The résumé is a strategic document. There's a reason behind the way that it is structured and what is included so you can effectively convey your value to prospective employers. However, there are several things that can absolutely torpedo your résumé if you aren't aware of them. Here are some pitfalls to avoid:
1) Accidentally revealing your age.
You need to neutralize your resume so you don't tip your hand on how old you are... both new entrants to the workplace and more mature workers struggle with this issue, and plenty of employers out there have misconceptions about what each generation of workers are capable of doing/not doing. Your goal is to make your career document as neutral as possible. Get into this mindset: If it isn't on there, it can' be discriminated against.
Key areas to evaluate are the following:
a. Your email address - does it say anything about what year you graduated, your interests, your age? Safe bet: use your name and if you have a common name, include a couple of random numbers with your name in your email address.
b. What year you graduated - unless you are going into an educational or technical field, leave it off. Human resource managers can do the math, and that can reveal your age!
c. How long is your work history - the 'sweet' spot is no more than 15-20 years of work history. Anything more screams your age, and usually, after 15-20 years, you have already eclipsed what you did long ago either in accomplishments or career levels, so you'll have to do some editing. Think of it this way: we don't do business the way we did over 20 years ago, so what you accomplished back then is now obsolete!
2) Producing an error-filled résumé.
You'd be surprised at how many people, including top C+ level executives, are marching around with résumés riddled with errors. Check everything- including consistency of use, spelling, punctuation, grammar and formatting. Remember, this is supposed to be your best foot forward, and if you can't even get that right, that tells a prospective employer that you won't be doing a much better job if you were to become their employee.
3) Lack of focus/one-size-fits-all approach.
The truth of the matter is that résumés have to be highly targeted, laser-precise documents now, given that many employers are using applicant tracking software to scan for relevant keywords. Even if a company isn't using this filter, you still need to immediately capture their attention and prove your relevancy towards the position opening.
So it is even more critical that you create 'thematic' résumés that play up your career strengths. Anyone who has spent time in the workforce likely has several different cards to play out of their deck when it comes to the types of jobs they are targeting. As an example, I am a résumé writer, an instructor, have been a television producer, a meeting planner, tourism development manager, and also been in sales and marketing. Each one of those fields would be highlighted in a different résumé, and unless my experience directly relates to the document theme, I leave it off. Think relevancy. That brings clarity to the document, and helps you determine the correct keyword cloud to associate with that particular theme. That alone can improve your keyword hits or really hit home to someone reading your résumé that you are a match to their position opening.
4) Lack of a cover letter.
Believe it or not, human resource managers will say that cover letters, while maybe not immediately grabbing their attention, are important components of the résumé. It's like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich- you need to have both to make the magic combination; they simply go together! The résumé are the facts, and the cover letter is the compelling reason of how you are going to help the target company, and why they should hire you. These documents cannot stand alone independent of each other.
5) Leaving yourself open to bias in the résumé review stage.
It's an uncomfortable fact that in that back room, where the human resource person is sifting through résumés, that personal bias comes into play. It's difficult to prove, and employers deny it, but the reality is that it DOES happen. Use some critical thought about what you are putting down under your affiliations and involvement section of your résumé. The reasons that someone might toss your résumé out are truly mind-boggling. No matter how innocuous your experience might be, someone else on the other end might misconstrue it.
As a very good example: I worked on client's résumé last year and included under his "Involvement" section that he had volunteered with Friends of Trees, which plants trees in the parking strip between the street and the sidewalk. Generally, this group is perceived as a positive entity by increasing neighborhood livability, the overall canopy, and aesthetics of homes. However, he got an interview with a company (he's in a conservative field) and the boss came in, threw down the résumé, and said, "Well, I see we have a real tree-hugger here, now don't we?" How's that for the first comment in an interview? We ended up revising the client résumé statement to indicate that he was involved in his neighborhood association instead. But this is a dramatic example of how much people can take your personal activities out of context and make their own interpretations based on their own bias.
Areas to avoid listing: (unless it directly applies to your target position)
Political activities/affiliations/experience - do you really know what the leanings are of your target audience? You could be on one end of the spectrum and the reader on the other, and they could pass over you because it was clear that before they even met you that there were fundamental disagreements on viewpoints.
Religous activities involvement - if you are heavily involved in your faith, and have listed extensive roles in this arena (including missionary work)- an objection that a human resource manager might come up with is that you might try to proselytize fellow co-workers, which would cause problems in the workplace.
Specific (particularly health) organizational involvement- Many people are involved in noble causes such as Lance Armstrong's LiveStrong Foundation, Race for the Cure and the like. However, if you list extensive involvement in those types of health areas, it might give an employer cause to wonder: Does this candidate have cancer or do they have a serious illness? Your generous donation of time and energy to these organizations is great, but it can be taken out of context- so be careful how many you might list! One is fine, but any more than that could set off alarm bells in the mind of the human resource person, unless of course you are applying for a job in a related company.
Gender/racial/ethnic-specific organizational involvement: These areas are hot potatoes as they can serve as lightning rods for prejudice. However, the flip side is that by providing a hint about your background, it can also attract companies who are interested in building a more diverse workforce. The key is to know your audience and determine what they are receptive to before listing these types of affiliation or involvement.
Being aware of these pitfalls can help you be more savvy in developing your résumé, and remove obstacles that could be holding you back.