This article focuses on one of the most effective methods for identifying accomplishments for use in your job search and career — mining them through a series of questions that can prompt you to rediscover notable moments.
To have a stellar resume and cover letter and respond effectively to interview questions, you need to remember accomplishments and realize that activities you may not have attached much importance to actually were achievements. Develop what I call a Raw Inventory of Accomplishments that you can later refine for your job-search and workplace communications.
Doubtless, you will find a set of 200+ prompts daunting. When I had my resume-writing business, I would ask clients to respond to 18 accomplishments prompts for each job, and even that number was overwhelming for many clients. I suggest you review the entire list (you can skip the entrepreneurial and entry-level/unpaid prompts if they don’t apply to you) to see if anything jumps out at you and triggers an achievement memory.
Next, look at specific categories of prompts and choose those that are most relevant to your current needs:
Updating your resume? The skills prompts will help you with a Professional Profile or Qualifications Summary atop your resume.
The values prompts can assist with targeting specific employers with resumes, cover letters, and interview responses. These prompts will help you match yourself to a prospective employer’s values and show your fit with the organization.
The experience prompts, obviously, will boost your resume’s Professional Experience section.
The “future-oriented” prompts can help your resume and cover letter but may be even more useful for interviews.
The section asking about tangible evidence of accomplishments can be a significant boon to creating a portfolio or Brag Book.
The section offering creative ways to mine for accomplishments is useful across the board.
The entrepreneurial prompts will assist those whose careers have been largely or most recently entrepreneurial.
The entry-level/unpaid section can guide new graduates and those with limited paid experience.
For more global accomplishments that boost your self-esteem and help you set goals, see the life accomplishments section.
To use typical job-interview questions as prompts, see the interview section.
As you work through the prompts, keep the following in mind:
Try to list specific, concrete accomplishments. Let’s say you were asked one of the prompting questions on this list in an interview: “What is your track record in meeting deadlines and budgets?” Some interview candidates might be tempted to say they have consistently met deadlines and budgets in their jobs. That’s not a horrible response, but they would make their point much more credibly and convincingly if they gave specific examples of how they’ve done so, perhaps describing obstacles they overcame along the way.
Here’s another example, from a cover letter. It does a great job of describing accomplishments — but none of them are described in concrete terms. The writer fails to paint a picture of how and where these feats took place. The reader is tempted to say, “Oh yeah? Prove it. Give me specifics.”
My accomplishments include assessing current and future staffing needs, overseeing allocation of financial resources, and managing budgetary processes. I can build and lead successful, goal-oriented teams of professional staff while overseeing budgets and resources for bottom-line results. I have turned unprofitable operations into profit-makers. I have contributed to keeping business centers running like well-oiled machines with a warm, human touch. Upon identifying key issues, I solve problems while embracing change and its positive effect on successful organizations. Fostering commitment, team spirit, pride, trust, and group identity are particular strengths.
Consider the “so-what factor” and accomplishment building blocks.
For every accomplishment you list, ask yourself, “so what?” Does the item you’ve listed truly characterize your abilities and your potential for contributing to your next employer’s success? Does the accomplishment truly distinguish you? For example, when I taught college students, I conducted mock job interviews with them. A frequent interview question was “What accomplishment are you most proud of?” The majority of students cited their pending college graduation as their proudest accomplishment. College graduation is indeed an accomplishment worthy of pride, but in a job market in which most applicants are college grads, this achievement does little to distinguish the interviewee. See the section of prompts especially intended to ferret out uniqueness. Another way to ensure an accomplishment is “important” enough is to ask yourself what value it contributed to the organization. How did it make a difference? What would have happened if you hadn’t accomplished what you did?
Let’s take this accomplishment for example:
Consolidated and relocated entire technical laboratory of newly purchased specialty division — including technical information, equipment, and knowledge base held by a retired engineer.
