When my husband and I sat down with an early intervention learning specialist to write up my autistic three-year-old son’s Individual Education Plan (IEP), she asked what we do to specifically address our worry that he might run off at any time. My husband and I shared an incredulous look. We never really came up with a specific plan. Without conference or agreement, we simply added the measures needed to compensate. We had come up with a strategy, understanding the large overarching implications, and implemented that plan on an individual level, collaborating and coordinating our efforts without articulation.
This is an important perspective for any person. Consider the application to your career, and how you define your current or past job duties and experience. Now, consider how your resume is written, and the descriptive terms you use. If you are early or mid-career, the easiest trap in which to fall is to undersell your achievements by simply stating what duties you carried and your corresponding performance. While completely necessary, you still miss the opportunity to provide scope and context.
Early professionals are the most common offenders of either the terse (just the facts) resume, or the gregarious, buzz-word filled resume. It’s something that is easily remedied with expert advice or experience. However, it is no secret that regardless of career stage, women will ultimately undersell their experiences on resumes. Women commonly devalue their talents and abilities by perpetually omitting valuable information about their core skills, and fail to acknowledge key achievements. Not only can underselling make a woman less competitive in the overall job market, it can also affect the compensation offered upon hire.
Women commonly devalue their talents and abilities by perpetually omitting valuable information about their core skills, and fail to acknowledge key achievements.
In a recent conversation with a colleague, “June”, we discussed updating her resume. She asked me about listing her duties, doing so in the traditional way of listing them on a day-to-day basis. While completely appropriate, the simple bulleted list completely negates the brilliance of June. As an outreach professional, June single-handedly constructed her small department, defining her position as it grew. She created media and content, disseminated it at an international level, and presented at an expert level at national conferences.
This is why context and scope are important. Forbes published a great article in September 2019 that outlined the ways to get a resume noticed, including the need to “sell” instead of “summarize” your experience. While the author talks about using high impact words to influence the resume reader, I also believe that adding context without resorting to buzzwords is a huge benefit.
Using June’s experience, she may easily bullet her experience as:
- Created media content for outreach services.
This is factual, but doesn’t encapsulate her true efforts, or the results. Let’s try this:
- Developed, designed, and implemented an informational outreach campaign—behavioral, transactional, and engagement-oriented—delivered to over 2 million users, reducing general inquiry traffic by 27%
The new bullet does describe the experience and reframes it to give a clearer scope of the project and includes measurable metrics to show her success.
Another example of June’s experience might be expressed as:
- Leveraged experience to present at national conferences
Again, this is accurate. Let’s try this:
- Well-honed public speaking skills, developed over the course of a ten-year career as an expert in outreach, regularly presenting at national conferences with audiences of over 3,000 participants.
As you can see, June’s true scope of expertise is outlined with the appropriate context.
When listing your experience, consider the overall impact your position had on the organization. Did you create a position, streamline a process, introduce something new, or eliminate an obstacle? Now think about the action words and how you should describe them. Did you just “create”, or did you assess data, devise a plan, and implement it? It’s not an exaggeration or an oversell. Consider the opening paragraph. In order to create, streamline, or introduce, strategic thought and planning are necessary.
Perhaps you aren’t giving yourself the proper credit, compensating for a need without consciously acknowledging it.
Here are a few other basic recommendations:
Review the job listing and incorporate key words into your resume. More online application portals utilize some form of AI, which scan resumes and score them.
Save every resume and cover letter you submit (they should be tailored for every position), using a filing structure that allows you to pull the appropriate resume for the interview.
Do not add your picture to your resume. While trendy for a short time, this can work against you. More HR departments are stripping the indicators of gender, race, ethnicity, and age from the review process.
Add metrics of measurement. Consider the overall impact your initiatives had on the organization and include them in your experience.
Always submit a cover letter. If the organization says it’s optional, submit one anyway. If they only have a place for “other documents” upload it there. A cover letter is your shortcut to adding information about you that isn’t easily translated in a resume.
Apply for positions that are tangential, you have the skills, they are applicable.
Have someone else proofread your document. Most people cannot find their own mistakes.
Beware of “team-player” language. While you want to have an impressive grasp of soft skills, you want to avoid passive terms like “assist” or “collaborate”.
Melissa Walker, Ph.D. is the Director of the TRIO Training Academy within Educational Equity at Penn State University, the Associate Director for Penn State’s Talent Search and EOC Programs—programs specifically designed to create equitable pathways for first generation/low-income students, and the owner of Training and Development Network. Prior to joining the university in 2010, Melissa spent over 12 years working in the software industry under talent management to enhance organizations’ development of diversity, leadership, teamwork, and performance. As a person dedicated to social justice, she has run volunteer training programs for domestic violence centers in CA, as well as volunteer research and training design for the CA Dept. of Corrections.
Melissa has presented on topics such as equity, leadership development, and talent management at national and international conferences such as the Council for Opportunity in Education (COE) and the Association for Talent Development (ATD).
Melissa holds a Ph.D. in Workforce Education, a double M.Ed in Curriculum and Instruction for Non-Traditional Students/Career & Technical Education (CTE), and a B.A. in English Literature and Culture.
Melissa is the mother to four children, ranging in ages from 17 to 3 years old, so in her spare time, she sleeps.
 Landmark feminist writers such as Judith Butler have written that gender is socially constructed, meaning that the ways that we as a society view men and women have everything to do with the culture that we live in and rather than biology.