stop telling me that you work well independently and in groups

If you’re a recent grad, there’s a 50% chance that your cover letter includes a mention that you “work well both independently and in groups.”

Announcing this is like announcing that you show up for work on time. It’s expected that you’ll do it; it’s not a bragging point.

I don’t know where this trend is coming from (college career centers, are you to blame again?), but I see it constantly, and you must remove it immediately.

{ 223 comments… read them below }

  1. Steve G*

    What about the (what I consider stupid) interview question “do you work better in groups or independently?” I remember that alot from my job hopping days.

    When you interview alot and hear a question like that I think you start thinking it is a legitimate question/point and you need to form an opinion on it, so I kind of remember at times spewing some BS about “well I tend to do better indepentently on…but…” that was completely meaningless. But the interviewer started it.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Could be, although I’m only seeing it from recent grads, so I suspect the source is something specific to them.

      I agree, though, that that’s a ridiculous question. If working in groups or independently is especially important for some reason, ask for specific examples, not an opinion — like”tell me about a time you had to work with a group to achieve something” with a ton of follow-up questions about how it transpired and the person’s role in it.

      1. fposte*

        Yeah, we do a “tell us about a time” on both of these. We get some interesting (in a good way) answers, too.

      2. Long Time Admin*

        I’ve seen that in job ads, and have been asked that question in interviews, too. The interviewers seem to want to know which you prefer, and if you can switch back and forth from solitary work to teamwork situations.

        It’s been on and off my resume because, yeah, it seems pretty basic to working in general.

        1. Maria*

          I was going to post the same thing. I put that in there because I’ve noticed a lot of advertisements lately actually state you must be able to do one or the other, or be able to do both, so I thought it was something I should include in my cover letter. But, I also think in the past a parent or career counselor must have mentioned it was a skill to include or I never would have had it in there.

      3. Anonymouse*

        But norms of our generation are not the norms of the new grads!

        I point you to punctuality. Punctuality *was* a norm for Gen Xers and previous generations. Remember that recent Washington Post article on tardiness? I’d have been nailed into a coffin and shot into the vast infinity of outer space like Mr. Spock if I’d ever been late for a class, ever. So the entry-level employee who is on time, might in fact be a standout from her peers.

        And don’t get me started on how instant communication has made people confuse “flexible” with “unreliable.”

        I’ll stop old fartin’ now.

    2. JLH*

      On an interview I had a few months ago, I got the “Do you work better independently or in groups?” I said, “I work well independently, but I also work well in groups.” And the interviewer said, “Everyone says that.” I had to bite my tongue from replying, “Everyone says that because it’s a bad interview question!”

      1. mh_76*

        Sad to say that most interview questions asked are bad. There are a few people who can only function in one setting or the other but exclusively either/or settings are so rare in any workplace that those people will have an even more difficult job search than anyone who isn’t a recent grad.
        [comparatively speaking, new grads have a much easier search than those of us who are older and today’s new grads have an easier search than did those of us who finished college in 1999…not that it’s easy for them, just comparatively easier].

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          For what it’s worth, I’m not positive about this, but I think I’ve read articles saying that new grads today face a harder job search than in decades.

          1. KellyK*

            I think the logistics are easier but the competition is stiffer. There are a lot more resources online for networking, research, volunteer experience, and actually finding jobs. But there’s also more competition, both because the economy is bad and has been for a while and because all the resources that make it easier for you to find and apply for twenty-seven openings make it easier for everybody else to do the same.

          2. Anonymous*

            Why does it have to be a competition of who has it harder? The way I see it, different generations face different challenges. Depending on the point of life and career that you’re at, your challenges are going to be different.

            I guess it makes some people feel better about themselves if they can point out how much harder their lives are, but at the end of the day being unemployed and job searching is a challenge, no matter what stage of life you are at.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Well, I do think it’s useful for new grads to understand that they face a tougher-than-usual job market, so that they understand the amount of effort that will be required and why it’s taking them so long to get interviews and job offers.

