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Top 10 mistakes non-native English speakers make in their CV and cover letters

by Kate Pyers

Having a resume or CV in English is a must if you want to get a job in an international environment. But if your native language is not English, it may be a challenge. You can’t trust a spellchecker to find all your mistakes. Working as a Business English teacher I have helped many professionals improve their CV in English. Based on my experience I have compiled this list of top 10 mistakes that I see in almost every CV.
Here’s my top 10 list of mistakes non-native speakers make in their cover letters and CV in English. Scroll down to read more about each mistake and how to avoid it.

MISTAKE #1. First name goes first

MISTAKE #2. Capital letters

MISTAKE #3. Position titles

MISTAKE #4. Degree titles

MISTAKE #5. Bullet points

MISTAKE #6. Using long noun phrases

MISTAKE #7. Articles – a/the/–

MISTAKE #8. Plural form – experience or experiences, other or others?

MISTAKE #9. Apostrophe – client’s or clients’, it’s or its?

MISTAKE #10. Language level – how to describe it?

MISTAKE #1. First name goes first

In some cultures it is usual to put your last name or family name and then your name. But in English you put your first name first (that’s why it’s called your FIRST name).

Incorrect: Brown Sam

Correct: Sam Brown

MISTAKE #2. Capital letters

There are two rules to remember about capital letters for a CV in English:

Capitalise every word in job titles, company names, degree names, university/college names. Also capitalise months and days of the week.
Don’t use CAPS LOCK to show something is important, because in English it looks as if you are shouting. It’s better to use italic or bold font in this case.
Incorrect: COMPLETED 10 LEVELS OF ACADEMIC DUTCH LANGUAGE COURSES

Correct: Customer Sales Representative at Vodafone

MISTAKE #3. Position titles

If you worked in a non-English speaking country, it may be difficult to translate your job title so that it’s clear to foreign employers. Try looking up your job with similar responsibilities on an international job website, such as monster.com or indeed.com and see what it’s usually called there.

MISTAKE #4. Degree titles

Different countries may have different systems of education and not every employer will understand the difference between all the degree titles. To keep it clear and simple, if it’s your first university or college degree after high school, you can write Bachelor’s degree in Psychology, for example. The next degree is usually a Master’s degree. If you have done a research degree, you can call it a PhD. You could also check the English version of your university’s website.

MISTAKE #5. Bullet points

Using bullet points to describe your work experience in your CV in English is important, but can be messy even for native English speakers for two reasons: punctuation and grammar.

If each bullet point is a complete sentence, you need to begin with a capital letter and put a full stop (.) at the end (see Correct example 1). If it’s a phrase, and not a complete sentence, which is recommended for a CV, you may begin with a capital or regular letter and you don’t put any punctuation symbols at the end (see Correct example 2).

Correct example 1:

Marketing Manager at Company

Our team managed to complete project X in two months.
We increased customer database by 15% via successful online marketing.
Correct example 2 (recommended):

Marketing Manager at Company

completed project X
increased customer database by 15% via successful online marketing
Do not mix different types of bullets together (see the Incorrect example below). Make sure to start each one in a similar way, preferably with an active verb in the past tense (solved, achieved, created etc.). Check if it’s an irregular verb! You can use the present tense for your current job.

Incorrect example:

Marketing Manager at Company

Our team managed to complete project X in two months;
increased customer database by 15% via successful online marketing;
website development.
Problems with this example: the first bullet point is a full sentence, the second is a phrase starting with a verb, the third is a noun phrase. Punctuation is also incorrect here.

MISTAKE #6. Using long noun phrases

Noun phrases are very important in English, but it’s easy to end up with a noun phrase that is too long to understand. Try to avoid noun phrases with more than 3 nouns.

Incorrect: low current systems construction activities

Correct: construction activities, which involve low current systems

MISTAKE #7. Articles – a/the/–

Articles are a very common problem for non-native English speakers. Here are some very basic rules, which you can use if in doubt. Of course, they don’t work in 100% of cases, so it’s always best to consult a specialist.

use the if you can comfortably put this/that instead of it
Example: Writing of articles for the (this – sounds ok) company’s internal regulatory newsletter

use the if you are talking about something specific or something unique
Example: Participation in working group meetings of the industry association GIE (there is only one industry association)

use the in phrases with of
Examples: worked on the coupling of generators, developed the security policy of the company

use a if you can comfortably put any/one instead of it
Example: Led a (one) multi-disciplinary team

use a before jobs
Example: Since 2000 I have been doing voluntary work as a Scout

don’t use any article if you are talking about something in general
Example: managed company accounts (in general, not specific)

MISTAKE #8. Plural form – experience or experiences, other or others?

Remember that some words in English (uncountable nouns) don’t have a plural form, which may be different from some other languages.

Incorrect: knolwedges, researches.

Some words can be plural, but the meaning is a little different. An easy way to check yourself is to try counting the items you want to put in the plural form.

Examples:

I have 5 years of work experience (I cannot count the experience in this case).

I had several interesting experiences while working for this company (experiences = different situations).

Our company provided us with professional development and training (I cannot count the training). I attended a few trainings at the Career Help Centre (trainings = training sessions).

Other vs. others

You may want to include a section called ‘Other’ (not ‘Others’) in your CV with some information that doesn’t fit into any specific section. You can use other in a sentence when it is followed by a noun. You use others when the noun is omitted.

Example: I worked on many other interesting projects after that. I worked on projects A, B and C, as well as many others.

MISTAKE #9. Apostrophe – client’s or clients’, it’s or its?

I’m sure you know how to use apostrophe in contracted forms, such as don’t, they’re, I’m etc., but there are two mistakes with apostrophes that you need to check for.

Apostrophe in the plural form. Use apostrophe before s, when something belongs to one owner and after s when if belongs to multiple owners.
Example: resolved the client’s problems (problems of one client)

resolved the clients’ problems (problems of several clients)

2. It’s vs. its.

It’s = it is / it has (It’s my responsibility. It’s been a pleasure.)

Its = belonging to it (The software had its problems.)

MISTAKE #10. Language level – how to describe it?

Some people just copy the language level from the last certificate they got from a language school or as a result of an exam. But when you write, ‘English – intermediate’ or ‘English – C1’, what does it actually mean for the employer? Put it in terms that will highlight your language skills, such as ‘full working proficiency’, ‘basic communication skills’, ‘can manage written correspondence’ and so on.


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