When to Take (Or Ignore) Resume Advice From Friends

Everybody’s a critic, but not all criticism is useful in your job search. How do you filter out the noise to hear qualified advice?

“I’ve shown my resume to three people, and the feedback was terrible!” said my client Marlene.

She had called me in a total panic, asking for yet another opinion about her resume. (It actually looked pretty good, so she had no reason to panic.) Her resume had been professionally written a few years earlier, so all it needed was an update and some editing. But those few negative — and uninformed — comments had driven her just a little bit crazy.

But it brought up a common question: Whose critique do you act on?

Should you change your resume based on a recruiter’s comments? Should you take advice based on a person’s status as an industry leader? Are friends and former colleagues good sources for resume critiques?

When you should listen to anyone

Always take others’ advice when it’s about obvious errors: missing words, usage errors and typos.

Be very grateful for this type of feedback — it’s always useful. When you write your own resume, you cannot see your own errors because you’re too close to the material. It’s your “blind spot.” But an outside reviewer can easily spot typos; missing or duplicate words; incorrect usage (“their” versus “they’re”) and other obvious errors.

When you should listen to your gut

People often suggest changes based on “rules of thumb” that may or may not apply to your particular circumstances. You might relate to these situations that my clients encountered:

  • An MBA career advisor told one of my clients that the “correct” font size for a resume was 11 points. Wrong! The appropriate “size” is highly subjective and depends entirely on the particular font.
  • A successful sales manager left her 12-year career in 2006 to raise her kids. Now it’s 2009, so her chronology shows a three-year gap and her resume leads off with a short explanation of her “family leave.” Several former colleagues emphatically told her to delete any reference to family leave on her resume. But my client thinks it’s just common sense to proactively pre-empt any questions about the gap.

Sometimes professional recruiters make suggestions based on their personal idiosyncrasies and biases, like in the examples below:

  • A recruiter told one of my clients to remove all dates from her college degrees “because you never want to reveal your age on a resume.” Wrong! That particular “rule” might or might not apply, depending on your age and many other factors.
  • An in-house recruiter for a large company actually told one of my resume clients that his most recent experience — running a successful small business for 13 years — “makes me suspect it was a failure, otherwise you’d have stayed with it.” Wrong again! That’s just one recruiter’s biased opinion, but that comment drove my client into temporary paranoia.
  • On her resume, a mortgage executive mentioned that her last employer “went out of business in 2009.” She wants to pre-empt an obvious question, namely, “Why did you leave your last job? Were you fired?” Saying the company went out of business removes any stigma of getting fired — but a recruiter insist ed on deleting that item “because it sounds like a downer.”

Even bona fide resume experts who agree on “best practices ” don’t always see the same resume the same way.

That’s why great resume writing blends craft, rules, style — and a lot of personal opinion! So if you find yourself perplexed by a “gray area,” you must ultimately decide for yourself. Tune out the critics, and just follow your own gut instincts.

Better” versus “different”

In my experience, 80 percent of resume suggestions aren’t necessarily wrong — but they don’t improve your resume, either. If you show a “perfect” resume to 48 professional people and ask for feedback, you’ll probably hear 24 different suggestions about how to make the resume better.

During the summer of 2008, I actually conducted this experiment at one of the world’s leading outplacement firms. I showed a “perfect,” professionally written resume to 48 people — including a handful of recruiters — and asked for feedback. Half the people suggested changes, but no two comments were the same.

Don’t automatically change your resume every time you hear a suggestion — even if it’s made by a credible source. Doing that is like a dog chasing its tail. On the other hand, if you hear the same negative comment from three or more people, it’s probably not them — it’s you!

Are you the type of person who can coldly evaluate resume feedback without being overwhelmed by fear, panic or other emotions? If not, you can always consider working with a professional resume writing services. In the end, the best advice I’ve heard on this topic is from a 1972 song by Rick Nelson, which tells about his being booed off the stage at Madison Square Garden. The song ends, “you can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself.”