Skip to main contentA logo with &quat;the muse&quat; in dark blue text.
Advice / Job Search / Finding a Job

5 Surprising Mistakes Job Seekers Make

Looking for a job isn’t easy. And as a job seeker, you’ll do just about anything to stand out from the crowd. Of course you will—you want the job. I remember being there, too.

My most recent career move, however, took me to the other side of the table. And here, I’ve been quite startled by some of the mistakes I’ve seen job seekers make. In some cases, it’s a seemingly naïve applicant trying to stand out in the wrong way. And in others, perhaps it’s just someone being lazy.

But I can guarantee you—steer far clear of these five mistakes, and you’ll do yourself a huge favor. They may seem small, obvious, or unimportant (come on, the hiring manager won’t really stop reading your resume after one page, right?)—but many people still get them wrong.

So get them right, and you’ll already be one step above your competition.

Mistake #1: Resumes That Are 2+ Pages

The number one most-repeated job search tip I’ve heard, from the time I was a college junior applying to internships, is to keep a resume to one page. In fact, when I was screening consulting applicants for my first company, I was told to throw out anything that went beyond one page.

So, I thought that “one-page resumes” had been beaten into everyone as they had into me. Not the case. When reviewing applications for the last position I was filling, I was startled to find that about 30% were two pages. Did I actually throw out the second page (like my consulting bosses once told me to)? No. Was I annoyed as I read it though? You bet. And more importantly, not once did any of the information included on the second page ever make a meaningful difference in how I thought about a candidate. By the end of page one—or, honestly, by about halfway down page one, I usually had all the information I needed.

No matter how much you want to squeeze a few more bullets in on your first job, your last internship, or your interests—keep it on one page.

Mistake #2: Resumes That Are, Um, Pretty

Resumes aren’t works of art. They’re 8.5 x 11” pieces of paper that are designed to help your potential interviewer—quickly—understand your past experience and accomplishments, and how they’ve prepared you for the job you want.

When skimming resumes (yes, I admit it, I skim the first time through), these are the things that make it easy to identify good candidates: Succinct bullet points that describe your accomplishments. Numbers that substantiate those accomplishments. Clean formatting that makes the page easy to read.

These are the things that don’t (ever) help: Colored fonts. Colored backgrounds. Non-linear layouts.

During my last round of reviewing applicants, I recall reading a cover letter that I thought was actually rather good. But when I went to open the applicant’s resume, I was startled to see a baby-blue-and-brown page pop up in front of me, with colored rectangular sections spread around the page like post-it notes. Let me be honest: No matter what was on that page, I wasn’t going to like that applicant.

You’ve probably heard the advice, “Don’t use a creative resume unless you’re applying for a creative job.” I would amend that to say only use a creative resume if you are a designer applying to a design job. Anywhere else—even in “creative” fields like fashion or writing—stick with a traditional resume.

Mistake #3: Cover Letters That Don’t Mention the Company

If I’m hiring you, I want you to like my company. I want you to be excited about what we’re doing and our mission. And not just to impress me: We’re probably going to be working together—at this company, on this mission—for a while, and I want to work with someone who’s happy doing so.

Yet, every time I’ve put up a job posting, I receive emails and cover letters from applicants telling me they’re interested in “the job I saw on your site.” Not even a mention of the job title! I have to wonder—do they even know what job they applied for?

Worse, though, are the cover letters that go on about how passionate the applicant is about the job and our company’s mission, and his or her desire to be a part of it—but, despite this professed enthusiasm, doesn’t mention, even once, the company by name. If the former situation is the equivalent of the guy at the bar who indiscriminately tries to buy every girl he meets a drink—this is the guy who professes his deep love to each of them while he’s at it. It never works.

Mistake #4: Saying Nothing but Good Things

Enthusiasm is good—particularly when you make it specific—but doing nothing but singing your interviewer’s praises to the sky will also score you surprisingly few points. Come on, I know my company isn’t “the most amazing organization in the entire world.”

The best applicants I’ve interviewed are the ones who show me that they can apply their critical thinking skills to the job they’re trying to get. One of my favorite questions to ask interviewees is, “If you were in this position, tell me about one thing that we currently do that you would change.” I know this catches some interviewees off guard. But, I’ve also gotten some truly stellar answers to this question that have turned the interview into a conversation about where this person could help us take the company—and that is the person I want to hire.

I will caveat this one: It’s tricky, and you have to read your interviewer well to do it right, but it can also make the difference between a good and an outstanding interview.

Mistake #5: Belittling the Company

Now, here is the caveat to #4. Never, ever insult the company you’re interviewing with. Of course, you know that. But it really comes down to language and nuance, and a slip-up can be a lot more subtle than you realize.

During a recent interview, an applicant told me how she thought my company was in a “cool niche.” My team has fought hard to position ourselves as a real competitor in what we see as a very large market, so hearing an applicant tell me she thinks we’re “niche”—well, it actually stung a little. In the same vein, if you’re interviewing for a position at an “old media” or internet 2.0 company—please don’t say those words to your interviewer. It will—probably unintentionally—make it seem like you’re looking down on them.

And if you’re talking about ideas for the company to improve (or rather, “build on its successes”), or trying to communicate that you understand how the company fits into its market (particularly a market where it isn’t dominant), just always be careful to avoid any language with diminutive or dismissive connotations.

Interviewing isn’t easy. But armed with a solid (clean, 1-page, black-and-white) resume, a positive attitude, and a smart, critical eye toward the company and it’s potential, you can make yourself stand out as a cut above the pack. And trust me, do that, and your interviewer will be as thrilled to meet you as you are to meet her.

Photo of job seeker courtesy of Shutterstock.