The Red Flags on Your Resume

This week I left a comment on the React subreddit that critiqued a resume that was posted. It got a lot of upvotes.

Apparently, swyx thinks it might be the most upvoted comment on the sub. Since there seems to be some interest in this, I thought I’d expand and turn it into a blog post.

I’m going to give insight into the red flags that I notice on people’s resumes. I’m not just going to list them. I’ll try to dig deeper and explain the reasoning behind them. Also, we’ll figure out some “metrics” you should aspire to when writing your resume.

Signals vs Noise

Reading a resume is about identifying signals and skipping the “noise.” Let’s stick to positive things for now. These are my favorite signals:

  • Attention to detail.
  • Technical mastery.
  • Drive to lead or innovate.
  • Unique experiences and perspectives.
  • Ability to work with a team.
  • Focuses on outcomes, not output.

For every positive signal I can find, the likelihood of moving the candidate to the next phase increases.

Signals per Line as a Metric

As a candidate, it is your goal to help make this job easier for me by highlighting and focusing on the good stuff.

Take the signals I outlined above and think about how many of them I can find per line on your resume.

✨ You have about 40 lines of text on a single page. It should be more than enough space to include all signals.

Resumes are Full of Noise

I’ve seen hundreds of resumes and many of them are so full of noise. If you have under 5 years of experience, you can fit your resume to a single page. You might have to use a 2-column layout, but you can definitely do it. Even if you have 10+ years of experience, a single page is probably enough.

We expect engineers to write clean, concise, well-structured code. The same goes for resumes. If you can’t get the point across in just one page, then you need to get back to the drawing board.

More than 1 page is obviously fine. Nobody will fault you for it. But everything important should be on the first page.

Avoid BBoT

Big blocks of Text are a good way to make the recruiter lose focus and skip important details. Avoid long sentences and giant paragraphs. Use spacing and subtitles to break up blocks so they don’t clump together.

Comparison showing how better spacing and shorter sentences improve readability.
Compare the two. They provide the same information, but one is clearly easier to read.

I like to think of the example above as a type of “resume refactor.” A writer could also tell us that the first block is a “draft” and that the second is the edited version.

Speaking of writers, there’s a free online tool called Hemingway Editor that will help you figure out if your sentences are readable.

Our first block of text analyzed with the Hemingway Editor.
The tagline is “a spell-checker for readability.”

You Only Get 60 seconds

If there’s a flood of resumes then you probably only get 60 seconds of a recruiter’s time. If you’re lucky the company has employed enough people to give each resume a better chance. But that’s not a guarantee.

But why would you even hope for that and why would you need more? Strive to make a resume so good that 60 seconds is enough time for me to go “Yeah, this person seems like a great candidate!”

Resumes seem to be full of links to various projects, open-source repositories, and social profiles.

If provided without context they just waste the 60 seconds you have.

I already have another 50 resumes to look at, why should I waste my time and click this link? Sell me a story that makes me want to check it out! And make sure you’re including a link that’s worth clicking.

If you’re linking to a project, it should be obvious from the resume what it is and what you did there. I shouldn’t have to go through the link to actually figure that out.

If you’re linking to a repository, it should have a good README that explains things in detail and highlights the good stuff that I should look for.

If you’re linking to a profile, it should be up to date and professional.

All links should be working. A broken link is not a good look.

Avoid The First Bias

Another thing to consider is: how long will it take the recruiter to notice the first positive signal?

It seems like our brains form a first impression after just 100 milliseconds!

I’m not sure it’s possible to present a positive signal that fast, but it is definitely possible to present a negative one. For that reason, avoiding a red flag is critical.

You don’t want the first impression to be a red flag. Even if you got a lot of other things right, the unconscious bias against you has already set in.

Spelling, Grammar, and Styling

100ms is enough for me to take in the layout of the resume and decide where I want to start reading from. It’s usually your name, followed by your short summary or the first section in the resume.

Before I can get any positive signals I might encounter negative ones in form of spelling, grammar, or styling errors. This is “first bias” territory.

These are not acceptable and they will weigh against you. If your resume is not in your native language, you do not get a free pass. You are judged the same as everyone else.