Impressive. But let’s ask the job-seeker: So what? Well, it turns out that he completed the project five months ahead of schedule.
Wow! But so what, in terms of value to the organization?
He saved the acquiring company $500,000 by getting the new lab up and running so quickly. Thus, the post-so-what accomplishments bullet point becomes:
Saved company $500k by consolidating and relocating entire technical laboratory of newly purchased specialty division – including technical information, equipment, and knowledge base held by a retired engineer — five months ahead of schedule.
The “so what?” factor enables us to understand the concept of Accomplishment Building Blocks, or levels of accomplishments:
- Positive action or behavior.
- Positive action or behavior with a result.
- Positive action or behavior with a result attached to a metric.
And, of course, these building blocks should be in the reverse order, building to the holy grail of accomplishments:
Positive action or behavior with a result attached to a metric.
Positive action or behavior with a result.
Positive action or behavior.
Make sure each accomplishment is relevant to your goal in brainstorming your accomplishments. Choosing accomplishments germane to the type of job you seek, the education program you seek to enter, the clients to which you want to sell your products or services will help guide you in which prompts to focus on. It’s wise to build a large arsenal of accomplishments. But choose subsets judiciously to support specific goals at any given time.
Think about the full scope of your experience. Though your most recent experience is usually the most relevant, think back over every job, every educational experience, and even aspects of your life outside work and school. Sometimes older experiences and those off the beaten path — running a marathon, scaling a tall mountain peak — make the most memorable and illustrative accomplishment stories.
Consider metrics. After you’ve mined these prompts as much as possible for accomplishments, go back through your list and consider how to measure each accomplishment — what metrics can you attach to each achievement? Quantify whenever possible.
Keep your brand in mind. Consider how each accomplishment fits with your personal brand. Explain in just two sentences in what way each chosen accomplishment will have impact on your targeted job (or other goal) and reflect your brand.
Resist the temptation to blow your accomplishments out of proportion. Accomplishments should be measurable whenever possible and always verifiable. Don’t risk having a prospective employer call a former supervisor and ask, “Did she really save the company from bankruptcy?” and have your ex-boss say, “Huh?”
Identify skills in which you excel — far above the performance level of most people — and give results-based examples of how you’ve demonstrated those skills. Even more important than brainstorming examples of skills in which you excel is to choose skills most relevant to the next job you seek. Identify the skills most often mentioned in the job postings of greatest interest to you and develop accomplishment statements about each of them.
Accomplishments that illustrate skills are important, says Donald Asher, author of The Overnight Resume, because your audience, especially the hiring audience “buys” skills and abilities. “Focus on the skills, the abilities, and the track record, not the tenure,” Asher says. They are also important when you are changing careers. Employers have difficulty visualizing how your skills in one field are applicable to another field unless you illustrate those skills through accomplishments.
Technical “hard” skills related to your work are important, but as Peggy Klaus writes in her article, Are You Up To Snuff When It Comes To Soft Skills?, soft skills — behaviors and traits such as self-awareness, adaptability, critical thinking, problem solving, leadership, teamwork, communicating, likability, risk taking, and time management — that determine the bottom line and will make or break an employee’s career.
If you haven’t been tracking your accomplishments regularly, you may forget some of the skills you’ve used. Maura Over of Aurega Communication suggests conducting searches for skills on LinkedIn to remind yourself of skills you’ve used and can tie to accomplishments.
Here are accomplishment prompts related to some top skills employers (and other audiences) seek. In addition, a good overarching prompt is: What new skills have you mastered?:
Problem-Solving/Reasoning/Creativity: Consider specific problems in each job.
- What were the problems or challenges that you or the organization faced?
- What did you do to overcome the problems?
- What were the results of your efforts?
- Did you turn plummeting sales around? Did you fix weak financials?
- Did you raise brand awareness?
- Did you launch a new product?
- Did you penetrate the market?
- Did you improve a process?
- Have you found a better method to do something?
