Resume Summaries and the Charades Analogy

Ever played "Charades"? Of course you have. For those unfamiliar, Charades is a game where one person silently acts out a word or phrase for other people to guess.

Some players are great actors who make guessing their clue quite easy. Other players may be incredible guessers who can take clues from even the worst actors and still be successful. And some people are just not good at Charades.

Suppose we were going to play Charades, but we decided to change the rules a bit. Well, more than a bit. What if we let the actor just tell us what he/she was about to act out? "PSST! Hey guys, the clue is Star Wars". It's basically cheating, but just go along with it for now.

Obviously, nobody would need to even watch the actor give clues, and the guessers could immediately "guess" the correct answer before any acting was performed. This wouldn't make for a fun game, and everybody would get it right.

Why is a blog about resumes talking about Charades?

In most cases, a job seeker is writing a resume to try and define himself/herself as what a job requirement is asking for - a "Senior Accountant" or a "Registered Nurse" or a "Junior Programmer". The goal of the resume writer is to get the reader to view the resume's owner as someone who is qualified to do the job. If the open job is "Senior Accountant", we're trying to write a resume that gets the reader to think "This is the resume of a Senior Accountant!".

We have a couple choices.

1 - We can list experience, education, and skills on a resume that would indicate that this is the resume that belongs to a senior accountant. This is what many people do, and it works much of the time.

2 - We can write a summary or profile statement on the top of the resume that starts with "Senior Accountant..."

If we stick with the Charades analogy and go with the first option, we're hoping that our guesser is able to decipher the clues and come up with "Senior Accountant" after reading the resume.

If we go with option two, our guesser is pretty much guaranteed to land on "Senior Accountant".

The question becomes, "Can we trust the guesser to get it right if we go with option one?". As someone who has worked in recruiting and hiring, my answer is a resounding "NO". 

Many guessers (recruiters and those initially reviewing resumes) aren't very experienced in the hiring field due to high turnover in the industry, and the vast majority will have no experience in your field. People reviewing resumes for accountants have likely never been an accountant

A summary or profile statement takes the guesswork out of it for the reader, and can set your mind at ease that the reader won't misinterpret your background. It's like cheating at Charades. And it works.

 

 

How to Brag: Describing Accomplishments on Resumes

Almost all of a resume's useful content can be categorized in one of three ways.

  1. Responsibilities – Something that was part of the job on an ongoing basis. 

  2. Skills / Traits – These may be referenced as part of an introductory profile/summary at the top or in a skills section. I've learned that many people have difficulty differentiating between skills and traits, which is why I mention both (but please learn the difference, and focus on skills).

  3. Accomplishments – These are typically rather unique projects that were completed. 

Most of the resumes sent to me at Resume Raiders feature long listings of skills and traits (usually self-assessed and trite), several bulleted responsibilities, and scant mention of accomplishments. This is a problem.

Based on my conversations with resume clients, it seems that the absence of accomplishments is often a function of modesty and an unwillingness to essentially brag about something they've done. I find myself coaxing clients into sharing more details than they were initially unwilling to share. Other times it is an inability to recognize what qualifies as an accomplishment in the first place.

Regardless of the reason that a resume lacks tangible accomplishments, employers are looking to know what you have actually done, so it may be a useful exercise to review your resume and try to categorize the content as either responsibility, skill/trait, or accomplishment.

What Qualifies as an Accomplishment?

This can be especially complex for junior level job seekers who are generally responsible for smaller parts of larger efforts. As for some examples of accomplishments worth listing:

  • Cost savings or earnings  – Any efforts that resulted in significant reduced spending or revenue are worth noting. This can be any number of things related to your work.

  • Deliverable met – Unique projects that have been completed (or are ongoing) are clear accomplishments worth noting.  

  • Measurable improvements – Performance metrics and other positive measurable improvements are an easy approach to determining an accomplishment. 

  • Change – The introduction of new concepts, ideas, or tools at your employer are highly regarded, although the results of these changes may be difficult to measure over small time periods. 

Format

We want accomplishments to stand out, and that's why we have bullets. For any individual job listed on a resume, the ideal situation is to first have a few sentences in paragraph form to describe responsibilities (and perhaps the employer) followed by a handful of bulleted accomplishments. 

Most resumes tend to overuse bullets. If you bullet everything, you've highlighted nothing.

