what do employers mean when they ask for a “proven ability” to do something?

A reader writes:

In my recent job hunt (I just graduated from college in June), I’ve been seeing a lot of postings in which prospective employers require a “proven ability” to do something, such as meet strict deadlines or manage multiple projects. I’m confused as to how I “prove” my “ability” to do basically anything without actually showing them—while I’m working for them—my capabilities. Is this another HR word game? Are they throwing me for a loop?

When an employer asks for a “proven ability” to do something, they’re looking for evidence of that ability in your past.  So, for instance, if you had a job that required you to meet strict deadlines or manage multiple projects, and you did well in it, you’ve “proven” your ability to do those things. In other words, they’re saying that they want someone who already has a track record of X, as opposed to someone who would be doing X for the first time.

The idea is that they don’t want to have to take a leap of faith that you’d be able to do it well; they want a candidate who has already done it well. Why? Because they don’t want to gamble; they want to know for sure that you’re able to do what they need, based on what you’ve achieved in the past.

So if your track record in these areas isn’t immediately obvious from your resume but you think you still fit what they’re looking for, then it’s up to you to customize your resume a bit and use your cover letter to show them how you meet their requirements.

{ 18 comments… read them below }

  1. KellyK*

    That’s probably not going to be obvious from your resume if you’re just out of college, so if you’ve done specific things in that area during college, it’d be worth pointing out. For example, if you got good grades while taking 20 credits and working part-time, even though you once had four papers due the same week, that shows that you have prioritized and met deadlines. But it wouldn’t be obvious unless you mentioned it.

  2. Shannon Terry*

    Add an example of a time you did the thing they are asking for ‘proven ability’ to do, with concrete results of the action you took to your resume, that example helps ‘prove’ it sight unseen. Good luck!

  3. MillenniMedia*

    Keep in mind that even if you’re just out of college, experience in campus clubs, part time jobs, fraternity/sorority leadership positions, etc is relevant. All of those things require the ability to meet deadlines, work closely with people, and manage multiple projects.

      1. Joey*

        A lot of employers mean proven ability in the real world where it impacts a company’s bottom line. So don’t think you’ll always be able to convince the employer your proven ability in college translates.

  4. Erin*

    I remember the post-college job hunt, and for most general job requirements ( meeting deadlines, reliable, multitasking etc), it was quite acceptable to point to your college course load and say that you never missed a deadline (as long as its true) and how you were reliable and a great team player at your part-time job; think of examples to talk about in a cover letter and interview, and references from these part-time or volunteer gigs that will further this image. Think a bit creatively about all the things you’ve done in your life that show that you have those qualities, and don’t try to convince yourself that they are not worthy just because they weren’t necessarily in a paid position related to your career. I bet you’ve got tonnes of great examples in your past!

  5. Anonymous*

    Be sure to highlight everything you did during internships, and maybe research you did for a thesis.

  6. Niraj Krishna*

    Ok let’s make this easy…. Since nothing in corporate USA is even slightly challenging no matter how much complexity, difficulty or nonsensical title

    Objective: Get paid while surfing the net again instead of surfing the net to get paid

    Task: We have to get resume to hiring manager using a cover letter as HR diversion

    Assess: We go this site and realize competition is convinced that blending in and appeasing manager through the reading of video script from resume software is only hope to differentiate oneself. Competition also seems to think that using the exact same words and phrases as example here will furthur differentiation.

    Action: Realizing HR is only concerned with appearance and something customized to the company at the top, we go with an address completely different from resume in case of detection, followed by 2 spaces the 1 sentence containing 7 words “I enthusiastically relevated and thought time” repeated 3 times with words in DIFFERENT order over 3 paragraphs. This is key… Making no sense and using the same words shifts forces focus away from actual candidate value back to properly formatted white space.
    If successful getting past HR team who seem to forget resume response is the only shot at adding value in this process. Then we begin on the manager who is reaching out to a complete stranger in hopes of reading a resume that is jargon ridden, difficult to follow, and headache inducing..

    Knowing manager has no clue about anything resume says, we decide to list our first accomplishment in resume language….

    “Dislodged ergonomical transmittent audio device from stagnated base implementing and maximizing management’s ocular perception of ulna retracement until EAR system interface was deployed”

    Translation “Picked up the phone”
    Doesnt care because he is in awe of your poetry… When can you start? Pay to surf life back on!

    Apparently I have a gift for writing resume porn… Check it out… http://i.imgur.com/w40ns.jpg #1 in an area of several million people… Relax and get the job that you want this go around in life. I will not pretend anything in my interview nor will I concern myself to worry if I can get in the door. If they read my resume, I am in. If they play catch a bad comma game, then I am far out of their league anyway. In the 3rd resume i have written in my life , I score better than entire DFW metroplex…. Really? Point is, I or anyone can do anyone’s job in minutes as long as you keep thinking that opportunity needs to earn your attention. I want to make sure my potential manager knows that whatever they think is hard work isnt going to cut it anymore…

  7. Niraj*

    In my resume, I demonstrate a period of time where I alone forecasted for 80% of a Fortune 200 company. If I used “Visionary Leader” it would be out of modesty. “Departmental Messiah” is more effective I think. You are still cool though.

  8. ww*

    Let me know what to do when you have proven experience, but new company will not give me my required salary until I ‘prove’ myself on the new job. There are no benefits, etc to negotiate with this job.

  9. w*

    dont know what that means. She then offered st commission ! Not doable with rent, bills, and need to show income. Also was told ‘no one will meet that offer in this co’. Wrong.

  10. Jane Clements*

    Yes, ultimately, when a recruiter asks for ‘proof’, what they’ll really be relying on is the way you answer the question and describe the task you did that shows the qualities they require.

    They won’t actually have ‘proof’ until you show you can do it in the workplace for them.


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