These errors indicate that you do not take things seriously. You lack attention to detail and professionalism. How can I expect you to communicate well with the team or our clients if you can’t communicate well on your own resume?

On the other hand, a spotless resume also comes with the benefit of sending out some positive signals.

If it’s in your native language then it shows professionalism and attention to detail. If it’s in a language that’s not your native one, then it also showcases some bonus points for your expected communication level.

Learning to Write

Writing is a craft. If you really want to up your game, then reading Ann Handley’s “Everybody Writes” is my recommendation. It’s a goldmine of advice that will help you avoid all communication-related red flags on your resume.

Fluff Sentences

Another red flag this odd type of “noise” that also comes with some impossible claims. My favorite line goes something like this:

I wrote fully-functional, high-quality clean code.

I’ve seen many variations of this sentence. Let’s break it down:

  • “Fully-functional code?” Really? So, you mean to tell me you did the bare minimum we all do, but you want to dress it up in a fancy suit and tie?
    • Imagine for a moment if a restaurant advertised with the line “we deliver fully-eatable food.”
  • “High-quality code?” In what way? Any metrics? Did you decide it was “high quality” or someone else?
  • “Clean code?” As in you followed all of Uncle Bob’s advice? Or is there some other definition? And you did this by yourself without anyone checking it?

It’s a bit risky to say these things because engineers don’t really agree on a definition for any of these terms. But there’s something else that’s great about this type of fluff.

The remarks I outlined above are not what make this a red flag. Maybe I’ll look at their project on GitHub and I’ll really go “wow, that’s some awesome code!”

What makes this a red flag is that this type of candidate usually focuses only on their output, not the outcomes they’ve achieved during their career.

For a junior position that’s fine. But for a senior engineer? Now that’s a big problem.

Another red flag is that this reads a lot like: “I don’t really have that much experience, so I’m listing off words that will impress you.”

Again, not a great look.

Focus on Your Work Experience

If you have work experience already, then this should be the meat of your resume. This is the focus. Tell us what you did and what value you delivered.

Your work experience is not the place to list off a hundred technologies and libraries. It’s not there for you to write about “clean code” and “best practices.”

It’s there for you to show you have a proven track record of delivering value and problem-solving. Focus on:

  • What you shipped and some of the toughest challenges you solved.
  • The processes and practices you implemented, innovated, or improved.
  • The people you lead and/or mentored.

If you can back up these claims with some data points that you can defend and elaborate on further in the interview, then that’s a big positive signal.

One thing I used to mention on my own resume was how I completed a big refactor that modernized the codebase and increased velocity by ~80%.

This was an intense 2-month long task and I have years of data points to prove the increase in velocity. It’s a great example of the stuff people like to hear about. It’s also a great story to discuss at conferences and meetups.

Work Experience Red Flags

I already mentioned that listing off a bunch of libraries in your work section is not the best idea. It’s a red flag that you think that that’s the important information you should be presenting.

Another one is the abuse of the words “we” and ”team.” This might seem counter-intuitive as good teamwork is an important skill. One of my good signals at the start wars indeed: “Ability to work with a team.”

But this section is about you and your work experience. We know that you work in a team. Feel free to tell us a bit about that. Afterward, focus on what you contributed.

The red flag here is that if you always use the plural form, we are left without the knowledge of what you’re capable of on your own.

✨ I acknowledge that this might be a cultural thing that mostly applies to the US and Western Europe. If you are applying to western companies, but come from a different cultural mindset, you should research and adapt to this.

Skill Sections

I don’t know who invented the resume templates that use graphs, dots, and stars to measure your skills, but they really pulled one over on us.

What does “80% JavaScript” mean as a skill? Or a score of 4/5 on React. What measures are you using and who are you benchmarking against?

An example of the horrible skill chart.
This one is especially interesting to me because HTML and CSS are clumped together. That’s a red flag on its own.

Another bad thing is that these graphics usually take at least half of the page. Yikes!

They provide no information and raise a red flag because I constantly ask myself: “Why did they think this was a good idea?”

Here’s an article from Resume Genius that really goes in-depth on why this is such a horrible idea.

It’s Not a package.json File

It’s amazing what people have listed on their resume. It really ends up looking like a package.json file.

