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week's question from
Allison Williams, Somerville, MA
What are some common mistakes students make on their resumes?
“We want depth, not breadth!”
Dean of Admissions & Enrollment Planning
Students often think that they need dozens and dozens of clubs, activities, awards, and leadership positions to impress admission counselors. A long list of these things on a resume is not what we are seeking – and we can’t tell at all what is important to the student. What we are looking for is a student that is passionate – and involved – in a few things. Articulation of these passions is what we are looking for – and what impresses us most.
A resume for the college application should be more for clarification than repetition
A resume should complement the information in the application. If students are able to include all that they do within the confines of the application, a resume is not necessary. The biggest mistake is repetition. Use the resume to succinctly explain your role associated with the activity, and ask your guidance counselor how best to do that so that the admission representative will better understand the depth of your involvement. It is wise to use general terms such as Student Government and Theater for headings, and then break down your roles within each. Too many dates can get confusing, so use a format that focuses on the actual part you played.
A Resume Isn’t That Important to the College Application Process
Many students worry about perfecting their resume. They shouldn’t. Although a helpful tool to give to teachers when asking for a recommendation, most applications don’t require a resume. The Common Application, accepted by 456 colleges, has a detailed activities section that colleges prefer. Don’t clutter the process with extra material. The biggest problem, both on the Common Application and on resumes, should you make one, is using abbreviations that aren’t commonly understood or listing activities that are not self-explanatory. Err on the side of being too detailed in descriptions. Don’t forget to list activities in order of importance to you!
A strong resume isn't enough. Networking is far more valuable.
While it is important to have a professional resume ready, a resume alone will not land you jobs today. Many employers are getting flooded with resumes and have no way to sort through all of them to find the stand-out candidates. My advice is to devote your time and energy to networking. Join sites like LinkedIn and Branchout. Place personal phone calls to your friends and family to let them know what kind of job you are looking for. Set up informational interviews with companies or professionals who attract your interest. Remember, the best jobs are filled by networking before they are ever posted online.
Action gets Hired! Passive Resume’ is So Passe’
“Blah, blah, blah” is how most resumes read to the hiring managers that review countless resumes daily. A common mistake students make on their resumes is using passive words. If job-seeking students want to stand out among the crowd, they must use active words in their resume. An active voice on the resume gets the hiring manager’s attention and makes it easier for the manager to picture how a student’s experiences can be applied to their workplace. Most career centers on-campus will provide a list of action verbs to use in describing your experiences.
Be sure you read the job requirements and address all of them!
As someone who has both read resumes and taught students how to write them, the most important advice I can give is to make sure your resume and cover letter specifically address all the things the employer wants you to be able to do. When we get in job applications, the first thing we do is “matrix” them giving points for evidence of each of the different qualifications listed in the job ad. The more points you get, the more likely you are to get an interview! I don’t know how many times I’ve gotten an application from someone I know who believes they’ll get an interview based on the fact that they’re already known. They don’t – no matter how deserving they might be. It’s sad, but it’s the only way to be fair to the people who we don’t know.
Biggest No-no’s: writing a job resume, and listing activities chronologically
You’re not trying to get hired; you’re trying to catch the eye of admissions officers who seek unique individuals to fill a class. The key is to emphasize your “hook” – the one activity or passion that sets you apart. If you’re an award-winning artist, lead with your exhibitions and awards. If you’re an outdoorsman who has climbed all 46 High Peaks in the Adirondacks, lead with that. Also, there’s nothing more deadly than wading through a resume that lists chronologically everything you’ve done in Grades 9-12. For easy reading, group activities together by category, such as Leadership or Service.
Brag Sheet Tips and What To Avoid
The activity resume on applications is another way admission officers can learn about applicants over and above grades and test scores. There are some errors students make that seem to come up fairly often. Items should be listed in order of interest. Students will occasionally mention accomplishments prior to ninth grade. Going too far back is not a good idea. It is best not to repeat words or use abbreviations (as admission officers may not know what they stand for). Be careful not to pile on too much information and have your resume look cluttered. Students should describe their part in the activity and not the function of the club or organization.
Common Resume Mistakes
Your resume is one way to brag about your accomplishments. Your resume should include accomplishments from 9-12 grade not your whole life. Resumes should be no more than a page and should be reader friendly. Using acronyms is a problem. Spell out the name of the organization or activity. You may know what it is but a college rep may not know. Using texting language on a resume is not appropriate. Use correct grammar, punctuation, and capitalization. Also, check your email address. Certain addresses are inappropriate. With your resume you want to be noticed.