- What successes have resulted from your creativity?
- When have you successfully handled a crisis or emergency?
- Describe accomplishment(s) that had strategic impact.
- What was the initial problem/challenge?
- What was the result?
- How did you make it happen?
Communications Skills (listening, verbal, written).
- How have you made a difference through your ability to listen?
- Can you give examples of how your ability to write has distinguished you?
- What have you been able to accomplish as a result of your skill with speaking effectively?
- What special successes have you had with presentations or pitches?
- How have you demonstrated your ability to assess a situation?
- What accomplishments have resulted from seeking multiple perspectives, and gathering more information?
- How have you shown your ability to identify key issues that need to be addressed?
- Most workers these days are experienced with computer hardware and software, but how have you gone above and beyond in your understanding and ability?
- What accomplishments have resulted from your expertise in specialized applications such as SAS, SPSS, or SAP software?
Flexibility/Adaptability/Managing Multiple Priorities.
- What accomplishment(s) illustrate(s) your ability to manage multiple assignments and tasks, set priorities?
- How have you shown your ability to adapt to changing conditions and work assignments?
- How have you impacted people in your previous positions?
- What accomplishments would not have been possible without your ability to relate to your co-workers?
- When has your ability to inspire others been critical to achieving results?
- What accomplishments resulted from your ability to mitigate conflict with co-workers?
- In what ways have you boosted employee or co-worker morale?
- Describe how your approachability has paid off for you in successful outcomes.
- How has your management of employees yielded results?
- What did your subordinates achieve under your leadership that they might not have under someone else?
- How did your management approach contribute to the organization’s bottom line?
- How have you empowered and motivated subordinates? What resulted?
- What is your leadership style? Describe how you’ve applied it to attain a successful outcome.
- How have you inspired loyalty to the organization?
- Have you had any successes as a result of demonstrating sensitivity and awareness to other people and cultures?
- How have your demonstrated your ability to design, plan, organize, and implement projects and tasks within an allotted timeframe?
- What accomplishments have resulted from your goal-setting abilities?
- How have you excelled through your ability to work with team members in a professional manner while attempting to achieve a common goal? (Be sure to make your role on the team clear and don’t give all the credit for achieving the goal to the team; give yourself adequate credit.)
- What successes have resulted when you have taken risks?
- In what ways has stepping outside your comfort zone paid off in positive outcomes?
Accomplishments that Depict Values
Of equal importance to skills are the values, personality traits, and personal characteristics that employers seek. Look for ways to weave accomplishment statements describing how you’ve exemplified these values into your resume, cover letters, and answers to interview questions. Again, choose those most relevant to the next job you seek.
Following are accomplishment prompts related to some top values employers (and other audiences) seek:
- What have you accomplished that exemplifies your personal integrity and ethics?
- In what ways have employers placed their trust in you to positive effect?
- What results have you attained by being receptive and open to new ideas and concepts?
- What successes have resulted from your willingness to both work independently and as part of a team?
- What achievements have sprung from your ability to carry out multiple tasks or projects?
- What successes have you achieved because you love what you do and work hard at it?
- What result would not have been attained if you had not been determined to persist at a problem until you solved it and got the job done?
- In what situation has your commitment to taking responsibility for your actions made a difference to an employer?
- What are some ways you have demonstrated consistency?
- What successes can you attribute to loyalty to your employer?
- Have you ever achieved a positive outcome after your loyalty was tested?
- What achievements do you associate with your drive and passion?
- What outcomes have resulted from demonstrating enthusiasm through words and actions?
- What excites you most about your work or makes you the happiest? What do you get the greatest charge out of accomplishing?
- Do you love what you do? Give an example of how that passion for your work has motivated you to go the extra mile.
- How have you shown that you continually want to improve in your job?
- How have you actually improved your performance?
- How have you handled situations in such a way that your professionalism made a difference in the outcome?
