Whenever we apply for a job, we know the impact we want our resume to have. It should show how effective we are, how efficient, how capable, how resourceful. "Look at what I've achieved!" it should say. "Just think how much more I could achieve for your company if you employ me!"
So why do so many job applicants persist in writing in the passive voice? A resume needs to have punch and sparkle, to convey drive, energy and initiative. To have any real impact it needs to be action-based so it can demonstrate a candidate's abilities and achievements rather than just laying claim to them, which is all the passive voice does.
What is the Passive Voice?
The passive voice, or passive form, is when the main focus of a sentence is on the action, on what has been done in the past tense, rather than on who has performed the action. So the phrase "I did it" is active, "It was done by me" is passive.
In a resume, the passive voice sounds something like this:
"A 15 percent growth in sales was achieved by our team in one year."
"The company's IT system was updated under my supervision.""The highest marks in the accountancy exam were awarded to me".
This distances you from what you have achieved. How much better to say:
"My team realized a 15 percent growth in sales in one year."
"Initiated the successful update of the company's IT system.""Achieved the highest sales in the department."
Less obvious examples include phrases such as "Responsible for"; "Served as"; and the overused phrase, "Duties included". Instead of saying "I was responsible for managing 25 client accounts", it is far more effective to simply write: "I managed 25 client accounts". This is more concise, more direct and therefore has greater impact.
Should I say "I"?
Job applicants often use the passive form in order not to start a sentence with the word "I", which is something many resume advice sites recommend you avoid doing. But this word can just as easily be avoided by simply omitting it.
Sentences which start with a verb - for example: "Headed a project"; "Managed a team"; "Achieved top marks" - are sometimes called "passive constructions", but this is incorrect. If the words that open your sentence are not concerned with who is performing the action, but with what the action is, that is a passive construction.
It is perfectly acceptable to just leave out the word "I", especially in bullet points. You may feel that this is not grammatically correct, but this is a resume you’re writing, not an essay. Being concise in as few words as possible will always trump being long-winded. The main point to remember is that, wherever possible, the actor in a sentence should always come before the action.
What are Action Words?
These are strong, positive, action-based words which, when used creatively, can be used to highlight your strengths, skills and accomplishments.
• Transformed• Accomplished
It is important in a resume to use the past tense of verbs such as these: this shows that you have already achieved some noteworthy successes. With careful thought (and a good thesaurus!) you should be able to find strong, novel action words which add punch to your statements.
So rather than saying "Led my team" you could claim to have "Mobilized" them. You may have "Updated" the company's accounting system, but it makes more impact if you "Revitalized" or "Transformed" it. It's fine to have "Completed" a successful deal with a client, but it's far better to have "Finalized" it.
Use the Job Description
If you want to know the key skills and attributes the hiring company is looking for in the perfect candidate, study the job description. Select the skills and abilities which you possess and then use them by including action-based examples in your resume.
And don't merely lay claim to them - demonstrate them. If the employer wants "good presentational skills", you need to show not only that you possess these, but how you used them to benefit your company. For example, you "Created and delivered a multi-media presentation to prospective new clients, achieving 25 new accounts in six months."
Always make sure the language you use does justice to your talents and to your achievements - this is what the action words in your resume are for. The only way to catch the eye of the recruiter or the employer is to avoid using the same old stock phrases which they have heard hundreds of times already. The right choice of words will make your resume more exciting, more compelling, more memorable, more attention-grabbing.
As the Harvard School of Education advises: "Describe your accomplishments in simple but powerful statements in an active voice that emphasizes the benefit to your employer." The ability to use the right words in the right context is the ultimate secret weapon of every successful job candidate.
Tune in next Tuesday for more great resume, cover letter and interview tips! Same time, same place!