Casual Fridays: What's worse -- an ugly resume, or one filled with typos?

Last week we asked readers to rate two hypothetical job candidates for a communications assistant position in a large neuroscience lab. The task seemed to pit education against experience. Everyone saw some version of these two resumes:

(click for a larger image)

Emily was Magna Cum Laude at Harvard, while Suzanne was an average student at a regional state college. But Emily appeared to have never held a paying job, padding her resume with activities like "Botanical Garden Society President" and "Varsity Tennis." Meanwhile, Suzanne had held an impressive internship and had three years of related job experience.

Most respondents -- nearly 80 percent out of over 800 who completed the survey -- selected experience over education, preferring Suzanne over Emily.

But that wasn't the real purpose of our study. We were actually interested in a subtler point: should you put more effort into the overall look of your resume, or into proofreading to fix typographical errors? Respondents actually only saw one of three possible pairs of resumes. Each pair contained the same information, but one pair was full of typos (here's an example), while another pair was badly formatted, with ugly fonts and inconsistent layout (here's an example). The final group of respondents saw attractive and accurate resumes. So which resumes were rated highest? Here are the results:


This graph shows how respondents rated Emily's resume on three dimensions: Overall appeal, Intelligence, and Professionalism. Ratings were significantly lower for the resume with typos compared to both the attractive and ugly resumes. Emily actually received negative Professionalism ratings. Indeed, for the ugly resume, ratings weren't lower than the attractive resume for any of the ratings except Professionalism (but as you can see, even for this rating, the ugly resume rated much higher than the typo-ridden resume.

One possible explanation for the discrepancy is that readers don't actually think the ugly resume is that bad, so this morning I asked readers to rate the "ugly" resume and the "attractive" resume for appearance, and the ugly resume was indeed rated significantly lower: 3.6 versus 4.4 on a scale of 1 to 7.

But maybe people with more hiring experience don't focus so much on these surface issues. These graphs break down the ratings based on the respondent's personal experience with hiring:


Overall ratings were significantly lower when respondents had hiring experience, both for resumes with typos and for ugly resume. Typos again resulted in the lowest ratings of all. If anything, people with hiring experience were tougher on typos.

The take-home message: If you have a limited amount of time to work on your resume, you should spend it proofreading, not making it look prettier. That said, as many respondents indicated, the resume is just one factor in a hiring decision, and several respondents said they would ask both candidates to an interview before making their decision.

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It all depends on the position you're hiring for. For example, if I'm hiring engineers, I don't care if the resume is pretty. But if I'm hiring a graphic designer and the resume looks like a cheap furniture assembly manual, lets just say that's not a good way to represent yourself to your field.

Typos and spelling errors however are unforgivable to me. If you can't pay attention to detail for something as important as your resume, then why should I think you'd treat my business with any amount of care. I'd say the survey is spot on accurate. Silly grammatical errors can be overlooked because much to the Internet Grammar Inquisitors dismay, grammar can be regional.

Before I clicked through to see the results, I immediately guessed that people would treat typos/misspellings much more harshly than mere ugliness. I WAS RIGHT!!!

I actually think that this may have a lot to do with the fact that default typography and layout in programs like Microsoft Word is so horrendous that people who have not been trained in design or page layout have become desensitized to such ugliness.

Well, typos just show plain old laziness, because Word has a spellchecker. You don't even have to bother to run spellchecker, because it will underline misspelled words with a red line. So, typing "studen" means that the applicant would have had to completely ignore the red line. Homophone mix-ups and minor grammatical mistakes might be more forgivable, but it still shows that person didn't bother to proof-read.

Bad formatting is also more subjective. Although you showed that people agreed the bad resume was actually uglier, I think they still realized that it is subjective and style doesn't necessarily reflect a person's work skills.


Good points. I actually had to go to quite a bit of trouble to get rid of the red-underlines when I created the samples. But people do make all sorts of typos that word processors don't catch, so I'd say the overall point still stands: it's better to spend your time making sure you don't have any typos rather than making your resume pretty.

With respect to typos vs spell checkers, my resume contains all sorts of domain specific terms that need to be added to the spell checker's dictionary (freebsd, unix, linux, c++, autoconf, autotools, perl, macos, playstation, xbox, gamecube, and on and on.) It's not a big deal to add them to the dictionaries on my computer, but (1) a few of them are similar to real words, and thus they dilute the effectiveness of the spell checker on other words, and more importantly (2) the person who opens my resume in a word processor will see tons of red underlines, even though I've spelled the words correctly, because they aren't in the dictionary for their spell checker.

I don't know if this affects whether or not I get interviews, but I have had 3 HR people and 7 recruiters whine about it.

llewelly (Firefox is underlining your name for me :D), a possible solution for that would be to only provide your resume in PDF form. Keep a Word/rtf/editable copy, but pump one out to PDF when it's time to submit. Guarantee that any of your font choices too (good or bad!) make it through unaffected.

My pet hate is over-reliance on a spellchecker - yes, they spelt oesophagus correctly (for a non-US reader), but two-to-too/there-their-they're (with and without apostrophe) variations are scattered randomly through otherwise reasonable writing.

By Di Hobday (not verified) on 06 Mar 2009 #permalink

One thing, though: I got the typo versions, and the misspellings were very in-your-face. English is my third language and even for me they really jumped off the page. It didn't help that the resumes were filled with language- related items (English major, worked as editor), making the dissonance even starker. I immediately found myself looking for the rest of the typos, not focusing on the content.