Self-Confidence. Look at it this way: if you don’t believe in yourself, in your unique mix of skills, education, and abilities, why should a prospective employer? Be confident in yourself and what you can offer employers.
- What have you accomplished as a result of your maturity and self-confidence?
Self-Motivation/Ability to Work With Little or No Supervision. While teamwork is always mentioned as an important skill, so is the ability to work independently, with minimal supervision.
- Describe a situation in which you showed you were a self-starter.
- Recall a time in which you excelled without supervision — perhaps a situation in which supervision would normally have been expected.
Willingness to Learn.
- How have you succeeded as a result of your willingness to learn a new skill or technique? (Note that accomplishments demonstrating this willingness can be especially helpful for mature workers.)
Accomplishments that Exemplify Experience
- What are you most proud of in each job? Resume writer Julie Walraven has a name for these “most proud of” accomplishments: “Super Stories” that describe how you made a difference.
- What role did you play in executing the organization’s mission, goals, and objectives?
- How have you contributed to customer satisfaction? How have you excelled in serving customers? What positive feedback have you earned from customers or clients?
- What have been your bottom-line contributions and the interim contributions that led up to them? Career coach and resume writer Beverly Harvey suggests this approach, in which you describe your contributions’ impact on the organization in each of these areas:
- market impact
- shareholder/stakeholder value
- Describe situations in which your ability to execute projects quickly has resulted in positive outcomes?
- How have you helped your organization to win bids?
- Specifically, how did you attain the successes that have made the greatest contributions to the organizations for which you’ve worked? What makes you successful?
- In what ways have you contributed to a positive corporate image?
- What successes have you achieved in helping organizations attain brand recognition?
- In what ways have you improved quality — of products, process, people, or other aspects of your organization?
- How have you demonstrated innovativeness? What innovations have you introduced?
- What have you done to improve sales effectiveness?
- What have you done to help an organization manage rapid growth?
- What have you increased?
- What have you improved?
- Identify something negative that was bypassed or avoided because of your efforts.
- Identify something negative that you helped suppress or prevent.
- What have you maintained in the face of adversity?
- What have been your proudest accomplishments as a member of professional organizations/associations?
- Analyze each project in which you’ve been involved according to the SMART framework. Used in project management and other fields, these components are also known as Key Performance Indicators:
- Specific task, challenge, project, or problem.
- Measurable: What metrics apply to your performance?
- Action: What specific action did you take? Be clear about your role. (In some versions of this framework, A stands for “Attainable,” as in: What steps did you take to attain your goal?)
- Result: What outcome resulted from your action?
- Timeframe: How long did it take for you to successfully complete the project?
- Recruiting expert Lou Adler suggests an additional element, Environment, proposing you ask yourself, “What was the environment like in terms of pace, resources, level of sophistication, the people involved, and your manager?”
- What projects in which you’ve played a major role have finished on schedule — or even ahead of schedule?
- What projects in which you’ve played a major role have finished within budget or even under budget?
- What accomplishments can you report from your military background?
Accomplishments that Enable the Employer to Envision Your Future Ability to Attain the Same Results you Achieved for a Past Employer
- How has the organization benefited from your performance?
- How did you/will you leave this employer better off than before you worked there?
- What critical strategy components did you identify to propel the organization to a better position?
- How did you contribute to this employer’s profitability, such as through sales-increase percentages? How have you helped your employer to make money?
- How did you contribute to the firm’s Return on Investment (ROI)?
- How did you contribute to operational efficiency in each job, such as through cost-reduction percentages?
- How did you help this employer or a part of the organization to save money, save time, or make work easier?
- In what ways have you streamlined or automated processes/operations?
- How did you contribute to or influence productivity, such as through successfully motivating your team?
- What did you do to improve your organization’s competitive advantage?
- What did you do to foster relationships inside and outside the organization? What resulted?
- What was your role in bringing in new customers and satisfying the existing customer base?
