Writing Mistakes Job Seekers Make, with Donna Svei

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Find Your Dream Job, Episode 167:

Writing Mistakes Job Seekers Make, with Donna Svei

Airdate: November 28, 2018

Mac Prichard:

This is Find Your Dream Job, the podcast that helps you get hired, have the career you want, and make a difference in life.

I’m your host, Mac Prichard. I’m also the publisher of Mac’s List. It’s an online community that connects talented professionals with meaningful work.

I believe everyone can find a job they love. But to do that, you need to learn the skills to build a successful career.

From professional networking to personal branding, you’ve got to get good at job hunting.

This show helps you do this. Every week on Find Your Dream Job, I talk to a different career expert. We discuss the tools and tactics you need to find the work you want.

This week, I’m talking to Donna Svei about writing mistakes job seekers make.

Donna Svei is an expert in executive resumes and LinkedIn profiles.

She works with executives across the world. Donna sees a lot of resumes, cover letters, and thank you notes.

In our conversation today, Donna tells me that even the most experienced candidates make small writing mistakes. Often this happens because the applicant is on auto-pilot, follows old habits, or doesn’t pay attention to details.

These writing errors might seem minor, Donna says in our interview. But make just one and it can cost you the job.

Donna had a candidate who put together the perfect application. And this person nailed her interviews. But then she made one slip in her writing and that led the employer to offer the job to someone else.

In our interview, Donna shares how you can avoid her client’s fatal error.

Donna and I also talk about the best ways to present yourself when writing your resume. We look at whether you need an old-fashioned cover letter. And we discuss how to write a thank you note that makes you shine.

Want to learn more? Listen in now at the Mac’s List studio as I interview Donna Svei.

Donna Svei is an executive resume writer and a former retained search consultant. Her company, AvidCareerist, helps clients craft interview-winning resumes and LinkedIn profiles.

Donna joins us today from Sun Valley, Idaho.

Donna, thanks for being on the show.

Donna Svei:

Mac, I’m happy to be here.

Mac Prichard:

It’s a pleasure to have you. Our topic this week, as you know, is writing mistakes that job seekers make. Donna, you’re in a great position to see these because you help people with resumes, but also cover letters and even thank you notes.

What kind of mistakes are we talking about? What are you seeing out there, Donna?

Donna Svei:

Let’s see, probably the most serious mistake someone could make is misspelling somebody’s name on a letter.

Mac Prichard:

That sounds pretty awful.

Donna Svei:

It is. Or, I swear, on every search I did, and I did over four hundred of them as a retained search consultant, I always got at least one cover letter that was actually addressed to someone else.

Mac Prichard:

That’s another pretty bad one.

Donna Svei:

It is. I always chuckled at those and felt for the person who had done that.

Mac Prichard:

Okay, well, why… how about number three? What is an example of another terrible writing mistake you see?

Donna Svei:

Also in cover letters, I would see misused homonyms. The most common one was something like, “Your job posting peaked my interest.” and the piqued would be spelled p-e-a-k-e-d instead of p-i-q-u-e-d.

Again, I saw that in every search I did and that one, I saw more than once. In fact, I used to joke and say, “I’ve really got to check the dictionary and see if they’ve just consolidated to one spelling.

For the thing that sounds like peaked.

Mac Prichard:

Why do these things happen, Donna? I mean, we live in an age with spell check, and, you know, people that you work with, I know, are candidates for executive positions so they’re well educated and have a great deal of experience. What’s going on here? Why does this happen?

Donna Svei:

Well, Mac, spell check doesn’t catch homonyms.

Mac Prichard:

Good point.

Donna Svei:

Peaked and piqued are homonyms. They sound exactly the same but they’re spelled differently and based on how they’re spelled, they have different meanings. I think sometimes people really aren’t aware of how to spell a homonym correctly.

Other times I think, you know, we’re just on auto-pilot. We’ve got a lot of cognitive load and that homonym just doesn’t get to our awareness.

Mac Prichard:

On the receiving end, people do notice, don’t they, when they receive a letter with a misused word like that?

Donna Svei:

If they know that the word has been misused, they absolutely notice.

Mac Prichard:

What are the effects of these kinds of mistakes? When somebody makes, which is admittedly in the grand scheme of things, a small error, what kind of difference can it make to a job application?

Donna Svei:

Well, Mac, for some readers of a job seeker’s materials, one mistake will eliminate them from consideration. I think that’s a little draconian. I used to ignore one or two mistakes that just weren’t egregious.  I really had to because if I eliminated every candidate who sent me a cover letter and a resume that had a mistake in it, I wouldn’t have been able to complete my searches.