It doesn’t matter if you’ve used MaterialUI or Bootstrap. We’re not going to give you a big plus even if we use them. And we’re not going to give you a minus if something we like is missing.

The only exception I see here is if you applying as a freelancer for short-term contracts. In that case, an employer will likely want to know what you know right now and what you’ll have to learn along the way.

Education

Did you study computer science or a related field? Highlight this even if you haven’t graduated. Usually you want this after your work experience and skills section.

If you have a masters, PHD, or an MBA, then make this section a bit more prominent. Include graduation dates or years of active study.

If you’re switching from a different industry, then it’s a complicated subject. Some argue against including it. Personally, I see nothing wrong with it.

To me, it shows dedication that you’ve completed something. I think it’s normal to switch careers and develop new interests. It’s a very “human thing” to do.

But in that case, it should not be placed on a prominent position on your resume. The info should probably be slim.

Diverse Education as a Strength

However, if you finished a degree in agriculture and are applying to a company that makes software for farms… guess what? Bingo!

Now that’s an opportunity to show that not only will you get the work done, but you’ll also have the domain knowledge to lead.

It doesn’t just have to be a degree. There might be an angle to make your non-tech education or past experiences shine if you know they will help your application. A motivational letter might be the better place for this.

Courses? Bootcamps? Certificates?

I think it’s fine to include these as well. But only if they were something that actually took some time and effort to complete. A two-week course on Udemy is not much to go on and could be seen as a bit of a red flag.

Courses that took months of continual work and learning are what you should focus on. You don’t really have to include too much info here. Keep the section small.

The same goes for certificates.

Unprofessional Photographs

I personally don’t include my photo in my resume. It’s present on my LinkedIn and GitHub profile if anyone cares that much.

Racism and sexism are definitely a concern for a lot of groups. I’m not qualified to give any advice on this.

In some cultures (like Japan) it’s almost mandatory to include one, so the culture is definitely another aspect.

Regardless, if you choose to include a photo, then it has to be a professional photograph. You should be placed against a neutral background with your face making up most of the picture.

I’ve seen many unprofessional photographs and they instill a bad feeling. People crop out their portrait from events such as weddings, graduation day, and prom. Yikes!

(Un)Interesting Interests

The same person who invented the “graphical skills section” probably invented the awkward interests section.

My rule of thumb is to skip this section unless:

  • There’s something that ties into your work or is unique.
  • Your hobbies fit the company culture of the place you’re applying to.
  • You don’t have much work experience to focus on, but your hobbies showcase technical skills.

As an example of the first, let’s say you love baking. And you love it so much you built a custom Arduino rig that measures your sourdough starter’s activity.

Now that’s definitely interesting and worth including in a small “interests” section. It also shows that you’re capable of being passionate about something and going the extra mile for it. As an employer, I’d love to see that and find a way to get you that invested in my company.

An example of the second: there’s a company in my hometown that organizes some sort of group cooking day as a company activity. If you’re a passionate home cook, you’d probably like to include this as a sign that you fit in with the culture.

However, if you’re just going to list off “the usual boring stuff,” then skip the section. It’s not a red flag, but the space could probably be used better.

Oh, and if you include “reading” as a hobby, be prepared to answer the question: “What’s the last book you read?” I’d never do that to someone, but it seems a lot of recruiters and HR do this.

Over-designed

Some of the resumes I’ve seen featured over-the-top design with all sorts of colors, icons, and graphics. You don’t need these to stand out. They just contribute to the noise factor.

If having a nice design is something you want to achieve as it’s part of the position, then I would suggest going with minimalism.

“Less is more.”

Focus on nice typography, appealing colors, and consistent spacing.

Ask People to Review

Like with code, you want as many eyeballs on your resume as possible. If you pick out people at random, you might get some bad advice, so it’s best to find people who look at resumes for a living.

You should have some recruiters and HR in your professional network, so reach out for advice. If you go with a recruitment agency, they should also provide this service to you.

There are even people out there offering to review your resume for something like $40. That’s a relatively small investment for something that will help you land a bigger paycheck.

In fact, after writing this article, I feel like I should start a service like that myself.

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