Public Relations Tactics

To whom it may concern: Five mistakes HR managers warn against on résumés and cover letters

April 7, 2008

Copyright © 2008 PRSA. All rights reserved.

By Joseph Priest

The following article appears in the April issue of Tactics.

Visualize an HR manager who, after placing a job posting, receives more than 200 résumés from qualified candidates. He or she is also reviewing a similar number of résumés for four other positions. Plus, he or she is planning and managing a number of other HR programs that demand attention.

Faced with this mountain of résumés and responsibilities, such a manager may only have a few moments to review each résumé and cover letter and select candidates for further consideration. Consequently, with such a limited time frame to make an impression, basics such as spelling and formatting had better be right the first time.

In particular, recent interviews with PR agency HR managers uncovered some common spelling and formatting mistakes that can doom a job application. Below are five of these mistakes that they urge PR job candidates to always guard against.

1. What’s in a name?
If you’re addressing a résumé or cover letter to a particular person, don’t assume the spelling for the person’s first name. You’re likely familiar with such alternate spellings as Stephen and Steven and Sara and Sarah, but the list nowadays is much more extensive. For example, consider the spellings of these celebrities’ names: Courteney (instead of Courtney) Cox, Nicolas (instead of Nicholas) Cage, and Barbra (instead of Barbara) Streisand.

Most HR managers’ first names are easily verifiable, and getting them wrong shows you didn’t do your homework. For this reason, just as you would automatically ask for the spelling of someone’s last name, always find out how a first name is spelled if you’re addressing this person.

2. Form letter faux pas
Just as bad as a misspelled word is a cover letter that includes the name of another company instead of the company to which it’s supposed to be addressed: “I’ve researched your company extensively and believe I can make a significant contribution in the position of account executive at Company XYZ [instead of Company ABC].”  This kind of mistake is both careless and off-putting.

If you use a form to develop multiple cover letters, remember two cardinal rules: 1) use a template with blank spaces for the company name and save a different version of this template each time you complete a letter to a company; and 2) double, triple and quadruple check all the places where the company name appears in a completed cover letter to make sure you have the same company named throughout.

3. The usual suspects
When it comes to highlighting your résumé with fonts, boldfacing, underlining and italics, the lightest touch possible will be the most appreciated by HR managers.  At the same time, these provide important structure in a résumé or cover letter.

Here are some guidelines to keep in mind about the usual suspects that can weaken — or strengthen — a résumé or cover letter:

Fonts: Use one standard font and no more than two font sizes to avoid a disorganized appearance. Fancy fonts that require squinting can be a trigger to frustrating an HR manager.

Boldface: Use boldface only for your name and section headings, and resist the temptation to use it anywhere else.

Underlining: Don’t use it because it draws the reader’s eye away from other equally important parts of a résumé.

Italics: Limit the use of italics to the names of publications (e.g., The Los Angeles Times).

4. About those e-mail addresses . . .
Many job candidates unthinkingly use personal e-mail addresses for job applications. Don’t. E-mail addresses like “,” “” or “” may be funny to your friends, but not to HR managers who have to make serious decisions about which candidates will most help their companies succeed.  A business-appropriate e-mail address with some form of your first or last name is quick and free to create, so there’s no excuse not to use one.

5. Keep it to one page and one inch
If your experience is limited or if you can reasonably limit your résumé to one page, do so. If you have held many positions and cannot describe your career on one page, then two pages are acceptable. Keep in mind, though, that candidates who write long résumés are sometimes seen as unable to organize information quickly and disrespectful of a reader’s time. Keep your résumé succinct and use your cover letter to call out a few things that you’re most proud of.

Likewise, set all margins for one inch and discipline yourself from reducing these margins to cram in more text.

As a final note, one of the best ways to avoid the five mistakes above is to have your résumé proofed by at least two people who ideally 1) hire people as part of their jobs and 2) have writing skills you respect. Mistakes on résumés and cover letters are unacceptable and potentially career limiting, so always do the extra work to make yours perfect.

Joseph Priest is editor of online communications at Ketchum’s New York office and co-writes a monthly style-and-usage newsletter. He can be reached at

PRSA launches updated JobCenter
PRSA is proud to announce the launch of their updated JobCenter. PRSA officials say this will be a fully featured site that will have greater and easier-to-use functionalities for both job seekers and employers. 

In addition to résumé posting now being free, anonymous résumé posting has been added as an option for job seekers. Employers now have the benefit of pre-screen filters, bulk posting and a user-friendly candidate management system. Moreover, PRSA has developed a new heavily discounted pricing structure for members. To post a job or résumé visit the JobCenter.

Posting your résumé with PRSA National links you access into a pr and communications targeted community of more than 32,000 members, including 9,900 students, in addition to a database of 45,000 communication professionals from across the country. 

In addition to enhancing the JobCenter design and functionality, PRSA has engaged TopRank Online Marketing to provide search engine optimization and promotion services to extend the visibility of the JobCenter listings on Web sites such as Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft Live.


Debra Bethard-Caplick says:

These are excellent points to make for job seekers. It is unfortunate that, based on my conversations with many other jobseekers over the past couple of years, HR personnel are largely failing to adhere to the professional standards they demand from candidates. It is not uncommon to hear stories of candidates who sit through three or more interviews at a company, only to never hear from that company again. I would recommend that HR personnel and hiring managers keep in mind that today's candidate could well be tomorrow's client or (lost) customer.

April 8, 2008

Steve Kramer says:

I completely agree with Debra. As an active jobseeker, I have experienced what I consider unprofessional treatment all too frequently. In such cases, I consider it a blessing that I didn't get a job offer. For employers, I would recommend "closing the loop" with candidates you've contacted, whether that contact was a phone screening or flying them to corporate HQ. And please make sure, when you send the "thanks, but no thanks" letter (or e-mail) that it's sincere, as specific as possible and, if it's an e-mail, that it doesn't have the "This message is computer-generated" at the bottom (yes, this has happened to me -- several times) which completely contradicts any language to the effect that, "While your skills and achievements were impressive..."

April 8, 2008

Zayne-Ann says:

I think that the points that were made about resume and cover letter writing are excellent. Often times we forget that our email address (names used) reflects the owner and as such the HR manager may overlook choosing to respond to any that appears to be unprofessional.

July 5, 2012

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