Grammar, Spelling, and Layout

This article reminds us that spell check does not guarantee accuracy. Be sure to check for proper grammar, use appropriate keywords, and present a visually-appealing résumé. Your goal is not to wow the reader with fancy fonts and colors, but to tell your story in a business-like way with no spelling, grammatical errors, or distractions.

A friend of mine contacted me – his resume was getting lots of hits on the job boards, but no calls for interviews. He said he had followed all the up-to-date guidance around Objective statements, using all the keywords that are relevant to his industry, fitting it on two pages, including certification information, and had even paid to get it boosted on the job boards. He had a few inquiries asking for a copy of his Word-formatted resume, but nothing beyond that. So to give him a hand, I asked for him to send me a copy of his Word-formatted resume and I promised to take a look.

Urgh! His resume was quite pitiful–almost ugly. His grammar was terrible…sentences with missing punctuation, mixed tenses, disjointed phrases with extensive use of dashes, semicolons and ellipses, etc. He had used a resume authoring tool of some sort that had embedded a distracting graphic behind his text (a type of watermark) that, when printed to a PDF file, made the text unreadable. Everything was a table or a text box along with numerous underlined sentences…there were lines and boxes everywhere!

This probably explained why, even though the job engines were picking it up, the humans were showing no interest in it. There were several things wrong that I pointed out to him as quick and easy fixes, but the entire rewrite process took several days.

Thanks to the built-in spell-checker in modern word processors, if you pay attention to what you are writing, your spelling errors are corrected. But most people stop there and do not take advantage of the grammar checker. For example, the following text gets a pass from Word 2003's spell checker (although its grammar checker spots it if you have turned it on):

Won off thee moist changeling aspics off righting uh resume if prosper spilling an grimmer. Wyle eat is posse bull two get they worlds spilled write, ewe shod knoll tat Spill Cheek is knot awl tat is kneaded too ensemble ah grate resume.

(Word-for-word translation: One of the most challenging aspects of writing a resume is proper spelling and grammar. While it is possible to get the words spelled right, you should know that Spell Check is not all that is needed to assemble a great resume.)

So, make sure you use grammar checker along with spell checker and have a couple of friends proof read your resume for you. Also, consider these other grammar issues:

Present or Past Tense – A resume is always written in past tense. While there are some that suggest that the responsibilities section of your current job should be written in present tense, this seems to make the resume read "unbalanced" in my opinion. It is safe to write it in past tense. Oh, your cover letter can be in either tense, it just depends on your writing style.

Avoid abbreviations and contractions – As long as it does not sound awkward, you should avoid common contractions (e.g., "aren't") in the resume, but they are OK in your cover letter. Make sure you spell out all abbreviations that are not common. Popular firm names, like IBM, do not need to be spelled out, but industry specific certifications, like PgMP (Program Management Professional), do need to be expanded.

Keep sentences short – In general a sentence should not contain more than two commas and should not be more than two lines in length. Break these longer, more complex sentences into two or more sentences. Avoid conjunctions and phrases that cause complexity such as but, however, otherwise, although, notwithstanding, etc. Target the "level" of your resume to be written for a high school or early college reader…not a college graduate.

Punctuation: Semicolon, ellipsis, etc. – Use of punctuation other than commas and periods should be carefully considered – or just do not do it!!! You should not have any sentences that are complex enough for semicolons (except maybe for separating city/state lists). Save your exclamation points for your cover letter – they have no business in a resume!!! Ellipsis…breaks up the flow of a sentence…again the sentence should be short and to the point…nothing that should need an ellipsis!!

Graphics or fluff – Yes, there is something to be said about a unique-looking resume. They are eye catching. They show imagination. And they get thrown out more often than they are read. A recruiter friend of mine tells me that when he gets a resume that is overly pretty (excessive graphics, background colors, strange layouts), unless it is for a job that requires this type of expertise (like a graphics designer, etc.), he just throws it away. While this might not be how all recruiters react, it does indicate that many are not willing to "struggle" through trying to read a non-standard resume. Basic graphical features such as simple tables, lines, or text boxes are OK, but even these need to be used sparingly and with care.

Bottom Line:

Spelling, grammar, punctuation, colors, and other visuals challenges are important things to consider. Make sure that you check not only the spelling, but also the grammar of your work. Reduce the use of less common punctuation; make your resume read clear and sound uncluttered. And do not try to go to extremes to make it look fancy with graphics, extensive tables or colored fonts…these usually cause more frustration than the benefit they might provide. It does not have to be perfect, but it needs to be good enough. So keep it simple, crisp and clean!

Source: C.J. Trayser,
Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 3.0 License.

Last modified: Tuesday, August 18, 2020, 12:41 PM