traditionally, people have tried to account for lengthy employment gaps on their résumé. The problem is that there's rarely a good explanation, and if there is, it's rarely relevant to the job at hand. The best way to avoid the problem is to use a different type of résumé – functional, rather than chronological. Instead of listing all your jobs (and gaps) in order, rank your past jobs by how relevant they are to the one you're applying for and how well they show off your skills and experience. Then put them on your résumé in that order, with the dates of employment a minor note instead of the primary focus.
Employers may still notice gaps and ask you about them at the interview, so have good answers ready. Still, it's much more natural to explain in person that you took two years off of working when your first child was born than to use a bullet point on your résumé that says, "2003-2005 – raised a kid."
A résumé used to be seen as a formulaic recitation of your job history, and everyone put an inane objective at the top. Today, a résumé is properly viewed as a one-page marketing campaign in which you attempt to sell your product (yourself) to a customer (your hopefully soon-to-be-employer).
The problem with those old objectives was that they accomplished nothing, and they used the most valuable chunk of real estate on your résumé to do it. Imagine that you're in charge of hiring someone for a new position as a civil engineer and you see the line, "Objective: To obtain a rewarding position as a civil engineer." What does that tell you about a candidate? How does that make a candidate different from every other candidate for this job? The answers, if you're keeping score, are: "nothing," and "it doesn't."
So leave the objective off. In its place, use a header that highlights who you are and why you're awesome in one sentence. "Civil Engineer with 15 Years of experience – last 10 projects on time and under budget." That will get some attention.
For one thing, this can give away your age, which we've already mentioned is a bad idea. But more importantly, the skills you had at a job more than 10 years ago are going to seem dated and not very useful to an employer today. Depending on the job, those skills may be perfectly useful (ditch digging hasn't changed much in the last decade), but even so, an employer is not likely to be interested in a job you had that long ago. It can also make it seem like you're padding your résumé because you didn't have enough good experience in recent years.
If the job you had more than 10 years ago was really, extraordinarily important, special or impressive, then you should definitely include it. For all the astronauts and four-star generals reading this, that means you.
The traditional list of references is another casualty of changing résumé standards. You certainly need a list of references – keep them as up-to-date as the rest of your résumé. Just keep them on a separate sheet. When a prospective employer is looking at your résumé, they're several steps away from the point where they care about references. It's a waste of space. When they want to check your references, they'll let you know.
While you may have thought you'd found a clever way to save space by writing, "References available on request" on your résumé, you're not exactly telling your employer anything they don't know. Of course your references are available on request. That's how this whole process works. Don't bother putting that on your résumé.
You've finally graduated, so what's next? First order of business: Where should you live? Check out our Where to Live After Graduation pictures.
Author's Note: 10 Things to Leave Off Your Résumé
Heading into the research for this article, I had a pretty good idea of the basic "don'ts" of résumé writing. I've certainly written plenty of them (freelance writers send out a lot of résumés, and friends and family often come to the one writer they know for help with their résumés). I knew a photograph was a bad idea, and that age, religious affiliation and marital status were all things an employer wouldn't want to see for fear of violating civil rights laws. I was surprised, though, that résumé design had shifted so much in the last 10 years or so – my own résumé still had references, and while I'd ditched the objective years ago because I felt it was poor design, I didn't realize that it had become so verboten.
- Green, Alison. "7 Things to Leave Off Your Resume." U.S. News and World Report, March 2, 2009. (Feb. 22, 2012.) http://money.usnews.com/money/blogs/outside-voices-careers/2009/03/02/7-things-to-leave-off-your-resume
- Jones, Elka. "Getting back to work: Returning to the labor force after an absence." U.S. Dept. of Labor Occupational Outlook Quarterly, Winter 2004-05. (Feb. 22, 2012.) http://www.google.com/url?q=http://www.bls.gov/opub/ooq/2004/winter/art03.pdf&sa=U&ei=yrhGT56fGMa0gwfMy_H9DQ&ved=0CAoQFjAD&client=internal-uds-cse&usg=AFQjCNEo0qFHvaJxFzXB2-32XxIgWX5Jfw
- Sears, Donald. "Resume Objective Statements Are So 10 Years Ago." The Ladders, July 14, 2009. (Feb. 22, 2012.) http://www.career-line.com/resume-advice/resume-objective-statements-are-so-10-years-ago/
- Thakkar, Nimish. "Top 5 Resume Myths Exposed." The Ladders, Sept. 24, 2008. (Feb. 22, 2012.) http://www.theladders.com/career-advice/top-5-resume-myths-exposed
- U.S. Department of Labor. "Résumés, applications and cover letters." Occupational Outlook Quarterly, Summer 2009. (Feb. 22, 2012.) http://www.google.com/url?q=http://www.bls.gov/opub/ooq/2009/resume.pdf&sa=U&ei=yrhGT56fGMa0gwfMy_H9DQ&ved=0CAQQFjAA&client=internal-udscse&usg=AFQjCNH3qt7P_4ZGSyX0F7CCwXZ_UnLasw