As someone who has spent just about all of his professional life working with words, I admire any piece of writing that employs a more vivid word or phrase in place of something wimpier. I get that same feeling when I read a resume that includes such "vigorous verbs" as accomplished, administered, and — my favorite — spearheaded.
But just as sure as there are words and phrases in your resume and cover letter that will impress readers and nudge them to keep reading, there are others that can elicit a "so what" or "this guy is full of himself" kind of reaction. Litter your resume with such weak words and you can kiss your potential interview goodbye.
But don't just take my word for it. Here's what Alison Green, a staffing manager, said in a recent blog post on U.S. News & World Report's web site:
"I ignore anything subjective that an applicant writes about herself (in a resume), because so many people's self-assessments are wildly inaccurate and I don't yet know enough about the candidate to have any idea if hers is reliable or not."
I call these subjective descriptions cupcake words; you can make someone eat them, but they contain no (mental) nutrients to back up the empty calories. These words and phrases — usually found in a professional summary or list of qualifications — describe your abilities without proof to support them. Here are five examples:
1) "Outstanding (fill in the blank)" — Used in reference to yourself, this may sound overly boastful. Were you the go-to person for the company because you did something so well? Did you lead a key project or other high-value initiative to fruition? If so, describe it in terms of what you did and how it helped the employer. If an ex-boss or colleague used that word to describe your work, mention it in your cover letter instead.
2) "Excellent team player" — You really need facts to replace this and create the impression that you are both excellent and a team player. Yes, employers like people who put the company's needs ahead of their own, but try saying something like: Worked with three other departments to deliver new application functionality three weeks ahead of deadline to generate an extra $1 million in revenue. That says you're an excellent team player, plus a lot more.
3) "Solid writing skills" — Maybe they are, but you'd better have some awards or recommendations in your resume or cover letter so that this isn't coming from your head. Even better would be a link to a web site that showcases examples of your best writing. Regardless, making sure your cover letter and resume are well written and error-free is one of the most important ways to promote your writing skills.
4) "Successful …" or "Successfully (fill in the blank)" — How do you define success? What's more important is how your previous employer defined it and how a future employer will interpret it. If you want to demonstrate how you were a successful sales representative, for example, it's more effective to say something that proves it, like: Exceeded sales quota in 13 of 16 quarters, bringing in an extra $2.5 million in revenue. Yep, I'd call that successful.
5) "Detail-oriented" — This is arguably the emptiest of them all. It's also a double-edged sword: It's a good thing to pay strict attention to detail, but far from good to get bogged down in too much detail that you miss deadlines or lose sight of your mission or task. Ditch this cupcake in favor of something more nutritious, such as: Planned menus, arranged for timely food delivery, scheduled catering staff, and directed catering operations for 75 wedding receptions in 2008. Now, that's detail!
The important thing is that if you're going to extol your value in your resume and cover letter, it's better to show it with examples and quantifiable accomplishments than to just tell it with subjective words and phrases.
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