That’s how common they are. What I would do is point them out to my client and say, “Look, I did notice these mistakes or this mistake. I don’t think it’s serious enough to eliminate this person from consideration. However, if you really need them to be able to produce flawlessly written materials, they’re clearly not our person.”

Many of the people I was recruiting for would have people working for them who would check their work. While it was a “would be nice.” it wasn’t an essential. But not everyone gives candidates that latitude.

Mac Prichard:

You’ve been hired in the past in your career to help companies find people and manage searches. Was your reaction, your willingness to give the applicant the benefit of the doubt if there were one or two minor mistakes, was that exceptional or is the world largely filled with people who take the draconian position?

Donna Svei:

You know, there’s some research on that and I think, without digging into my files, I think it was a study that Kimberly Schneiderman at RiseSmart did. As I recall, and these are round numbers, that would be a killer mistake for 15 to 20% of people who responded to Kimberly’s survey.

Then there was another group who was willing to cut people some slack.

Mac Prichard:

What’s going on here, Donna? Are these just people who are persnickety or are they using this as a way to manage the process? To cull out resumes to get to a smaller group of applicants?

Donna Svei:

Well, certainly there are some persnickety people in there and some people do approach searches as a cull-out type of exercise. I try to approach them as a “find reasons to include a candidate” approach.

Again, I go back to my clients had jobs that needed to be filled. If we expected perfection, by and large, we were going to have trouble filling those positions.

Not all recruiters are looking to cull; some are really looking to include.

Mac Prichard:

Well, let’s talk about, I want to get into mistakes that are specific to things like resumes and cover letters and thank you notes.

Before we do that though, are there any other common errors you want to add to your list of things that you’ve seen? Both as a resume writer working with executives and also as, in the past, managing searches for companies.

Donna Svei:

I would go to mass errors. Just numbers on resumes that don’t make sense. That was a much bigger deal to me than a misspelling, particularly a misspelling that wouldn’t have been caught by a spellchecker.

I saw a lot of executive resumes, even Chief Financial Officer resumes, that had math on them that simply didn’t make sense. That goes to a person’s analytical skills and ability to evaluate information and following on that, the ability to make decisions from information.

When I see an executive who has numbers on their resume that are meaningless or incorrect, that was something that caused me to sort them out of consideration.

Mac Prichard:

I’m surprised that would pop up from an applicant for perhaps a CFO or Chief Financial Officer position but you have seen that and it does happen.

Donna Svei:

Way more than once.

Mac Prichard:

Okay. I was wanting to talk about how listeners can catch these errors before they hit the send button. In addition to math problems, what are some other examples of writing mistakes? You’ve already mentioned a few but what would pop up on your top ten list of writing mistakes in applications?

Donna Svei:

Well, let’s see. I had a candidate who was interviewing for the Chief Human Resource Officer role at a technology startup in the Seattle area. She had a fabulous interview. I debriefed with her right after the interview and I could tell that it had gone very well.

She fired off her thank you letter to the hiring manager. As I recall, it was probably the Chief Operating Officer of the company, and she misspelled his name.

Mac Prichard:

Yikes.

Donna Svei:

In her thank you letter. I got a call from my client that said, “She is out.” I said, “Well, what about the interview?” And the person who was handling the search internally for my client said, “He thinks that really matters. She is out.”

There was absolutely no negotiating on that. Again, getting names right is really important.

Mac Prichard:

Why was that the deal breaker? I’m not surprised to hear that reaction but tell us more, what was in that person’s head when they told you that it wasn’t going to go forward?

Donna Svei:

I didn’t try to get in his head. He was the decision maker. He had made a decision. It was very clear it wasn’t negotiable, that I wasn’t going to influence it, so I accepted it.

Mac Prichard:

What I’m trying to get at, Donna, is why was that unacceptable but maybe people might get cut some slack for some other writing mistakes? I can understand his reaction.

Donna Svei:

Well, one reason, Mac, interestingly, is all she really had to do is ask for his business card, which is a very normal thing two people do when they meet each other. She would have had the correct spelling of his name.

As I recall, it was about her attention to detail which he thought was important.

Have I answered your question?

Mac Prichard:

You have and I want to say, when you were telling that story I was feeling a little queasy because last week I sent a text to a client and I was in a hurry and I hit send and I opened by addressing the person by name, you know, hi, and then I went back and I looked back at thought, “Oh my god, I misspelled the client’s name.”

This wasn’t somebody that was new to my world but I had known a long time and I know well. I tell this story because I recognize how important it is to get people’s names right. Whether you’re pronouncing them or writing them out, or obviously both.

