According to a 2004 study by the National Commission on Writing, written communication skills are key to getting—and keeping—a job. Essentially, “writing is a ticket to professional opportunity, while poorly written job applications are a figurative kiss of death.” In addition, the National Commission on Writing found that nearly one-third of companies surveyed spend billions of dollars annually to improve their employees’ business and technical writing skills. That’s a lot of money spent training workers in something they should have learned in grade school.
When, exactly, should they have mastered these skills? Grammarly, whose automated spelling and grammar checker takes the guesswork out of proofreading, put together an infographic detailing the stages of writing acquisition.
- In kindergarten, students begin developing vocabulary.
- By first grade, they start capitalizing names and dates, using commas in a series, and using verb tenses to indicate past, present, and future.
- Second graders learn to capitalize produce and place names and more advanced comma use.
- By sixth grade, students have built a working vocabulary and mastered spelling.
The Flesch-Kincaid readability index, which weighs factors such as sentence length and average number of syllables per word, shows that Time and other mass market magazines are usually written on a sixth- to eighth-grade reading level. Shockingly, hiring managers routinely see errors that put applicants well below this reading level.
Spelling mistakes are the most common culprits. “Having spelling mistakes on your résumé is the quickest way to get yourself eliminated from the hiring process, since it makes you seem unpolished and lazy,” writes Vivian Giang for Business Insider.
Commonly confused word pairs such as ensure/insure, affect/effect, and they’re/there/their indicate sloppy proofreading, and while they aren’t good, outright misspellings are worse. The following four words are the usual suspects for résumé spelling errors, but you should be vigilant for all errors. While mistakes can escape even the most eagle-eyed English majors, your résumé and cover letter should be as close to perfect as possible.
- Definitely (often misspelled as “definately”)
- Separate (often misspelled as “seperate”)
- Paid (often misspelled as “payed”)
- Laid off (often misspelled as “layed off”)
As Justin Thompson points out for Career Builder, if “you take the time to proof your work and check any spellings…that you are uncertain about, that shows an employer attention to detail and the ability to do good work. But when you end your cover letter with ‘I hope to here from you,’ you probably won’t hear from them either.”
Other grammatical gaffes include misusing commas in dates and places, incorrectly capitalizing the names of companies or common nouns, and using the wrong verb tenses. While not an actual mistake, a hallmark of mediocre writing is unvaried sentence structure. Many writers fall back on simple sentences, and though straightforward writing is best, that isn’t the same thing as being repetitious. If you find yourself stringing together too many simple sentences, try rearranging a few into complex or compound structures.
The important thing to remember is that your résumé and cover letter don’t just highlight your accomplishments; they also serve as a writing sample. “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,” writes Petrula Vrontikis, head of a graphic design agency. Vrontikis sees a lot of eager new graduates looking to break into the field whose communications skills don’t measure up to their design skills.
You don’t have to revisit middle school to brush up your spelling and grammar skills. The best and easiest method to improve your writing is to write a lot and read a lot. In the meantime, make sure to proofread your work very, very careful. I mean, carefully.