- What role did you play in business growth?
- In what ways have you helped your organization handle market volatility?
- What accomplishment best illustrates your ability to lead, facilitate, or handle change?
- Did you initiate mergers, acquisitions, partnerships, or operating agreements?
- How have you made your boss’s job easier?
- How have you contributed to your boss’s goals?
- In what ways have you helped the organization toward reaching its goals?
- How have you served as a catalyst for positive change?
- Have you helped your organization overcome negative publicity?
- In what ways have you turned around obstacle-laden situations that could have resulted in lost profits?
- Most significant comparable accomplishment to each performance objective in the targeted job. Examine job postings to see what employers expect as the performance standards/objectives of the prospective job and identify your accomplishments that exemplify your ability to meet/exceed those standards/objectives. Outline each of those accomplishments in detail as shown below. (Note: This prompt is paraphrased from a technique for interviewing candidates suggested to hiring decision-makers by recruiting expert Lou Adler.)
- A contextual and detailed account of the accomplishment.
- A description of the organization to which you contributed the accomplishment (including size, industry, location, product or service focus, etc.).
- Results metrics: dollars, hours, percentages, level of improvement, etc.
- Date(s) of accomplishment.
- Timeframe: Span of time over which you completed the accomplishment.
- How “mission-critical” was the accomplishment to the organization?
- Your position within the organization.
- Reason you were selected for the project.
- Top several challenges you encountered and how you handled them.
- Examples of how you took the initiative and demonstrated leadership.
- Significant decisions you made.
- Environment and available resources.
- What you did you to expand or enhance resources.
- Available budget and your role in preparing and managing it.
- Technical skills you had to have to attain the desired results.
- Technical skills you learned and how quickly you learned them.
- Actual role you played in attaining results.
- Members of the team and their reporting relationships.
- Biggest mistakes you made.
- How you changed and evolved as a result of the project.
- What you would do differently if you had it to do it again.
- Components of the project you truly appreciated.
- Components of the project you did not find enjoyable.
- How the project compared to the plan.
- How you developed the plan.
- How you motivated and influenced others, with specific examples.
- How you handled conflict, with specific examples.
- Anything else you felt was important to the project’s success.
Accomplishments that Demonstrate Subject-Matter Knowledge
- How have you used current information about your industry to increase performance in your role?
- How you have applied knowledge from another job or other area of your life into your most recent position?
- Identify a situation you would face in a targeted future job. Describe a situation from a past or current job and apply your knowledge to address that situation.
- Describe a time you successfully used specific subject-matter knowledge to solve a problem you were facing.
Accomplishments that Indicate that Others Recognize Your Value and Contributions
- What special things did you do to impress your boss so that you might be promoted?
- And were you promoted? (Rapid and/or frequent promotions can be especially noteworthy.)
- For what qualities and contributions have supervisors complimented you?
- Check your annual performance reviews for each job. Identify glowing or complimentary quotes from your reviews. Did you consistently receive high ratings?
- Have you received any complimentary memos or letters from employers or customers? Find quotes from these communications that support your accomplishments.
- If someone asked your boss from each job to identify your most significant contribution in that job, what would your boss say?
- How have you been recognized for your contributions?
Accomplishments that Distinguish You and Show Uniqueness
“If you think someone else could just as easily be telling your story,” writes Peggy Klaus, “it’s time to dig deeper for the golden nuggets that will set you apart.”
- In each job, what special things did you do to set yourself apart?
- How did you do the job better than anyone else did or than anyone else could have done?
- How have your unique abilities made the jobs of others easier?
- What did you do to make each job your own? How did you take the initiative?
- How did you go above and beyond what was asked of you in your job description?
- To what extent did you take on additional roles or functions? Did you do the jobs of more than one person, perhaps in the absence of the incumbent? Did you see a functional gap and step in to fill it?
- What did you do that was new to your job function to improve what was there before?
