by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
Note: This article is a preview of a chapter from the book, Words to Get Hired By: The Jobseeker’s Quintessential Lexicon of Powerful Words and Phrases for Resumes and Cover Letters, the first e-book published by Quintessential Careers Press.
Has this ever happened to you? You’ve been instructed to list your career accomplishments, and you can’t think of any. Or you’re asked in a job interview, “What accomplishments are you most proud of?” — and you freeze up. You know you have had accomplishments, but you just can’t dredge them up.
The inability to come up with accomplishments happens to lots of jobseekers. We know because we ask our resume and cover-letter clients to list accomplishments as part of the process of preparing their job-search documents. Although we stress that accomplishments are far more important than duties and responsibilities, a surprising number of clients are unable to articulate beyond the day-to-day tasks they performed in their jobs.
Accomplishments are the points that really help sell you to an employer — much more so than everyday job duties, and you can leverage your accomplishments for job-search success at all stages of the process: resume, cover letter, interview, and more. Career counselor Michelle Watson notes that “employers are seeking success stories.” In the Q&A interview she did with Quintessential Careers, Watson observed that “resumes are now focusing not only on ‘regular’ job descriptions, but also include concrete, measurable accomplishments. Physical portfolios, long thought of as tools for artists, will become commonplace as candidates strive to show their talents, not just talk about them.”
Echoing that sentiment, resume writer JoAnn Nix recently gave this advice in an interview on the Guru.com Web site: “A resume should be accomplishment-oriented, not responsibility-driven. The biggest mistake that I see in the resumes people send me is that they list responsibilities. That doesn’t grab anybody’s attention. People aren’t interested in your responsibilities. They already know the general responsibilities of a position so they don’t want to know what you do from day to day. They want to know that you’re a mover and a shaker: How you contribute to the organization, how you show initiative, that you can be a key player. That’s what they want to see.”
And if you don’t believe resume writers and career counselors, take it from a hiring manager. On the HR.com Web site, KPMG Principal Mary Anne Davidson recently observed, “Candidates write about what their positions entailed and not what they actually did. So they tell us their job was to do XYZ. I know what controllers do. I know what recruiters do. I need to know what accomplishments you made in your role. This makes you different than another candidate.
“In less than two sentences,” Davidson continues, “I want to know the scope of your responsibilities, size of budget, geographic territory, number of team members you led or were a part of, product lines, and reporting relationship relevant to each of your roles in the last eight years.”
To a great extent, if a job activity cannot be portrayed as an accomplishment, it may not be worthy of mention in your resume, cover letter, or in an interview.
OK. You’re convinced. An awareness of the importance of accomplishments does no good, however, if you haven’t been keeping track of all your wonderful achievements. So, Lesson One: The minute you start a new job, start keeping track of your accomplishments. Keep a log in a little notebook, or on index cards, in a computer database, on a little tape recorder, or on your smart phone or other device.
But what about all the jobs that have gone by in which you haven’t recorded your accomplishments? Lesson Two: Use the following prompts to brainstorm all those terrific things you did. Try to list some accomplishments that set you apart from other job candidates.
- 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?
- 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?
- 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.
- How did you leave your employers better off than before you worked for them?
- Did you win any awards, such as Employee of the Month honors?
- What are you most proud of in each job?
- Is there material you can use from your annual performance reviews? Did you consistently receive high ratings? Any glowing quotes you can use from former employers?
- Have you received any complimentary memos or letters from employers or customers?
- What tangible evidence do you have of accomplishments — publications you’ve produced, products you’ve developed, software applications you’ve written?
- Think of the “PEP Formula,” Profitability, Efficiency, and Productivity. How did you contribute to profitability, such as through sales increase percentages? How did you contribute to efficiency, such as through cost reduction percentages? How did you contribute to productivity, such as through successfully motivating your team? Read more about the PEP Formula and see samples.
- Quantify. Employers love numbers. Examples:
- Increased sales by 50 percent over the previous year.
- Produced total meal sales 20 percent higher than those of the other servers in the restaurant.
- Supervised staff of 25.
- Served a customer base of 150, the largest on firm’s customer-service team.
- Use superlatives. As Donald Asher notes in his excellent resume reference for college students, From College to Career, you can impress employers with words such as “first,” “only,” “best,” “most,” and “highest.” See more examples in our Cover Letter Tutorial.
- Use the SAR or PAR technique, in which you describe a Situation or Problem that existed in a given job, tell what Action you took to fix the Situation or Problem, and what the Result was. Some experts call this the CAR technique, in which C stands for Challenge, or the STAR technique, in which the T stands for Task. Resume writer JoAnn Nix notes that a sales and marketing manager could employ SAR/STAR/PAR/CAR technique this way: “Joined organization to spearhead sales and marketing initiative for newly developed territory. Led the aggressive turnaround of a poorly performing district and propelled sales from one to six million in 14 months.” See more about this technique:
Susan Britton Whitcomb, author of Resume Magic, one of the most highly recommended resume books on the market, calls accomplishments “the linchpin of a great resume.” Her chapter on accomplishments is one of the best sources for getting your accomplishments juices flowing. Here are some of her suggestions:
- Adding nuances to the Efficiency component of the PEP Formula, Whitcomb suggests listing ways you saved time or made work easier.
- How did you make your company more competitive?
- How did you build relationships or image with internal or external constituencies? How did you attract new customers or retain existing ones?
- How did you expand the business?
- How did you contribute to the firm’s Return on Investment (ROI)?
- How did you help the organization fulfill its mission statement?
- And if you’re really stuck in the accomplishments-listing game, you will likely find Whitcomb’s Resume Magic valuable for the “Impact-Mining Questions” she offers for numerous specific career fields.
What if you’re a college student with little or no job experience from which to cull accomplishments? Don’t miss this page of our Cover Letter Tutorial, which offers lots of ideas for making the most of your college accomplishments.
Finally, a word of caution: 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?”
Need help brainstorming your accomplishments? Use our Accomplishments Worksheet.
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.