The One Resume Mistake You Can't Afford to Make

by Staff - Original publish date: October 1, 2014

The entire job interview process is a bit of a crapshoot. There. I said it.

From the endless networking and formal application process to interviewing with multiple people and negotiating your salary, there are a lot of things we’re told we “should do.” The problem is, if you don’t end up getting the job, you usually have no idea why.

  • Did I lack the proper experience?
  • Was my outfit too formal or too casual?
  • Did I confuse the third interviewer with my Google Android analogy?
  • Did I have a rogue piece of salad stuck in my teeth from lunch?
  • Did I just get beat out by a better candidate?

It’s an environment sometimes filled with “fuzzy math,” which is why it was great to read an analysis of the job hunt that looks at the process through an analytics lens.

Aline Lerner ran technical recruiting at a company called TrialPay for a year before starting her own agency. During a one-year period (Jan 2012 – Jan 2013) she interviewed roughly 300 people for technical engineering positions. As an engineer herself, she decided she had a great opportunity to analyze the data and test some of the conventional wisdom around hiring, which she compiled in a blog post called Lessons from a year’s worth of hiring data.

Of the following items on a resume, which do you feel would be the most important factor that would lead to an offer?

  • Undergraduate GPA
  • Highest degree earned
  • BS in Computer Science from a top school (based on US News & World Report)
  • Work experience in a top company (Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, etc.)
  • Number of grammatical errors, spelling errors, and syntactic inconsistencies
  • Frequency of buzzwords (programming languages, frameworks, etc.)
  • How easy it is to tell what someone did at each of his/her jobs
  • Presence of personal projects
  • Resume length

Yes, there are some caveats here (which she addresses), such as a small data set, sampling bias, and other objective factors, so view this as a helpful lesson and not a double-blind scientific study. But are you ready? Did you make your guess?

Lerner found that “The most significant feature by far was the presence of typos, grammatical errors, or syntactic inconsistencies (on a resume).” And it wasn’t even close. For example, 80% of candidates who received offers had either zero errors or just one mistake on their resumes. She also determined a stellar GPA or attendance at a top computer science school didn’t matter, but that working at a top company did. Read the full article to find out why.

But for the purpose of this article, let’s just focus on the resume typos, which I feel can be summed up by the following quote:

How you do anything is how you do everything.

In other words, if you’re the type of person who is meticulous, a good communicator, and pays attention to the smallest of details, you’re probably going to be a top candidate for a great job. This is especially true when that job is a software engineer, which requires a meticulous nature and strict attention to detail.

Of course, it’s safe to assume someone with lots of errors won’t receive an offer. There were candidates who made 10, 12, and even “more than 15” errors. Yet they made up only 7.2% of that group.

What’s notable is the grouping of 47.3% that had between two and six errors. It would seem that two or three small typos on a 500-word resume wouldn’t be a big deal, but it is. That’s the difference between good and great, and receiving an offer or being told “no thanks.”

Let’s take a moment to illustrate how difficult it is to actually make a misspelling today.

  • Flash back a few decades to creating a resume on a typewriter or a word processor. Finding spelling errors? You were on your own.
  • Then word processors introduced spell check, which required the user to perform the Herculean task of clicking a button called spell check. People were lazy or forgot and typos remained.
  • Then things evolved to the point the word processor would underline the word that had an error. However, that STILL wasn’t easy enough for many people.
  • Now we’re at the point at which programs will automatically correct errors while you are typing them, before you can even react! Yet spelling errors abound.

So theoretically, in Aline’s fictional example, one should never see “Developped” instead of “Developed.”

At the next level, however, are other grammatical errors spell check can’t catch. Things like inconsistent tense, names of unique software, capitalization, homophones (their vs. there) and other similar mistakes that can make you look bad.

Then there are the items that only the truly obsessive will catch:

  • A bullet point that uses a 12 point font in the first paragraph, but 11 point font in the last paragraph. Not the text mind you, but the actual bullet.
  • Glancing at a 500-word, two-page resume via a first generation iPhone browser and noticing an extra space between two words in the middle of the 14th paragraph.
  • Knowing that it is Photoshop (not PhotoShop) and PowerPoint (not Powerpoint).

At these levels, there is a key distinction.

It’s not that someone with a perfect resume never makes any mistakes. The key is they care so much about not making any errors, they hand their resumes over to others for review.

In a follow-up discussion, Aline was asked about cases where English is a second language. While sympathetic to those cases, there are two things to consider:

  1. A resume is not a “pop quiz.” In other words, while a hiring manager might give more leeway to someone filling out a form on the spot, candidates can spend as much time as they want preparing their resume. It should be in final form.
  2. This proves the point! If candidates are highly skilled and incredibly intelligent, then they should know their writing skills might be a weakness. Frankly, that makes it more important than ever to hand off this crucial document to a friend who can help.

In the case of engineers, they must be confident enough in their own skills to get it right, but open enough to let others in to verify their work.

In conclusion, having a typo-free resume will not guarantee you a job offer. In fact, the only guarantee is writing an article about typos will guarantee the author makes at least one typo (I’ve asked my editor to have three people review this prior to publication). But if you’ve progressed beyond the typewriter and know a few grammar fanatics, you put yourself in a better position to succeed.