Ten Common Mistakes in Résumés and Cover Letters

By Petrula Vrontikis, Vrontikis Design Office

People in this business are trained to make fast judgments, so avoid these errors in your first impression.

1. “Dear Sir or Madam...”

Only on a bad day do I feel like either.

Address me as “Dear Ms. Vrontikis” if you're the formal type, or just “Dear Petrula.” It's OK, my studio is small and we are pretty easygoing. The point is to use the level of formality appropriate to the type of firm you send the letter to. “Mr.” or “Ms.” (never “Mrs.”) is the safest choice for letters to large firms and in-house agencies.

Seeing casual greetings such as “Hello There” or “Hey” will immediately trigger my delete-key reflex.

Beware: “To Whom It May Concern” may be no one. This immediately indicates a canned cover letter. Keep in mind that only meaningful letters receive meaningful responses.

2. “Dear Mr. VonTrikis”

OK, my name isn't easy to spell. Well, neither is Steff Geissbuhler's or Michael Vanderbyl's. Even Margo Chase gets her name butchered.

Think of this as test #1. Do you really know how to research? Do you care if it's right? We certainly do. If it's not clearly stated on the company's website, call them to confirm this information. Review the spelling of the recipient's name, ask for his or her exact title, then use this opportunity to check the snail mail or email address you have. Designers move around a lot.

Ask if there may be an additional person in the firm to send your résumé to. The firm's principal may be too busy to see you, but it's the creative director's job to.

3. “… your message could not be delivered to one or more of the recipients …”
“… the number you have dialed has been disconnected …”

Timing is everything, so when a firm needs you, you want them to find you. The time after graduation is filled with change-which may include your phone number and email address. Your résumé should have some “permanent” way of reaching you-maybe a voicemail number, a free Gmail address, a LinkedIn account or your parent's home phone number. It's such a disappointment to not be able to locate the perfect candidate three months or so from when their portfolio was reviewed.

4. “So-and-so recommended I call you.”

There are times candidates have said this confidently, but I've never heard of “so-and-so.” It makes this transaction awkward and brings up suspicion. (See point #2 about research.)

Make sure you ask permission before using anyone's name. When you ask, confirm the relationship this person has to your desired target.

5. “I'll call next week to follow up.”

Great statement, and by the way, I believe you. So do what you say you're going to do. It's test #2.

Don't bother typing “Contact me if you are interested...” or “I can be reached at.... ” This is not the time to play hard to get. It's your job to get a job, and follow-up is in the job description.

6. “My work speaks for itself.”

If you're just starting out, this statement is a cop out. Please clearly and concisely explain the project and your approach. Don't make it a thesis. Proofread it carefully.

Invite them to view your website. Know that if viewers have to click more than twice to get an idea of what you do, they will probably just click away from your site. It's a good idea to give them links to specific projects that relate to the type of work their firm does or to the job description. This type of customization demonstrates that you have done your homework.

Because you are just starting out, there may not be that much work to present, so you need to focus on the presentation aspects. Enable the work you have to shine beautifully.

Don't try and show too much. We don't need to see a retrospective of your work from design school. Show projects that represent the designer you are today. The work is evidence of your current capabilities.

Be aware that employers scrutinize communication and organizational aspects of the site as well as the creative.

Use good email etiquette. If you include an attachment to an email, make sure it's not more than 5 MB or 15 pages.

7. “. . . I designed stationary packages . . .”

Designing inert packages doesn't concern me, but typos do. Misspellings and other language problems are death to this process.

In addition to the obvious purpose a résumé and cover letter have to introduce, inform, and impress, they are a way for you to alleviate my fears about hiring you right out of school. These include lack of attention to detail such as grammar and consistency. The truth is that we are fairly confident about your creative skills, but concerned about your competence and general work style. Some design firms just don't hire candidates right out of school, because it's so hard to know what a young designer doesn't know.

8. Job OBJectIVe

Using too many fonts and styles, or fonts that are too trendy is just annoying! Think of a trendy font as a hairstyle that looks great today-but looking back a few years from now, you're probably going to say: “What was I thinking?!”

Know the difference between “cool” and wrong. A current example of this is using all lower case letters. It may look cool elsewhere, but for these documents, it's just lazy and wrong.

9. “Worked on many projects for local design studios and directly with companies.”

Avoid vague references about your employment experience. I don't have high expectations of a recent grad in this area. Simply state your title, the name of the firm and its location. Include a brief sentence defining your responsibilities. Don't give me a long list of the firm's clients or other “padding.” Stick to what you worked on. Definitely keep school projects, including sponsored projects, out of the “Experience” category.

Beware: Listing a lot of experience, employed or freelance, but not showing any of the work in your book makes me suspicious. I'm concerned that your design approach may drastically change when the project is real. Do include a letter of recommendation if you've completed an internship or worked for a recognized design office.

The questions to consider are: What unique experiences have I had, and how will these experiences uniquely benefit this firm? Obviously this requires soul-searching and researching. Both of these are in your job description as a job hunter.

10. “I'll take it!”

One of the biggest mistakes is not going through this process. Accepting an offer before you graduate is so seductive. You may be relieved you don't have to go through the anxiety of a real job hunt, but beware: It's like getting married at 19. You'll never really know what else is out there.

This is a nerve-racking and stressful endeavor, but actually quite rewarding once you get going. It's one of the only times you can play “Show me yours and I'll show you mine.” Meeting people you've admired, talking about the ideas you've been passionate about, seeing great studios, and ultimately deciding what appeals to you most, is really great. It is an interesting test to trust your intuition to discriminate between perception and reality. It's the best way to be introduced to a design community that you'll be a part of for many years.

About the Author

Petrula Vrontikis is a leading voice in graphic design. Her work has appeared in more than 100 books and publications. She lectures at conferences, universities, and to professional organizations worldwide about her work with Vrontikis Design Office; about graphic design education; and on the subject of inspiration. She has taught the senior graphic design studies course at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena since 1989. In 2007 Petrula received an AIGA Fellows Award honoring her as an essential voice raising the understanding of design within the industry and among the business and cultural communities of Los Angeles.