A resume is designed to communicate a job seeker’s accomplishments and help him rise above the competition. But too often, an otherwise impressive work history and skill set can be undermined by resume buzzwords and clichés that disguise a candidate’s qualifications and derails the job search.
For the hiring manager, a resume peppered with vague terms and phrases reads like a dull carbon copy of the dozen other resumes she’s passed on. There’s nothing unique or distinctive here to consider further. In fact, buzzwords and clichés are often a red flag to employers, who may feel like the candidate’s trying to exaggerate his qualifications or hide knowledge gaps.
Not sure what’s acceptable language, and what isn’t? Here are some key terms to avoid in both your resume and cover letter, with advice for good alternatives to use.
"Familiar with" — a close cousin to "knowledge of" and "experience with" in the family tree of nebulous phrases — can send your resume to the bottom of a potential employer's pile of applications. These vague phrases say nothing about your level of knowledge in a certain area. Avoid them. Instead, be as specific as possible when discussing the skills you possess. For example: "10 years’ experience working with Microsoft Office applications, including Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Achieved Microsoft Office Specialist designation in 2015."
'Optimize,' 'leverage' and 'utilize'
Many applicants insert business buzzwords into their resumes in an attempt to sound more accomplished or sophisticated. But rather than making you sound in the know, this type of jargon can make it seem as though you can't communicate in a straightforward manner. All of these words just mean "use." Don’t try to use overly fancy words in your application materials. Keep things simple and, as much as possible, quantify your achievements to truly show the impact your actions had.
One of the biggest mistakes job applicants make is including a long, drawn out list of all of their work duties in a current or past position. Hiring managers likely know the types of tasks you performed in a previous role and don't need a detailed breakdown. Instead, describe how you helped a previous employer save money or increase efficiencies, your advancement in a past role, or how you changed a job you held for the better.
Human resources professionals might love this phrase, but it is a real mouthful in a resume and likely to make a hiring manager's eyes glaze over. Again, keep it simple. If you have a section titled "Core Competencies,” try replacing it with "Skills" or "Qualifications" instead, and only include things that are quantifiable.
Few things in the workplace are actually unique. Having a certification does not make you uniquely qualified — it makes you certified. If you invented something, say 30 unique patents, you are welcome to use it. Otherwise, skip this cliché.
'Proactive' and 'hardworking'
These keywords don't add anything specific to your resume or cover letter unless you can back it up. If you want to show that you're proactive, give a specific example with the impact you made in a prior role. For example: "Created an annual calendar for department reports, increasing on-time delivery by 25 percent."
Is your name Malcolm Gladwell or Sheryl Sandberg? If not, you probably aren't a thought leader and shouldn't describe yourself as such in your resume. “Philosopher” and “influencer” are similar descriptives to pass on. At best, you'll seem snobby and, at worst, delusional.
The problem with this term is that it's unquantifiable. Employers certainly hope that candidates work well in a team — it's kind of the bare minimum for working in an office environment. It's better to discuss a specific example of achievements you've made in a team than to use the vague "team player."
Keywords you should use
Although it's best to steer clear of clichés in your resume and cover letter, you should use keywords to stand out from other applicants. Analyze the words used in the job description to describe duties, qualifications or certifications. Companies may use resume-scanning software to determine which candidates best meet the job requirements by searching for these keywords. Using select words and phrases from the job description can possibly help you score an interview — but only if the terms accurately describe your background and only if it still reads like a human wrote it.
If you're wondering whether or not to use a word or phrase in your resume, ask yourself if it helps convey the value you can bring to a prospective employer. If you're using resume buzzwords to cover for a lack of experience or to make it sound as though you're a sophisticated insider, it's always better to leave them out.