I think your results are still probably valid, but it'd be more convincing had you used somewhat more subtle, natural-seeming spelling errors, like having "neighbour" rather than "neighbor" in a document otherwise using US English; or a few misplaced commas or other punctuation errors, something like that.

Typo resumes are the best. I can laugh for hours on end reviewing resumes. One of my favorites was a "full-time collage student." Must have been in art school. [snigger]

Not that this is entirely relevant, but a GPA of 3.95 at Harvard is usually very far into summa cum laude territory. As far as I know, the summa cutoff is usually around 3.8, and 3.95 is exceptionally high.

I'd like to bring up another possible skew-er: I found myself thinking a few times that Emily's (Harvard) resume would be judged more harshly than Suzanne's (local college), just because she was from Harvard.

This is America: we root for the little guy, we often look askance at the "educated elite", we're prejudiced against the Ivy League (well... non-Ivy Leaguers are, IMO).

I didn't see typos v. ugly; I too would have cared more about the typos (and I hire engineers--unlike an early comment I *do* care about appearance; those with poor visual design sense have always the lessor engineer, at least in my experience).

Bottom line for me was that who's better at schmoozing and finding money than a preppy-seeming Ivy Leaguer?!

I'm a lead who hires people based partially on writing skill. I also had the luck of seeing the typo-laden resume. I can teach someone the job, but I can't teach them to write.

I must have read them too fast, but when I looked at the typo version, I didn't notice any typos. Only after I looked at the comments did I see that one of them was spelling "student" as "studen." When I looked at the typo version again after knowing that, I did see it, but it certainly didn't jump out at me, and from those quick glances I still never saw any other typos. I did however remember their GPA's and which one had more experience. I wonder if the amount of time spent reading the resumes resulted in any significant differences in ratings for the three pairs.

Very interesting results. As with most people, the typos definitely jumped out at me. Did all of the resume pairs have the same level of ugliness or were some attractive resumes put with ugly resumes? I was so absorbed with looking for typos I didn't really pay attention to the looks or content. If I saw an ugly resume next to a prettier one, I would definitely begin to compare spacing, font, and format. I think I would also notice it more if I were holding a physical copy of the resume instead of just reading an e-copy.

I really like these casual Friday mini-experiments. Very cool ideas and interesting results. This was the first one I participated in, and I look forward to doing more in the future! :)

Did all of the resume pairs have the same level of ugliness or were some attractive resumes put with ugly resumes?

Yes, they all had the same ugliness level. You either saw two resumes with typos, two ugly resumes, or two attractive resumes with no typos.

And in fact, we only considered your ratings of the first resume you saw, because we figured after seeing one resume with typos/ugly formatting, you might be more on the lookout for problems in the second.

I'm somewhat involved with hiring at my current job. Most of the resumes we get come through recruiters, who tend to add their own headers and footers and often butcher the layout in the process. And our hiring is very much technical-skill oriented. So formatting means basically nothing to us.

Many people aren't trained in page design and layout, so the "ugly factor" doesn't register with them as highly as the typo-error factor, which they recognize instantly.

Commenter #1 says that grammar is regional, which might be true if, by "grammar," the commenter means things like the differences in usage and punctuation between, say, British English and American English. And the commenter is also correct that some things that are considered as "grammar" errors are just plain silly, such as the prohibition against putting a preposition at the end of a sentence.

But standard grammar and mechanics are expected in a resume, and this would not be good news for Commenter #1, who has 4 mechanical errors in one short comment, none of which qualify as "regional."

As a former professional résumé writer who worked with over 7,000 clients, I feel compelled to comment that this is the stupidest "test" of a résumé I've ever heard of.

The only audience that counts is comprised of the HR folks who screen resumes and the individuals who do the actual hiring, or at least have some input into the process. Individuals who work with resumes every day do not see them in the same way your graders would and that alone invalidates this study.

That, sadly, is not the only poison pill here. You're letting individuals judge others based on a piece of paper. Their reaction to the typos is indicative of the seriousness of that defect. Actual individuals involved in hiring would subordinate the existence of typos to more relevant information (e.g., is there any writing involved in the job?). In IT a manager might decide that typos don't bother him as IT folks are not notorious for their spelling abilities. Or a Burger King franchise shift manager might decide that typos are a killer even though the rest of the information was ideal.

Getting hired for a job is not about a piece of paper, but to the degree to which your résumé does impact your chances, you folks are gaming this out at a kindergarten level. Your examples above contain countless errors. Emily Smith graduated "Magna Cum Laude" while making the "Dean's list." I count four errors already: Latin terms should be italicized, there is no reason to capitalize "cum" or "laude," and it's the Dean's List, not "a" Dean's list. The activities section is entirely from Harvard and should be subordinated to that information, not posted in a separate section.

If Emily were my client the Botanical Gardens fundraiser would have been broken out as a distinct work experience. The details shared would depend on what kind of work she was looking for.

In all candor that's the absolute worst résumé I've ever seen from a Harvard grad but to its credit it's not as bad as the more detailed but oddly punctuated Suzanne Jones résumé. Explain that dash to me â I dare you! And why use a diagonal to replace the word "a"? This is the résumé of an editorial assistant at a major publishing house?!

Am I beating this to death? Of course I am.

Did your study participants have a clue what employers look for in a résumé? Of course they didn't.

Do I like this blog? Yes I do.

Do I think this was the most poorly designed study you've reported on? Yes, by a very wide margin.