Phrasing and Structure

Once we have determined what qualifies as an accomplishment, we need to write the description. What are the key required elements?

  • Role – It is usually necessary to clarify the role(s) played on the project in order to avoid being given too much or too little credit. A bullet might begin with "Led" / "Managed", which allows you to define role quickly and effectively. Projects involving leadership may choose to include team size.

  • Description of solution – This should include the problem solved and reference at least some of the way the solutions were created. It seems that most resumes include detail on the problem without any mention of how it was solved, or list far too many details on the tools without any background.

  • Result – Ideally the resume will reference a positive outcome from the project, preferably with data. 

Conclusion

Accomplishments should stand out from the other content. Remember that the resume serves as a conversation starter and not a biography, so it isn't necessary to list every detail of a project. Accomplishment bullets are often the subject of interview questions, which gives the opportunity to frame your own interview. Provide enough information to pique interest, and let the interview provide the platform to dive deeper.

So You Say You're An Expert?

Through the resume services I provide to job seekers, not a week goes by where I don’t see the word “expert” somewhere on a resume or cover letter. “Expert in $SUBJECT” isn’t all that uncommon, and today the expression of expertise may also be depicted through a horizontal bar graph where several concepts are rated as “beginner“, “intermediate“, or (here it comes…) “expert“.  PROTIP: Don’t use bar graphs to demonstrate knowledge.

When the source is a professional that appears to have deep experience in a subject matter, I’m not likely to even pause. However, it’s exceedingly rare these days that the claim of expertise comes from someone likely to fit that description. I’d venture to say I see it from recent graduates and students much more often than experienced pros, which in itself may demonstrate my point.

There are two significant issues with claiming expertise on a resume or job application.

  1. The claim demonstrates that you probably don’t even understand what expertise would look like. I’m sure many readers are at least somewhat familiar with the “10,000 Hour Rule” claiming that is the required practice time to master a subject. Whether one agrees with that theory or not is irrelevant, as most professionals understand that it’s highly unlikely (if not impossible) to become an expert based on an undergraduate curriculum and a couple internships. A claim of expertise related to a robust topic may even indicate that the source knows so little about the subject as to even be able to recognize what might qualify as expertise.
  2. You are now a target for people who know more than you do. I’ve seen countless incidents of hiring managers who responded to me with, “So this one is an expert, eh? Schedule him/her for a phone interview with our most senior employee and let’s find out!” when a resume claims expert skills. The claim of expertise has now raised the bar for the interview and evaluation process, and your candidacy will face a much higher level of scrutiny than those who are either more modest or more knowledgeable about their own limitations.

There are better ways to demonstrate expertise than a biased claim or a trendy bar graph. Developers who succeed in coding challenges or provide samples of past work for critique can leave little room for subjective interpretation by employers. Quantifying your experience along with some accomplishments is another way to indicate ability.

Think twice about claiming to be an expert. You’re usually doing more harm than good.

The Best College Graduation Gift - A Winning Resume

The Best College Graduation Gift - A Winning Resume

If you are like many people today and rely on the web for suggestions on gift ideas, you'll find quite the variety of products being marketed as "College Graduation Gifts". Plush bears in a cap and gown, customized jewelry, fancy pens, and books by Dr. Seuss can be found at the top of most search results. Those may be cute, but none of those things are going to help a new college graduate with thousands of dollars in debt get the thing they really want (and probably need) most - a job.

Profile Statements, Summaries, and Self-Assessments

Most effective résumés open with a few sentences that help introduce the candidate to the reader. This section is usually called a summary or profile statement, and may be written in paragraph form (our preference) or using bulleted sentences. The top portion of the résumé is arguably the most important, as it is the most likely part to be read (even by hurried reviewers) and it should help prepare the reader to fully understand the content that follows.

Many résumé writers, and in particular professional writers, are making two key mistakes when composing summary/profile sections. 

Length 

By definition a summary or profile should be both brief and concise. In our last blog post we talked about signal vs. noise problems with résumés, and it's not uncommon today to see summaries that take up a quarter page or more. This length defeats the purpose of including a summary, as the reader now has to wade through loads of content which will surely be repeated again later in the document. 

Content

It seems that there is a growing trend with professional résumé writers to include a laundry list of adjectives in this section. A typical statement may read  

"Hard-working, efficient, diligent, intelligent, creative, and detail-oriented team player and go-getter."