- What do you do in general better than anyone else? Give examples.
- What does the “best in your field” look like? Give examples of ways you’ve demonstrated you meet that standard.
- For each job you’ve had, describe why you were the candidate hired. You can also do the same for each project role or assignment for which you’ve been selected and each promotion you’ve attained. Why you over everyone else?
- How have you modified deliverables to be better meet the needs of their consumers?
- What positive business results and profitability does your work produce?
- To what extent have you ever changed your way of working to achieve a better business result?
- How have you removed complexity from your work, made things simpler?
- How have you responded to a changing market in a way that yielded positive results?
- How have you responded to changes inside your own organization in a way that generated successful outcomes?
- How have you helped customers respond to change?
- How have you evolved in your job to address changing business needs, and what successes have resulted?
- How have you helped your organization grow?
- Describe a project or accomplishment that truly showcases your unique skill set.
- What’s the one work accomplishment you will always be remembered for?
- What have you always been known for?
- How have helped your organization or people within it succeed through sharing your knowledge?
- How have you trained co-workers to be more effective or efficient?
- How have you guided or mentored someone in your organization to step into a larger role?
- How have you helped someone in your organization believe in himself or herself?
Proof of Performance: Tangible Evidence of Accomplishments
- What have you developed, created, or built?
- What publications have you produced that provide evidence of accomplishment?
- With what Websites have you been associated – as a designer, developer, programmer, content provider, site manager, or other function? What was special about your role?
- What software apps or programs have you produced or played a key role in producing?
- What products have you developed or played a significant role in developing?
- What new technologies have your introduced at your organization, and how have they impacted the operation?
- What business strategies have you deployed of which you have tangible evidence?
- What programs or policies have you initiated of which you have tangible evidence? What was the result?
- What photographic evidence do you have of your contributions?
Accomplishments Resulting in Awards, Certifications, and Honors
- What awards have you won for performance?
- What kinds of awards or recognition has your industry given you?
- What awards have you won for ideas, suggestions, or initiatives?
- What other type of recognition have you attained?
- What media coverage have you received?
- What certifications or other evidence of training/education have you earned? How do they distinguish you?
Creative Ways to Mine for Accomplishments
- Imagine that you are in an interview with a CEO who has a 10-minute window to see you. He/she asks you to “bottom-line your impact to your current organization in 30 seconds.” How would you reply?
- Describe the result of something you did in each job as though it were a headline. Then back into the accomplishment to describe why your action was needed and how you executed it.
- What results, successes, and positive outcomes would not have come about in past organizations if you weren’t there? What would not have happened had you not done your job well?
- Imagine you had to write an accomplishment on a paper the size of a business card — and get an interview from it. What would you say?
- Imagine you were writing a job posting/job description of your current job (or a previous job). What would a description look like of performing this job or function successfully and at its highest level? How would optimal performance or success in a this job or function typically be characterized, and how do you measure up?
- Illustrate ways that your knowledge of industry trends and governing regulations has resulted in achievements.
- What are you most known for? What is your style or technique for consistently driving results?
- How many people would it take to do your job if you left? How much money have you saved your organization by doing work that should be done by more than one person?
- Imagine you had been a consultant instead of an employee, and your employer had, instead, been your client. In trying to lure future clients to your consulting services, what accomplishments would you cite? What problems would you say you had solved for your “client?”
- What successes have you had as an entrepreneur that translate to future work for an employer or future entrepreneurial ventures?
- What accomplishments have you attained in attracting investors and raising capital for your business?
- What success have you achieved in navigating the regulatory process? What resulted?
- How has you business plan resulted in success for your venture?
- What level of sales have you generated as an entrepreneur?
- What accomplishments have you had in inventory control?
- What positive outcomes have resulted from your interactions with suppliers?
- How have you applied your subject-matter expertise to success in your entrepreneurial venture?
- Why has your venture succeeded where others have failed?
