You already know that your resume and cover letter are vital to your job search. Because these documents are so important — second only to the act of networking in helping you get a foot in the door at your dream company — you want every word to be perfect. But what happens when the quest for the perfect word goes wrong?
A thesaurus can be a useful tool when you want to avoid repetition of words or when you know the meaning you want to convey but can’t quite put your finger on the right word. If you use it to find polysyllabic synonyms for plain language, however, your attempt to sound smarter may backfire. Jessica Stillman, writing for Inc., warns that “before you get out the thesaurus in an attempt to impress, remember that simplicity and clarity are generally a better signal of mastery than flowery language.”
One of the main drawbacks to using the thesaurus is that words often have multiple meanings. For example, the word “flowery” from the quote above has several definitions. A quick search on thesaurus.com offers up these related words: bombastic, figurative, floral, florid, inflated, and odorous. The first and fifth options could make sense in the context of our quote, but the other choices are nonsensical.
That doesn’t stop English professor Michael Eddy’s students, who routinely use Microsoft Word’s built-in thesaurus to pepper their papers with the kind of flowery language Stillman warned against. As Eddy explains it, “dressing up a piece of prose with thesaurus-words tends not to work well. And here’s why: a thesaurus suggests words without explaining nuances of meaning and levels of diction. So if you choose substitute words from a thesaurus, it’s likely that your writing will look as though you’ve done just that.”
It’s not just college students who fall prey to “big-word-itis”; the business world is notorious for buzzwords and unnecessarily long synonyms. “Anyone in the working world, in any number of occupations, is going to have to write some sort of report or presentation and may be tempted to talk in dynamic-synergy nonsense to fit in,” says Rebecca Schuman, writing for Slate. While it might seem like mimicking that language will make your resume and cover letter sound more professional — especially if you’re worried that your experience or credentials aren’t impressive — it often has the opposite effect.
In other words, your big words aren’t fooling anybody.
“We all want to make a good impression, but when it comes to your resume, don’t utilize lucid communication skills – just be clear, be specific, and be honest,” says writer Bill Reagan. “The goal of your resume isn’t to show how creatively you can embellish your experience, it’s to show that you’re the right person for the job.”
So when should you use a thesaurus during your job hunt? There are only two good reasons to consult Mr. Roget: if you’re brainstorming keywords for a job search or if you discover that you’ve written “responsibilities” ten times on your resume. It’s all too easy to repeat a word multiple times in a single document, but doing so makes your writing appear dull, unimaginative, and careless — not exactly qualities that employers look for in candidates.
Try reading your resume and cover letter out loud. This proofreading trick can help you spot grammar mistakes and typos, and it’s also a great way to catch unintentional repetition. Pay particular attention to the verbs you use to describe your work experience; ideally, they should be active and specific. If you find lackluster language or repetitive word choices, choose an alternative — preferably one whose definition you already know. Otherwise, leave the thesaurus alone.