What Makes a Bad Resume?

If you ask that question of any HR person or hiring manager, they often have a difficult time giving a concise answer. A bad resume is just one of those things you recognize as bad, like a bad haircut or the wrong paint color. You can’t really say why it’s bad – it just is.

Professional resume writers can be a little more descriptive in the pedigree of a bad resume because we see so many of them come across their desks, usually accompanied by the phrase “I just can’t understand why this isn’t working for me – my sister-in-law wrote it and she types up all kinds of things.” The measure of whether a resume is good or bad is whether or not it works. If it doesn’t win interviews, it’s a bad resume. That said, there are some common characteristics that bad resumes seem to share. Here are a few:

Misspellings and typos. While a misspelled word or a spacing goof on your resume may not eliminate you from the competition, it does show that you have no attention to detail. Employers need to hire people who pay attention to the little things. If you don’t proofread your own personal documents, they can’t expect that you will proofread the business writing required by the job such as letters, memos, emails, proposals, bids, etc. Consistent goofs throughout the resume will definitely eliminate you as a candidate because it reflects on your intelligence. If you are a terrible speller, you should at least be smart enough to use the spell check or get a wordy friend to proofread for you.

Passive voice. What is the passive voice? For those of you who don’t remember freshmen English, the passive voice is when the subject names the object or receiver of the action. The easiest way is to show you. The following sentence is in passive voice.

“Responsibilities included bookkeeping, accounts receivable, and budgeting.”

To quote The Little Brown Handbook (a grammarian’s bible), “you should prefer the active voice in your writing. By omitting the actor, the passive can deprive writing of clarity and strength.” The last thing you need to eliminate from your resume is clarity and strength. Write as much of your resume in the active voice as possible. For example:

“Budgeted, maintained accounts, and kept accurate books.” (Active voice)

The simple thing is to look for the telltale words “responsibilities included” or “duties included”. Find those and you’ve found a passive voice sentence. Rewrite it to the active voice.

Job description writing. If you were a registered nurse, more than likely your job description is very similar to that of most other registered nurses. Don’t waste your time giving details of your job description. Give a brief summary of your situation, but take up most of the space with what made you stand out from the crowd. What did you do over and above the job description? What was unusual about what you did in the position? What did you accomplish? That kind of information will win the interview – not job description.

Wordiness. Poor writers tend to overcompensate and end up being wordy. Good writing is concise and simple, yet powerful. Many people for whom English is a second language have trouble simplifying their writing because they feel it needs to be complicated to be good. That just isn’t true. The best writing says a lot in few words.

Do you recognize your resume in any of this? If so, we can fix it. We are professional writers who write resumes every day.


  1. Scott on November 18, 2008 at 3:59 pm

    “The passive voice is when the subject names the object or receiver of the action”. This wording is very confusing. It would have been helpful if you would have clarified in the example sentence what the “object or receiver” is, and the “action” is in your example sentence.

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