          3. mh_76*

            They have the media on their side and there is much less focus on the difficulties faced by people 50+ or by those of us who are in our 30’s 40’s. I’m not trying to start a competition because each job-seeker does have a difficult search but there are few media articles and almost no recruiting efforts directed at job-seeking workers who are older – a lot of companies have collegiate recruiting teams but there are none that I know of that target more seasoned workers. I do know of a volunteer-matching service for 55+ and another for 50+ but that is for volunteer work.

            1. M*

              How does having “the media on their side” help generate jobs? I don’t see the connection here… publicized unemployment is unemployment all the same.

          4. Shane*

            I don’t know what the situation is like in the US but in my province (in Canada) the current overall unemployment rate is around 5.5%. Youth Unemployment (age 18-25) is at 12.9% and an additional 60% are underemployed. At the same time Student debt is at an all time high. (all are 2011 Numbers)

            Recently the Government of Canada extended the retirement age by two years so there are a large number of seniors re-entering the workforce in more entry level positions.

            It is not fun being a new grad at the moment.

        2. Ry*

          Why do you think it’s easier for new grads? I’m not necessarily agreeing nor contesting, just asking for evidence for your position.

          1. mh_76*

            Because they have the media and the public’s hearts on their side and get an absolute ton of press coverage.
            Because I could go to LinkedIn, look up job titles that interest me, and find a number of people who were hired for those job titles fresh out of college even though I’ve read hundreds of listings laden with pre-app. requirements (bullet-points) that I don’t have…and I’ve been working since 1998. A bunch of years ago, I was in a temp. job and expressed interest in a perm. listing only to be told that they sought someone more senior – for a job title that was held by a number of people hired into it fresh out of college…and I was 10 years out.
            Because at the last place I worked, there were much younger people holding job titles that I’ve been told I’m not qualified to apply for, for which I don’t meet the pre-application requirements in the job listing yet these same jobs are going to new-grads with zero prior work experience (OK, this one’s pretty-much the same as the last one but it’s huge “bee in my bonnet”).
            Because I know a number of people in their 30s and older who are having a hell of a time in the job search, some of whom who have been looking hard for 2 years or more, even if they’ve had survival jobs in the meantime. My own job-searches: 7 months (fresh out of college), 18 months, and currently more years than I care to count (off & on because it’s been peppered with survival jobs that fortunately added some good bullet-points to the resume).
            Because the people who show up at the support group I go to and other “networking” things are almost entirely my age and older. Very very few are new-grads or people in their 20s.
            And the list goes on but I need to get groceries (AAM, will look for the T-Joe’s cookie butter that you mentioned a while back…sounds yummy!)

      2. Ellie H.*

        Does anyone have an idea what would happen if you said “Yes, I work better independently”? I DO work better independently – I hate working with groups – I don’t have experience doing this in the professional world though. In my previous job at a bookstore, we all functioned really well as a team, and would readily refer customers to people whose areas of expertise made them the better fit to help the customer, but that’s not the same as working in groups. My association with group work is doing super awkward school projects when everyone is equally reluctant to take group leadership. I feel it’s much better to get as much done on your own and then confer/touch base with colleagues when necessary. Anyway, I’m not looking for a new job but I would be heavily tempted to answer “Yes, independently” were I ever asked this question.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          If you said that to me and it was a job that really did require a lot of group work, I’d ask you to tell me about times when you did have to work in groups and how that went. I’d be trying to get a sense for whether you just preferred working independently (so do I) or whether you actually aren’t very good at working in teams, and I’d ask a bunch of questions to figure that out. I’d also make sure that you knew the amount of group work the job required and try to get a sense of how you felt about that.

          1. Vicki*

            If it’s a job that really requires group work, it’s important to answer honestly because if, like Ellie H (and me!) you do work better independently, the interview is the best time to learn that This Job Is Not Right For You.

