Word Choice Can Make a Big Difference in Resumes and Cover Letters

By Katharine Hansen, PhD

The words and phrases you choose in your resume and cover letter can have a surprisingly powerful impact. Nouns should be concrete and specific, verbs should be action-driven, and some words and phrases should rarely, if ever, appear on a resume or cover letter.

Many of these verboten phrases come from employer job descriptions. Job seekers looking to build their resumes often make the mistake of using the job descriptions they were given of their current and past jobs. That’s a big blunder because a job description represents the bare minimum of what a job can consist of. Employers are much more interested in your accomplishments, achievements, results, initiatives and how you have gone above and beyond the bounds of your job description.

Among ineffective words and phrases, place any form or variation of the words “duty” and “responsibility” at the top of your list. Don’t use expressions such as “Duties included,” “Responsibilities included,” “Accountable for,” or “Responsible for.” Why? Because those words and phrases comprise job description language, not accomplishments-oriented resume language that sells.

After all, if you were an employer and wanted to run a successful organization, would you look for candidates who can perform only their basic job functions, or would you want employees who can make real contributions? In these days in which most resumes are placed into keyword-searchable databases, you won’t find employers searching resumes for words like “responsibilities,” “duties” or “responsible for.”

Occasionally, “responsibility,” can be used effectively, such as in a bullet point like this one:

Consistently promoted to positions of increasing responsibility.
In the same vein, don’t use words that describe mundane job duties, such as:

Handled everyday office functions.
Oversaw routine administrative tasks.
Instead, be specific about the tasks/functions, and try to describe special things you did to accomplish them, as for example, in these bullet points:

After just three months of employment, selected to fill position as right-hand to company president and traveled with him across the country and into Asia; assisted president in presenting polished, professional image when traveling and attending business meetings.
Single-handedly initiated research department where none existed before to bring company into compliance with state and federal regulations.
Elevated business productivity and competitiveness by upgrading processes, installing programs, and training staff to use new applications that streamlined inventory, customer management, and bookkeeping.
The word “necessary” is rarely necessary. If a job activity were not necessary, you probably wouldn’t have done it. Phrases such as “as necessary,” “as needed,” “as required, and “as assigned” also suggest job duties that you performed only because they were part of your job description – as opposed to activities you accomplished because you took the initiative. In most cases, these phrases can simply be left off your resume.

Avoid personal pronouns, particularly “I,” “me,” and “my.” While the understood grammatical subject of the bullet points in your resume is “I,” the actual pronoun is not used. Personal pronouns are, of course, OK in cover letters, but don’t overuse them or begin every sentence with “I.”.

Avoid ranges of numbers. Numbers on your resume will look more impressive if, instead of giving a range, you say “up to __.” Example: “Supervised 10-25 team members simultaneously.” Well, 25 is a lot more impressive than 10, so why not say: Supervised up to 25 team members simultaneously. Similarly, instead of: “Oversaw budgets ranging from $100K to $500K,” say: “Oversaw budgets of up to $500K.”

Avoid phrases that sound like legalese, such as “including, but not limited to…” That’s another phrase that comes right out of a job description. Employers use it to cover themselves in case they hire you and add job duties they had not initially thought of when they advertised your position.

For the most part, avoid articles – those little words “a,” “an,” and “the.” Generally speaking, resumes aren’t written in sentence form, but in concise “telegraph” phrases that have become an accepted shorthand that employers understand. Articles tend to clutter up that shorthand; your resume will read in a more streamlined manner without them. Articles are fine in cover letters.

Avoid jargon and acronyms that are used only in your company or organization and are not understood by outsiders. Spell out any company-specific, industry-specific, or school-specific acronyms you think could be questionable, and explain any terms you think some readers of your resume might not understand. Look at your resume from an outsider’s perspective – and explain (or eliminate) any unfamiliar terms or acronyms.

Leave off the line “References: Available upon request.” This statement is highly optional because it is a given that you will provide references upon request. If you couldn’t, you would have no business looking for a job. The line can serve the purpose of signaling: “This is the end of my resume,” but if you are trying to conserve space, leave it off.

Some words and phrases are worth noting as overused or lacking meaning or substantiation. When considering any of these, ask yourself if they are necessary or whether a different word/phrase would be better. Often readers object to the fluffy descriptive phrases job-seekers use about themselves because they are unsubstantiated value judgments. Many of these words are just fine as long as the candidate provides evidence to support the descriptor. Here’s a selection of verbiage from those articles:

Love: As in “I’d love to work for your company.”
Passionate/Driven: (OK to use sparingly)
Track record of success
Go-to person
Team player
Some words/phrases that seem empty and clichéd – such as “perfect fit for the team,” and “problem solver” may be acceptable if they are substantiated with accomplishments and results.

The bottom line is to give careful thought to every word and phrase you choose in your resume and cover letter. Particularly avoid job description language that makes you seem willing to do only the bare minimum the job requires.

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