Complete a resume that promotes your personality and individuality
Before one discusses common mistakes students make on their resumes, one must first acknowledge that far too few students even put together a resume to complete their college applications. Instead, many believe that filling in applications’ extracurricular sections is enough. In a competitive admissions environment, nothing could be further from the truth. All students should draft a resume for their college applications. Once they do, the most common mistake made is that of simply listing activities or undertakings in chronological order instead of organizing them around thematic areas that will more successfully differentiate the student’s unique interests and accomplishments.
Did you win the middle school spelling bee?
Many students think that they need to list all activities since birth. While that long list may be impressive and achievements should certainly be celebrated, colleges need to see what your current interests. Your level of commitment may even be more important than a myriad of activities. Focus on leadership and depth of commitment, especially for those activities in which you are still engaged. Rank and prioritize your activities and accomplishments. So while that middle school spelling bee certificate may still be on the refrigerator, highlight those activities that reflect who you are today!
Don't bother with a resume
From the perspective of wanting to be able to find the right information as efficiently as possible, I strongly advise applicants not to submit resumes in lieu of completing The Common Application and the school-specific supplement. Please See Attached Resume is simply a bad idea. Beyond this strong opinion, the main mistake a student can make is trying to fill in a resume with activity and not pursuing what is of most interest to you.
Don’t Leave Out the Good Stuff!
Whether you write a resume or complete the application activity charts, don’t be shy! You may think you should include only your most “impressive” activities when, in fact, colleges want to know what you enjoy and how you spend your time. Of course include sports, leadership, arts, internships and summer programs, but what else do you do? Are you teaching yourself to play the ukulele, do you babysit your siblings, drive other kids to school, or help your mom at her job? Do you draw cartoons, sew dresses for your friends, or restore old cars? Share these things to help college folks see the real you, and to make your application unique.
Even Babysitting is a skill!
Some students don't consider any "unpaid" or "forced labor" as in family chores and responsibilities, to be important work skills. It takes a lot of organizational and people skills to entertain and control toddlers and other youngsters in a family. It's worth mentioning. Students also forget to promote any skills or experience they gain from volunteer, club or in-school service work. My Peer College Counselors have a lot to offer and need to mention what they have done to assist other students with the College Admission process, not to mention their computer, telephone and office skills. Show the world you've learned more about good communication skills than texting and social networking.
Focus on content and quality when writing your resume
Common mistakes students make with their resumes involve content and quality. Some overcompensate by including extraneous information. Others forget activities and awards from recent years and, as a result, construct a resume that is incomplete and does not highlight their accomplishments. Starting your resume earlier and treating it as a working document can help prevent these errors. A lack of attention to detail with sloppy, inconsistent formats and misspellings is another problem. Take the time to proofread and ask a counselor or teacher for help.
Highlight what makes you tick, and keep it brief
One of the biggest mistakes students make is filling their resumes with information that can be found in the application or on transcripts, like grades, names of classes, and test scores, to name a few. Remember: A resume should expand on, not repeat, information included elsewhere in the application. If it doesn’t add anything, it’s wasted space (and time for the reviewer). Another pitfall is poor organization. Make sure the order and grouping of activities highlight what makes the student tick. Aside from that, keep it simple! Brief and informative is better than overly packaged any day.
Inflation eventually bursts
Several things I have seen with resumes are these longwinded, highly detailed explanations of every exploit, adventure and achievement from birth to present, or in an attempt to “look impressive” adding trivial items to the resume. Once I heard of a counselor who just happened to check a students’ resume and found several “additions” which never happened. A number of very uncomfortable conversations ensued. Be honest, be succinct and keep the information to the four years of high school. Read the directions on the Common Application – add only if needed.
Keep Résumés Organized, Concise and Easy to Read
When you are crafting a resume for colleges, it doesn’t need to list everything you have ever done. Unless you have an extraordinary number of awards or activities, it is good to keep this to one page. For those whose special talent gives them many things to list, it may be a good idea to have a separate résumé for your acting roles or your science awards and presentations. Organize it so that it is easy to read, concisely written and indicates when and for how long you participated in an activity. Make sure it highlights any leadership positions you have held.
Less is more: how to make your resume stand out!