I can understand the CEO’s reaction and I can understand why the person had such strong feelings.

Donna Svei:

Yeah, you can’t correspond in a hurry if it’s something that really matters to you. You just can’t.

Mac Prichard:

Yeah, I agree.

Now, we’re going to pause for a moment and when we come back, we’ve talked about these writing mistakes and other errors. I want to talk about how people can prevent them. You gave a great example a moment ago about collecting business cards. I’d love to get some of those other ideas on the table.

Donna Svei:

I would too.

Mac Prichard:

Bear with us. We’ll be right back in a moment with Donna Svei of AvidCareerist.*

We all make mistakes in our writing, even on job applications.

Here’s a doozy I made once. Years ago I applied for a government job. To complete the application, I had to retype my resume on an official form.

When I did this, I transposed two numbers in my postal address. And I didn’t catch my error.

A week later, the employer asked me via US mail to join the next step of the hiring process. But I never got the letter because it was delivered to the incorrect address I put in my application. So I didn’t learn about this opportunity until after a deadline had passed.

Now, I could have caught my typo if I’d asked someone to proofread my application. That’s a habit good writers practice.

And I might have gotten that job.

But I’ll never know, will I?

I’m not alone in making these kinds of writing mistakes. Hiring managers tell me they see not only typos but seven other common errors on resumes and other application materials.

Here’s the good news. You can teach yourself to catch and fix these mistakes before you turn in your resume.

And I’ve got a new, free guide that shows you how to this. It’s called Don’t Make These 8 Killer Resume Mistakes. And you can get it today. Go to macslist.org/resumemistakes.

In just 10 pages, I give you eight practical tips you can use now to create a well-written resume.

Get your free copy today. Go to maclist.org/resumemistakes.

Don’t let a typo ruin your next job application the way I did.

Go to macslist.org/resumemistakes.

Now, let’s get back to the show.

We’re back in the Mac’s List studio with Donna Svei. She’s an executive resume writer and the founder of AvidCareerist.

I apologize, Donna, I scrambled the name of your company.

Donna Svei:

I had to laugh. Following the conversation we just had.

Mac Prichard:

I know.

Donna Svei:

Easy to do.

Mac Prichard:

Well, thank you for not hanging up. You’re very patient.

Before we took the break, we were talking about writing mistakes that you’ve seen job seekers make because you look at resumes all the time, you’ve helped companies find great candidates, and we talked about resumes and thank you letters.

What about cover letters, Donna?

First of all, let me ask you this, is the cover letter dead?

Donna Svei:

I wish it was.

Mac Prichard:

Why is that? Tell me more.

Donna Svei:

Well, you know, different studies give different numbers on how many people, hiring managers and recruiters, actually read cover letters. It goes as low as 20%. If one in five people are going to read your cover letter, how much effort do you really want to put into it?

Unfortunately, there are some people who think that the cover letter is more important than the resume. That it tells them more about someone. I’m not one of those people. In fact, when I was a search consultant, I asked for resumes. I did not want cover letters. I didn’t ask for them. Most people sent them anyway.

The only time I ever read someone’s cover letter was if my client said to me, “Hey, so and so referred this person, will you be sure to take a look at them?” Then I would think, “Oh great, I have to read their cover letter.”

No, it’s not dead, but I wish it was.

Mac Prichard:

What do you say to listeners who are wondering, “Should I do a cover letter?” What would be your advice?

Donna Svei:

Well, I would say, if you can, write what I call an opportunity letter. I can give you a link to that when we get done with the call, Mac.

Where you discuss something in the cover letter that you did that was really exciting. Saving that, I tend to think of cover letters as transmittal letters. Tell the person why you’re writing to them. Get on with getting them reading your resume.

Mac Prichard:

Are there common mistakes you see people make when they’re composing their cover letters and sending them off?

Donna Svei:

You know, the one that really comes to mind is the you “peaked” my interest. That one, like I said, I saw it on every search.

I saw getting a letter to Mr. Mac Prichard instead of Ms. Donna Svei on every search.

Those are the things people do wrong.

Mac Prichard:

Why does that happen, Donna? Is there a way people can prevent those errors?

Donna Svei:

Well, that’s such a great question. You have to double check. Double check how you spell a name, double check that you’ve got this going to the right person, just be careful.

Mac Prichard:

Do you have some favorite tips for listeners about how to check their work? Things that you’ve found to be very effective over the years.

