Hiring managers spend an average of six seconds scanning your résumé, and according to a 2012 study by The Ladders that tracked eye movement, the middle section on the far left of the page gets the most eyeball time. Based on these movement patterns, the best strategy is to use a clean, minimal layout with plenty of white space and bullet points beginning with strong action words.
But what is an action word? Unlike active and passive voice, which are actual grammatical constructs, an action word is just a word that demonstrates an action in a dynamic way. Often, action words are used to spin a mundane task into something more impressive on your resume. Instead of describing yourself as a mailroom clerk, you might say that you managed an interoffice document delivery system.
Kerry K. Taylor of Squawkfox cautions against using too many active words in a résumé, however. As in the example above, sometimes when you dress up a mundane task in fancy language, it just looks ridiculous. According to Taylor, too many action words “can lead to buzzword overkill and harm, rather than help your chances of landing a job interview. No hiring manager likes a résumé saturated with lots of action and little substance.”
Cut the Fluff
Have you ever said a word so many times that it seems to become a meaningless collection of sounds? The phenomenon is called semantic satiation, and something similar happens to written words that you see too often. Hiring managers may have hundreds of résumés to sift through for a single position, and overused words and phrases like “self-starter” or “people person” might as well be invisible.
Every year since 2009, LinkedIn has compiled a list of the most overused words on résumés; repeat offenders include creative, innovative, and effective. According to Time, “If the opposite of your descriptive word is obviously negative (i.e. ineffective, impatient), bosses probably assume you have this skill already.”
Many of these words are just fancier cousins of more mundane words; no one is fooled by substituting utilized for used. “The biggest communication mistakes, in my opinion, come from people’s efforts to appear intelligent,” said Toni Bowers, managing editor of TechRepublic.
These words are also maddeningly vague. Just like most online dating profiles promise an easy-going personality and sense of humor, most résumés promise some form of personal effectiveness. “The problem is, everyone thinks they’re successful or able to produce results,” cautions Jessica Holbrook Hernandez. “In actuality, not everyone does or can. And by using terms like these on your résumé the only thing you’ve accomplished is looking like every other job seeker on the market.”
Tell Your Story with Their Words
The Purdue Online Writing Lab recommends using action words to create “concise, persuasive, reader-centered” résumés and cover letters. But choosing the right action words is what will set apart your résumé from the rest of the crowd. Jenna Charlton advises jobseekers to “use the company’s language and tell them your story.”
By carefully reading and highlighting the keywords in a company’s vacancy notice and website, you’ll discover what values and worker attributes are important to the business. If it is looking for a “dynamic, multi-talented customer service specialist,” then that’s exactly what you’ll be.
By mirroring their corporate copy in your résumé, not only will you be more likely to make it past any keyword-scanning software, but you’ll also be more likely to impress the hiring manager. If you do it subtly and skillfully—and make sure to weed out any typos with an automated proofreader—prospective employers will see you as the perfect fit the position, and you’ll be one step closer to your first paycheck.