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 f