- What have you achieved as a result of attracting high-performing staff to your venture?
- How have you succeeded through your willingness to take risks?
- What accomplishments can you report regarding running your business in a competitive environment?
- What successes have you had with your venture in the face of an ever-changing climate?
- What have you achieved in terms of attracting customers to your venture?
- What success have you had in converting customers to sales?
- What achievements have you had in growing your venture?
- What have you achieved in terms of offering a quality product/service in your venture?
- What successes resulted after you made initial mistakes with your venture?
- What has been your experience with building partnerships for your venture, and what positive outcomes resulted?
- What are you most proud of as an entrepreneur?
- If you sold your venture, what was the multiplier over the initial investment and/or key reasons a buyer was attracted to your business?
- What are some examples of ways you’ve refused to quit?
- In what ways have you learned from your mistakes?
- What are some examples of ways you’ve made a comeback?
- In what ways have you shared credit for success?
- What are some examples of ways you’ve taken criticism gracefully? What resulted?
- In what ways have you made someone’s day?
- In what ways have you made a difference in the lives of others?
- What are you most proud of as you reflect on the past year?
- How did you turn surprises and disappointments into successes (“make lemonade out of lemons”)?
- What have you done that you consider to be especially interesting or unusual?
- Tell about something you’ve done that was very difficult.
- Craft a accomplishment of something you do unusually well.
- What accomplishments have come out of your engaging hobby?
- What have been your proudest accomplishments during volunteer work, community-service, civic organizations, or work with your religious organization?
- What accomplishment exemplifies your best quality?
- Describe the accomplishment of creating something, such as a novel, an ebook of poetry, song, or work of art.
- Recall an accomplishment of overcoming a challenge in your life.
- What accomplishments would not have been possible without the personality you possess?
Accomplishments Specific to Your Field
Because two exceptional sets of prompts already exist for field-specific accomplishments, I would be foolish to reinvent the wheel. Instead, I happily refer you to these superb repositories:
- Showcasing Your Achievements from the Career Thought Leaders Library.
- Chapter 6, “Accomplishments: The Linchpin of a Great Resume,” of Susan Whitcomb’s excellent book, Resume Magic, 4th Ed.: Trade Secrets of a Professional Resume Writer, Jist Works, 2010.
Accomplishments from School, Unpaid, and Entry-Level Work
Career-marketing professionals advise college students to conduct a thorough inventory and evaluation of academic accomplishments and work with campus career-development counselors or professional resume writers to translate academic achievement, internships, and club or volunteer activities into compelling language that effectively frames skills and educational background and highlights achievement.
In author Rick Gillis’s experience, he notes in his book, Job!, “young people always have more to offer than they think they do. Gillis reports that when he works with members of this group, he always helps them uncover up to 10 solid accomplishments.
And don’t forget about class projects. For example, at the university where I previously taught, many major courses required completing a project, often with a real client. For example, in a marketing research class, students might work with a local business in uncovering a problem and suggesting solutions.
Beyond school projects, other kinds of unpaid work count, too, which is why the prompts in this section are helpful for folks with non-traditional backgrounds – people whose careers have consisted largely of volunteer work and those re-entering the workforce after a long absence. Experience is experience, and accomplishments are accomplishments; it matters little whether you were paid. “Employers are not so concerned about where experience or knowledge comes from,” writes Allan Hay in his book Memory Mining, “simply that you have it and can produce the results they need.”
When describing these student and other unpaid experiences, remember the same rules that apply to describing your work experiences: be specific, always try to quantify your descriptions, and focus on outcomes and project objectives.
- What technical accomplishments have you had? For example, did you write a software program, design a Web page?
- What competitions did you excel in?
- What superlatives can you list, such as the highest grade, the best test score, the strongest essay?
- What creative accomplishments have you had? Were any of your poetry, plays, accomplishments, music, art published, performed, or exhibited?