Donna Svei:

Well, one thing I do is, I constitutionally cannot type the word manager correctly. Can not do it. I always type manger. Instead of m-a-n-a-g-e-r, I type m-a-n-g-e-r. Word think that’s a word. As in Away In A Manger, right? Word doesn’t catch the mistake.

Knowing that I do that consistently, I set up an auto-correct in Word so that any time I type the word “manger” it automatically changes it to manager. Because I really don’t use the word “manger.”

Mac Prichard:

That’s a great tip. I have a friend who is a very successful writer, he gets paid to write for a living, he still struggles with its versus it’s, you know the contraction.

Donna Svei:

That’s a good one, Mac.

Mac Prichard:

Yeah, it is and the way he tries to catch it is by reading his text out loud. It takes time but that’s a method that works for him.

Donna Svei:

That’s a good tip. This comes from the Wayback machine when I worked for Deloitte. We had to manually proof annual reports before we released them. We would have one person read while one person listened to the report. That’s another way to do it.

Another thing is to read them backward. If you see a word that you know you frequently get wrong, like “its” and “it’s”, stop and check. Did I get it right this time?

Mac Prichard:

I’ve heard of people reading texts backwards but I’ve never actually done it. Have you had that experience, Donna?

Donna Svei:

Have I done that?

Mac Prichard:

Yeah.

Donna Svei:

Yeah, we did that at Deloitte also.

Mac Prichard:

Okay, that’s impressive.

Donna Svei:

Well, we had to be perfect. These were SEC documents and we were being paid what we were being paid because we were able to produce them perfectly.

Mac Prichard:

Okay. I’ve found that the ear is such a great editor. Whether you’re reading forward or backward, it catches things that the eyes miss, doesn’t it?

Donna Svei:

Mhm.

Mac Prichard:

We haven’t talked about grammar at all. We did mention, or use the word, persnickety earlier, which I think is an adjective often linked with people who are passionate about grammar.

What advice do you have for people who might struggle with grammatical issues and how can they fix that before they hit that send button?

Donna Svei:

I live and die by Grammarly which has a free version and a premium version so people can try it and they may find that the free version works for them. As much as I write, I write 20,000 words a week, I use a premium version of Grammarly.

I think most people have heard of it now, I don’t know. What do you think, Mac?

Mac Prichard:

I’m not sure. I have certainly heard of it. I do a lot of writing, as do you. What do you like about it, particularly for job seekers who might not do a lot of writing outside of their job applications? What makes it a good tool?

Donna Svei:

It catches my errors, it shows me spelling errors, it shows me sentence construction errors, it’s just a great help. As time goes by, it’s really like having your own English teacher embedded in your computer. You develop an awareness of the mistakes you make all the time and then you start figuring out a way to fix them.

It’s fabulous, for instance, at identifying the passive voice and you really don’t want too many sentences on your resume or in your cover letter that are written in the passive voice. Grammarly will make you stop doing that.

It will also catch things like prepositions at the end of a sentence. It’s really fabulous.

Mac Prichard:

I know your clients often invest a lot of resources, into a resume and other application materials. Do you ever work with real-life editors? Do you ever recommend that to job seekers?

Donna Svei:

You know, I don’t. But a friend of mine, another careers author, Alison Doyle, who’s very well known and respected, fesses up to using real editors. She hires them via a service called Editorr.com. It’s Editorr.com. Alison swears by them.

In fact, she just made a comment on a Linkedin post this morning, one that Hannah Morgan from Career Sherpa made, about, Hannah was talking about the tools she uses and Hannah’s a frequent writer. She writes for herself and for US News and World Report and some other outlets.

This is the second time that I’ve seen Alison say, “I use Editorr.com, you guys.”

Mac Prichard:

Did she share why she’s such a big fan of the service? What the benefits are?

Donna Svei:

They are fast, they’re inexpensive, and they’re excellent. According to her. I have looked at their website and in fact, they are very reasonable.

Mac Prichard:

Well, I’m a big fan of Alison Doyle’s work online.

Donna Svei:

Me too.

Mac Prichard:

Yeah, she’s great and we’ve had Hannah on the show.

Donna Svei:

Okay.

Mac Prichard:

She’s also terrific. Those are both great recommendations.

We’ve talked about writing mistakes. One thing we haven’t talked about is format. Let’s talk about presentation. The length of resumes, for example, the way they’re presented, and on the show, we’ve had some passionate conversations about the length of resumes.

Are you a one or a two-page person, Donna? Or are you agnostic?

Donna Svei:

I’m am an “it depends” person.

Mac Prichard:

Okay, tell us more.

