Know Your Reader

In all forms of writing, including resumes and cover letters, the most important question to ask is, "Who is my audience?" It may seem contradictory, but you are not writing your resume for yourself; you are writing it for the person who reads it, and you want that person to call you immediately to schedule an interview. Therefore, your resume needs to catch that person's attention and show how you can meet that person's needs.

Also keep in mind that “gate keepers” may be the first people to read the resume, and these readers may not be familiar with acronyms, phrases, and other job-specific phrasing. Aim for an approach that avoids overusing specific terms a hiring manager may not be familiar with, but that still shows your expertise in your target position. How do you find that balance?


Use language appropriate for the field in which you are trying to get a job, but not to the extent that you lose the reader. If you are unsure of the "speak" of a particular profession, consider joining a professional organization in your field, paying careful attention to how language is used within the community. (For those with e-lists or online discussions, take a month or so to observe how members communicate with each other before posting a message yourself.) Reading trade magazines is another way to get a feel for the types of words and communication styles used within your soon-to-be profession. Also consider perusing want ads for the types of jobs you are considering applying for. Often, job postings will use keywords and phrases typical to the type of job being advertised. Those keywords can selectively be incorporated into the resume.

Be cautious of overusing technical terms or acronyms. Even if these terms are commonly used in your field, it does not hurt to spell-out acronyms and use slightly less technical language or a combination of both (for when resumes are electronically scanned). Again, the initial reader of your resume may be someone in the human resources department who is not as familiar with the jargon as is the person with the ultimate hiring power. You do not want to talk down to your reader, nor do you want to confuse your reader. Study the language of the industry and position listings to incorporate keywords appropriately.

Keep It Simple

It can be very tempting to use fancy language, verbose sentences, and multi-syllabic words in an attempt to impress your reader. The downside to this approach is that your prose can become bogged down and you may come off sounding more arrogant than intelligent. Also remember those few seconds you have in which to impress your reader. Making that person wade through a long sentence will not help your cause; instead, present information in a clear, easy-to-understand format that will quickly tell your reader what you are capable of, not that you are capable of constructing complicated text.

Watch for the potential overuse of action verbs, adverbs, and adjectives. Many resume books (including this one) provide lists of action verbs to choose from when describing your experience, and yes, they are important. But they are most effective when used sparingly and in the right context. Action verbs are words such as allocated, initiated, managed, provided, oversaw, directed, etc. Adverbs describe verbs (action) and often end in "-ly," such as quickly, rapidly, adroitly, impressively, wholeheartedly, etc.

Your keywords will typically be nouns; when using your keywords in sentences (as opposed to a list, which is also acceptable and sometimes more appropriate), the tendency to back-up those nouns with adjectives can be tempting and distracting. Let us say that quality assurance is one of your keywords. Stating that you developed "a comprehensive, all-encompassing, detail-oriented, innovative, structured, and really, really, really impressive quality assurance program" would obviously be overkill. Choosing one hard-hitting adjective may work to your advantage. Trying to drive the point home with excessive adjectives and adverbs will not. (Think of the child who tries to make a point carry more weight by saying that he or she is very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very hungry and really, really, really, really, really, really, REALLY wants ice cream.)

A better approach, however, is to show what was done using specific, quantifiable information. That a project was completed quickly is not as impressive as stating that it was completed in a specific time frame, under budget, before the deadline. Whenever possible, include specific data (sales figures, percentage of time saved, etc.) that shows what was done, rather than simply how. Let the reader know the outcomes of the activities using brief, specific language and figures.