- What leadership positions have you held that demonstrate important skills that relate to the type of position you seek?
- Did members of your group choose or elect you to a certain position based on special skills you possess? Did a supervisor or professor hand-pick you for additional responsibilities or special project(s)? Also list situations in which you chose to take on additional responsibilities.
- What kinds of things have your friends and classmates always asked you for help and advice about? What are your areas of expertise?
- What community-service projects did you undertake and what were the results of your efforts? Hint: For group efforts, phrase your accomplishments like this: “Played key role in team effort that raised funds for charity that broke a school record.”
- How have you used organizational or managerial skills?
- What ideas have you come up with to improve the organizations with which you’ve been involved?
- List situations in which you’ve handled money or budgets. How have you raised, collected, or managed funds?
- Give one or more examples of ways you have exhibited interpersonal skills.
- List situations in which you have trained, taught, or oriented organization members.
- Have you spoken in public or written for an audience?
- Have you recruited new members to any organizations?
- In what situations have you employed problem-solving, conflict-resolution, or mediation skills?
- Did you work with the general public? List situations in which you were required to deal with the public. Describe any situations in which you responded to complaints or smoothed ruffled feathers.
- How have you demonstrated teamwork (for example, as an athlete)?
- How have you demonstrated individual drive and determination (for example, as an athlete)?
- List situations in which you required to juggle many projects simultaneously under deadline pressure.
- What has been your proudest accomplishment during your education?
Sidebar: Case Study in Student Accomplishments
by Rich Grant, Director of Career Services, Thomas College
I work with college students, and most of them (with the exception of those who had internships) don’t have work experience in their field of study. Nevertheless, I explain to them about the importance of selling their accomplishments. Even if they think they are merely folding clothes at a Target or Old Navy, they are in fact, merchandising the store to impact sales. On their resumes, they need to note what they achieved, not what they did.
The following is an excerpt of a case study about a student I worked with who had one line to describe his role as a supervisor in a Subway sandwich shop, focusing on “making customized sandwiches.” Beyond the questions I asked him, noted below, I ask students to think about the impact of the work they have done. What are the results of their efforts? Answer the question, “so what?”
“To determine what the student achieved as a supervisor, and what value he brought to the business, we asked questions such as:
- Tell me more about being a supervisor.
- What are you most proud of?
- What has the owner/manager complimented you on?
- What contributions did you make to sales, cost reduction, or customer satisfaction?
Upon reflecting, the student realized that he had made several suggestions to the owner about carrying broader assortments of accessory products, and placing products in certain locations to stimulate impulse purchases. The owner also always complimented him on his ability to sell additional items.
I find out if the student’s employer tracks performance and/or has performance goals to meet. An example in which this standard of performance has been important was a Dunkin’ Donuts counter person who waited on the drive-thru customers. The counter person has a performance standard of about two minutes from the time a customer pulls up to the window until the order has to be ready. Another example was cashier at a large supermarket chain. Some cashiers at grocery stores get measured on transaction time. So, rather than saying “ring up customers” on a resume, a student needs to tout the performance as measured by the employer.
One Final Set of Prompts: Job-Interview Questions
Most lists of frequently asked job-interview questions can also serve as prompts to brainstorm accomplishments. The trick is to always consider how you could include an accomplishment in your response to any question. See our Job Interview Questions Database for Job-Seekers.
Career and Work Accomplishments Section of Quintessential Careers
Find expert job-seeker accomplishments tools, resources, samples — free expert advice about maximizing career accomplishments in this section of Quintessential Careers: Career-Job-Work Accomplishments Resources for Job-Seekers.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker’s Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.
Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., creative director and associate publisher of Quintessential Careers, is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for Quintessential Careers, edits QuintZine, an electronic newsletter for jobseekers, and blogs about storytelling in the job search at A Storied Career. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). Visit her personal Website or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at)quintcareers.com. Check out Dr. Hansen on GooglePlus.