Donna Svei:

Well, if you’ve got one page of material, you’ve got one page of material. Most executives need two pages to tell their story. I will tell you, another lockout factor for me when I was recruiting, was an executive who sent me a three-page resume.

That was because I would look at their resume and think, “If they can’t discern what’s urgent and important and get this story down to two pages, then somebody is going to have to manage the materials they prepare for the board of directors.”

Most of the searches I was working on, people were involved with board relationships. It was a deal killer for me.

Mac Prichard:

Do you make an exception for academic applicants, people pursuing University positions who might say, well… it’s typical there?

Donna Svei:

Yes.

Mac Prichard:

To have a longer CV too.

Donna Svei:

Yes, or somebody who really needs to present their scientific publication. What we do is, we do a two-page resume and then we have an addendum that includes their publications.

Mac Prichard:

Well, that’s length. What about format? Sometimes you’ll see resumes that have lots of rules and bars and even illustrations or photographs. What are your thoughts about that?

Donna Svei:

Well, I did the math once and figured that I have read over 100,000 resumes. You have to put yourself in the reader’s shoes. You have to reduce their cognitive load as much as you possibly can because your resume is probably not the only resume they’re reading.

After you read about three or four, they become burdensome. Sometimes I would open a file and I would see so much text that I’d almost want to cry. “I don’t want to read this thing.”

I like a very simple format. That’s because of cognitive load but it’s also because, increasingly, hiring managers and recruiters are reading resumes on their mobile devices, on their phones. You talked, Mac, about pull-out boxes and shading and things like that; images often really break up text when they go onto a phone.

If the resume isn’t responsive, it’s not a responsive design, meaning technically that the image will scale up and down depending on the device it’s on, then you’ve got a real problem. When you have someone reading your resume on a phone and you’ve included all that fancy stuff.

Mac Prichard:

Okay, well, good advice to close on. Tell us, Donna, what’s next for you?

Donna Svei:

Oh, more of the same. Writing executive resumes, blogging about job search. That’s what I do.

Mac Prichard:

I have to say, I’m impressed. 100,000 resumes reviewed. That’s an impressive figure.

Donna Svei:

Yeah, I don’t want that on my tombstone. I think, “She skied as much as she wanted to,” would be a better epitaph.

Mac Prichard:

Yeah, that’s sounds a lot better. Well, I know people can learn more about you Donna by visiting your website. That’s avidcareerist.com.

Thanks for being on the show today.

Donna Svei:

Mac, it was my complete pleasure. Thank you.

Mac Prichard:

You’re welcome. Take care.

I enjoyed that conversation with Donna and I hope you did too. A couple of takeaways for me; one is the importance of paying attention to your writing. That seems obvious but, as Donna said, sometimes we’re on autopilot and we just don’t pay attention to detail.

As she also pointed out, one small slip like misspelling a name, getting an address wrong, these can torpedo your job application and move you from the yes pile to the reject pile. Don’t let that happen.

I also enjoyed Donna’s very tactical and practical advice about how you avoid these errors. We’ve got some similar advice in our new guide at Mac’s List.

It’s called Don’t make these 8 Killer Resume Mistakes. It’s based on what I hear from employers who, like Donna, keep seeing the same errors again and again.

You don’t have to make those mistakes. Go to macslist.org/resumemistakes and download your free copy of our guide today.

In the meantime, thank you for listening to today’s episode of Find Your Dream Job.

Join us next Wednesday when our special guest will be Tammy Gooler Loeb. She’s going to share her networking tips for introverts and everybody else.

Until next time, thanks for letting us help you find your dream job!

Imagine that you are a candidate for a great job. You put together the perfect application, you nail the interview, and it looks like the job is yours on a silver platter. But in your thank you note, you misspell the name of the hiring manager. That simple mistake can mean that the phone call you’re waiting for, offering you the job, never comes. Our guest this week on the Find Your Dream Job podcast, Donna Svei, says that even the most experienced professional can make resume mistakes. Donna shares how to avoid these mistakes, the best way to present yourself when crafting a resume, and whether or not you need a cover letter.

About Our Guest:

Donna Svei is an executive resume writer and a former retained search consultant. She has read over 100,000 resumes in her career and seen the same mistakes over and over, even in the resumes of top CEOs. Her company, Avid Careerist, helps clients craft interview-winning resumes and LinkedIn profiles.

Resources in this episode:

  • Visit Donna’s website, Avid Careerist, for several sample resumes, along with helpful articles, for job seekers to get an idea of what a professionally written resume looks like.
  • If you tend to make writing mistakes, it could be helpful to work with an editor. Donna suggests online tools such as Grammarly or opt for personal support with Editorr.