What are the problems with a statement like this?

For one, it's trite. Every professional résumé writer is using these same words for almost every client, meaning all résumés start to look identical. The professional résumé writer is unlikely to get any complaints from their client, because the words are all complimentary and make the client feel good about herself. 

In addition to being trite, the adjectives are all just a self-assessment. Who said you are hard-working, efficient, diligent, etc.? Well... you did! Should a company receiving the résumé expect you to write something different? How useful is anyone's opinion of their own skills and abilities?

Some bit of self-assessment can be useful, but the trend with many résumés today is to include entirely too much of it without any substance to back up the claims.

What to do?

A summary is the place to quantify skills ("five years of experience with...") or highlight accomplishments that the reader will then confirm through the experience included later in the résumé. It should be rather short and focused as much as possible on the skills and experience necessary for the job sought. Many of the concepts for writing a summary will be similar to the mindset when writing a cover letter, and it's not uncommon for a summary to sneak a hidden objective in as well.

Avoid clichés and lists of self-assessment to make your résumé stand out from the others.

Résumé Signal vs Résumé Noise

The measure of signal to noise ratio is used in certain engineering and scientific fields to describe something relevant and desired (signal) relative to something irrelevant or undesired (noise). Using radio as a basic example, the signal is the music (what you want to hear) while static would be considered undesirable noise that interferes with your ability to appreciate the signal.

This concept also applies to résumés. On résumés, the signal (desired content) is the sum of items that attempts to qualify the candidate for the position. The rest, with few exceptions, is noise. 

When crafting a résumé, many writers take a "more is more" approach that results in unnecessary length, five-dollar words, and an abundance of bullets revealing every minute detail of a candidate's work history. This tendency is likely the result of two fallacies.  

  1. Résumés must list all professional experience. 
  2. The amount of résumé content correlates to experience and expertise. 

This first fallacy is likely the result of the writer's efforts to provide career transparency, and the fear that omitting experience may be considered deceptive. Listing wholly irrelevant work is only useful to justify employment gaps and demonstrate job stability, but even then the content has dubious value. There are many cases where it is advised to omit the oldest experience, as these are almost always the least relevant positions.

The second fallacy is the mistaken theory that a lengthy résumé is more likely to impress hiring managers and recruiters, which tempts writers to include filler content. Size doesn't matter when it comes to résumés, and a large bloated résumé is less effective than a condensed version. Candidates with few qualifications and accomplishments may be more likely to overcompensate by adding irrelevant content in order to stretch to an extra page. 

We all know what a barista does

When candidates list explicit details of their work experience from irrelevant past positions, they are adding noise to the résumé. Young job seekers usually list positions held during college that are irrelevant to their chosen profession. When an accountant with three years of experience applies for new accounting positions, the résumé doesn't require four bullet points explaining their duties as a barista five years ago. Even if the job is listed to demonstrate work ethic, we all know what a barista does. 

What's wrong with a few extra bullets and words?

Extra bullet points and words create two problems.

  1. Noise makes it more difficult for readers to identify the signal.
  2. Sometimes noise can unintentionally become the signal.

If a résumé contains a single bullet point revealing a necessary qualification that is sandwiched between five irrelevant details, the reader is more likely to miss the qualifying bullet. Going back to radio, it becomes harder to hear the vocals and instruments of a song when the relative amount of static increases, and it is difficult to find important information when it is buried among unnecessary material. Keep in mind that those reviewing résumés may spend as little as a few seconds scanning the document, as a small 2012 study suggested.

Not only is the barista description described earlier an example of résumé noise, it is possible that the inclusion of these irrelevant details can become an unintended signal. The reader stops viewing the candidate as an experienced accountant and starts to see them as a barista. Returning to the radio example, when someone hears an increasing relative amount of static, there is a point where the listener starts to wonder if the static may actually be part of the song.

Avoiding noise

To minimize the noise and emphasize the signal, review your résumé line by line and decide if each sentence and bullet truly add to your qualifications as a candidate for the positions sought. Any descriptions of irrelevant jobs should be minimal. The most impressive accomplishments and responsibilities for each job should be listed first to maximize the odds a reader will see them.

Keep in mind that hiring professionals do not equate résumé length with career accomplishments, success, or seniority, so adding content simply to extend the overall size of your document only serves to create a signal to noise problem for your audience.