When crafting your college resume, remember to highlight your activities by listing the most important ones first (most important to you), use descriptive words, and pay attention to spacing, font, and of course spelling. If certain activities are not readily recognizable, be sure to include a sentence of two describing the activity and your role within it. Try organizing your activities in categories (athletics, community service, leadership, arts) so that you can demonstrate your interests as well as your growth.
Look at Me!
Sometimes I think that resumes are in and of themselves a mistake--that is, if you're applying to college. On just about every application, you'll list your most important co-curricular activities anyway, and admissions officers don't necessarily want to see yet another document or piece of paper in your application. But if you're creating a resume for a scholarship contest or to land a job or an internship, the main thing you want to do is grab your reader's attention VISUALLY. In other words, use typeface and simple layout that draws attention to your name and contact info, followed by the activities that best illustrate why you're perfect for the job or scholarship. No fancy fonts, no flowery borders, no colored paper--just use simple design with straightforward info that takes the reader's eye right to who you are and what you've done. Keep it uncluttered and brief. One page max.
Mistakes on Resumes: Starting Late and Being Unclear
The most common mistakes that students make on their resumes is waiting until senior year to start it. By then, most students will have forgotten that award they received in 9th grade, or the community service they volunteered for in 10th grade. Start the resume early and update it every semester of high school.
Another mistake is the overuse of acronyms. Colleges won’t know what you mean by “Head of PDMS”. Make sure to write out acronyms that aren’t nationally recognized and explain any clubs with nicknames. What exactly is the “Interact Club” and what was your role?
Resume is created over four years not four days
The resume reflects your experiences throughout high school. If you haven’t done anything, then filling the page with superficial activities will be transparent. The creation of a resume begins upon entering high school when students make decisions about getting involved and making a difference. Keep the resume to one page. Remember, colleges don’t care about your glory days in middle school. Provide details i.e. does “Yearbook- 11th grade” mean that you bought a yearbook? Or you were editor of the yearbook? Another mistake is when mom creates your resume and uses the third person masculine singular pronoun i.e. “He was captain of the football team.”
Resume Rules: Don't do a sloppy job of proofreading. Misspelled words and incorrect punctuation can undermine the effect of an otherwise strong record. Don't assume that your reader is familiar with the particular language and abbreviations of your high school. (EdStrat Chair is a meaningless title unless the reader knows what EdStrat is.) Don’t include anything except accomplishments and activities from grades 9-12. The fact that you won an art award in 6th grade doesn’t belong on a high school resume. Don’t include anything that you don’t want to talk about in an interview. If you list it, you’re inviting your interviewer to ask about it.
Resumes should help inform an application, not replace it!
The biggest mistake I see with regard to resumes is demonstrated by the application that says “please see attached resume.” Write a resume for use in finding a part-time job, summer internship, or for introduction at an interview. Keep it up-to-date vis a vis your activities and honors and use it for reference when you fill out your college applications. Think broadly about your experience—and how to condense and explain what you do with your time, how you have explored your interests.
Resumes: A Way to Showcase Who You Are
Supplementing the colleges’ own pointed questions, a well-crafted resume can help complete the picture of the applicant. In writing a resume students should avoid endless lists. Instead, the resume should highlight the things that really matter to the student, the activities and recognitions that illustrate their true talents and passions, not their ability to be a joiner or a follower. Effective resumes give the admissions people a better sense of who an applicant is and what they offer the prospective college community, since in the end, whether applicants are what the shapers of that community want is what the admission process is about.
Sometimes, Less is More
Your activity resume is one tool that Colleges use to differentiate you from all the other applicants. Rather than thinking in terms of being able to show a lot of activities, consider participating in activities you care about and concentrate on just a few. Whether sports, community service, school clubs, student government, work, participate because you care about the activity, not just to have a ‘resume filler.’ Where possible, work your way toward a leadership position. A final note, sometimes students who have to work worry that their work experience won’t count, but it will. In fact, strong work experience can show leadership, consistency, and commitment, all qualities that colleges appreciate!
Up the Down Staircase: Preparing Great Resumes
Seniors can use resumes to market themselves to guidance counselors and to college admissions officers and interviewers. They also help focus seniors and lead to great college applications. Some common mistakes include not starting with the most recent activities and working backwards in each section. Rather than long descriptive texts, students should use active verbs and bullet points to portray their leadership and initiative in each entry. Do not include test scores or GPAs if they are not top-notch as colleges will see them soon enough. And lastly, do not make up resume entries as colleges can smell manufactured entries.