You want your CV to stand out from the competition – but at the same time, you need to use language that employers will understand. So what’s wrong with including a few standard stock-phrases on your résumé? Everyone does it, so it can’t be that bad, surely?
‘It’s tempting to use terms like self-starter, team player, and highly motivated on your CV. It seems safe, because it’s the language everyone is using. The danger comes with adjectives – used too often, they become an overdose of “look at me” and easily tip into clichés,’ warns John Lees, career coach and author of Knockout CV: How to Get Noticed, Get Interviewed & Get Hired.
‘The real downside of using stale phrases, apart from putting readers to sleep, is that they make you seem like everyone else. They make mature, experienced professionals sound like fresh graduates looking for their first role. Pepper your CV with clichés, and it’s like saying: “I have nothing to offer you can’t get from a 21-year-old”. Not a great message.’
Sarah Archer, career coach and co-founder of CareerTree agrees: ‘Most of us have read one of the many self-help books on “how to write a winning CV” or looked at CV templates online. While it can be tempting to borrow standard phrases, they could actually weaken your message and go against you.’
Sarah points out that the real “winning” CVs don’t depend on clichés.
A study from the University of Hertfordshire’s Psychology department found that the most frequently-used words on successful CVs (i.e., the ones that went on to land a job) were: active, achievement, impact and involved. ‘Not a standard stock-phrase in sight!’ says Sarah.
Empty phrases you need to cut
So what kind of empty phrases do you need to cut? John’s advice is to imagine that you’re a busy HR professional working through a stack of résumés – and look for anything that might put your CV on the reject pile.
‘Stating that you are eager to gain experience, for example, really screams: “no experience, but great potential”.
‘When you use a phrase like highly motivated, an employer thinks “Why wouldn’t you be? Why are you making this bland statement rather than showing me hard evidence?”
‘Using phrases like commercial awareness or results-oriented makes a reader wonder if you’ve thrown them in because they sound good – unless you provide solid evidence in support.
‘Terms like flexible or available for interview at short notice simply make you sound desperate. Enthusiastic, conscientious, reliable, honest, hard-working – these are taken as read, and the fact that you mention them seen as naive.
‘As for Team player but I can also work on my own, that’s straight off a CV template. Bland, and meaningless. References available on request. Well, obviously….’
John also suggests cutting phrases such as committed and professional – ‘these qualities are expected in the workplace, but stating them suggests that they don’t come naturally.’
In general, avoid listing personality traits – instead, give examples demonstrating how you have used that particular quality to achieve results.
‘Some clichés are rescued by context; so, for example, team player says virtually nothing, but the ideas person in the team points to real situations,’ adds John.
Convey your personal brand
Employers typically have to read dozens of résumés – and they want to see ones that are interesting, well written and not reliant on clichés.
‘For your CV to stand out, it needs to contain quality content that feels fresh and unique to you. To do that, you need to identify what your work style and personal brand is, and then communicate that message throughout your CV,’ says Sarah.
‘Think about what it is you really want to say about yourself. What does the employer need to know about you in relation to the job you are applying for?’
Sarah suggests doing some research to broaden your vocabulary. ‘You could use a thesaurus to come up with other ways to describe your personal qualities, or use LinkedIn to research jobs you’re interested in and see what kind of language other professionals use to describe themselves.’
John’s advice? ‘Make fewer claims and provide some solid evidence matched to the employer’s requirements. You’ll get far more interviews that way.’
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