Words to Eliminate from Your Resumé: Part 2 – “Work”

This is Part 2 of an ongoing blog series on words that should never appear on your resumé. Missed Part 1? Read it here.

In the context of a job application, is there a more generic, less descriptive word than “work”? If so, I haven’t seen it. So why is it one of the most common words on many applicants’ resumés?

Maybe we need to take a step back, and ask the simplest question: what’s wrong with using the word “work” on your resumé?

It screams “lowest common denominator.”

Few would disagree that being thought of as generic is not conducive to success in the competition that is a job application. This is certainly not a revolutionary idea—the only way to be perceived as the best in any scenario is to differentiate yourself from those who are not the best. Anything that implies “lowest common denominator” won’t help you stand out.

Katherine Brooks, author of the excellent book You Majored in What? Mapping Your Path from Chaos to Career, wrote an article recently that highlighted this need for applicants to differentiate themselves. She provides a good example in the quote below:

You might say, “I’m an honors student”, which again is a great statement but one that can be made by others. So you might write, “I wrote an honors thesis on problem-solving techniques.” That would be more unique and interesting to an employer.

So, when an employer scans through your resumé and sees the heading “Work Experience,” what’s going through their mind? Probably nothing—this won’t help you stand out. It’s likely that they’ve just scanned through dozens of other resumés with the exact same heading. What—aside from the fact that you likely got paid for whatever it is you discuss in that section—can they conclude about the nature of that experience, and what you accomplished, from the heading? Again, nothing.

Contrast this with a heading that draws attention, and suggests to the reader something informative about your experience—for example: “leadership experience,” “experience working with youth,” “helping experience,” “lab experience,” “financial experience,” and the list goes on.

It’s a verb without a skill.

Another point few would disagree with: verbs are the most exciting parts of language. They are the action words of our communication. They represent doing and achieving, and getting things done is undoubtedly an ability that employers want in their employees. More relevant to our discussion of resumés, however, is the fact that good, strong, descriptive verbs on a resumé have direct associations with skills—ideally skills that are required by the job.

For example, using the word “collaborate” suggests that you are capable of communication and interpersonal skills (which are a requirement of every job). Writing that you “collaborated with a team” says much more about your interpersonal skills than “worked with a team” does. And that’s just by replacing one word. Trust me: length restrictions and readers’ short attention spans demand that resumé writers squeeze every bit of relevance and skill possible out of the words they use. “Work” just doesn’t cut it.

It’s too vague to mean anything.

What does it mean to say that you worked in a team? That you worked on a project? That you worked independently and in teams (maybe the least meaningful statement possible on a resumé)?

Again, the answer is that it means little, if not nothing. It certainly doesn’t mean that you did the work well. It’s almost as bad as that most horrendous of popular resumé phrases: “Was responsible for…” (Ick! That doesn’t even mean that you did it!).

It’s clear to me how useless the word “work” is on a resumé, and hopefully after reading this blog it’s clear to you as well. So get that delete key warmed up, and have at it!

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