            If you give the mealymouthed (and inaccurate) answer of “both” and the job requires a lot of group work, you’re facing a difficult time if they offer you the job and you accept.

            Sunds like a good reason to be truthful.

        2. Malissa*

          School projects have actually made me hate group work. I usually take the lead because nobody else want to do it Then I have to convince a bunch of last minute types that waiting until the end is a very bad idea. In a group of two I actually ended up feeding the other person to the sharks because I did all the work and I wan’t sharing the credit.
          At least in real life I can get those types kicked off the group or at least reprimanded.

          1. Liz*

            Try asking either/or questions and backing off and accepting whatever answer they give as right, even if it isn’t what you want. When they respond with a preference, say something like, “Then you can take care of that part?”

            I have seen this dynamic play out more times than I can count, and usually what is going on is that one person (usually the most experienced or competent) has a specific vision for the “right” way to do the project. Everyone else gets annoyed or feels intimidated, the group loses ownership, and that one person ends up doing it all while the rest passive-aggressively refuse to help.

            It is annoying for both sides, especially when a grade depends on the result, and teachers don’t seem to be very good at explaining the group dynamics they want students to practice.

            1. Malissa*

              I usually start out just like you suggest. When you’ve got a good group it works out so wonderfully. Birds sing, rainbows pop up and everybody is happy and feels like they’ve contributed at the end of the day. In four groups I’ve had one that was like that. I still have happy dreams about that.

    3. Joe*

      I wouldn’t ask “do you work better”, since as has been said, that’s the wrong question to ask. But what I might ask (and have sometimes, for certain roles) is whether you _prefer_ to work independently or in groups. Most positions on my team require a great amount of close collaboration, and we once hired someone who preferred to work alone, to the point that he just stopped participating in certain necessary group or pair activities. So now I know that for positions which require a lot of group work, if someone prefers to work independently, I need to follow up and make sure they’re going to be OK with our environment.

  2. Anonymous*

    Most job descriptions I see nowadays list ‘ability to work independently and in a team environment’ as one of the main job requirements. My guess is that the trend is coming from recent grads trying to tailor the cover letter to the job description. Most recent grads aren’t going to be able to meet some of the requirements (e.g., 1 year of basket-weaving experience required) so they talk about what they can do (or what they think they’re supposed to know how to do). If working alone and on teams is akin to showing up on time, employers need to stop putting it in the job description.

    1. Kimberlee*

      I feel the same way about “having excellent communication skills.” It just prompts people to put that in their cover letter, in those words, which is not convincing. Plus, I mean, every job just can’t require excellent communication skills. If they mean “you can write a coherent email to your co-workers” then that’s what they should put!

      1. Anonymous*

        Absolutely! My least favorite job description element right now is “computer proficiency.” My current boss had me review a job description that included that requirement, and it stayed in after I included a paragraph or so in comments explaining that general computer proficiency is a given in 2012 for positions with a Master’s preferred. He did remove the bit about being able to use Word (no, not at an advanced level), so I just decided to be diplomatically quiet.

        1. sparky629*

          I think in all fairness, ‘computer proficiency’ can not be overlooked as a job requirement. There is a whole generation (or two or three) who did NOT grow up with computers, who don’t have the slightest idea how to use one or get really intimidated by the thought of learning anything about technology in the workforce.
          So while they may rock at all other aspects of the job the ‘computer proficiency’ part may be what keeps them from being successful in the job.
          I know it’s hard to believe in 2012 that EVERYONE doesn’t know how to use a computer.

          1. Jamie*

            This isn’t an age thing either. I’ve worked with enough people in their 20s – 30s who need a lot of hand-holding in basic Word and Excel. I mean basic like sorting columns and changing font. PowerPoint or even interesting a table in Word is out of the question.

            To be sure, they are the minority, but it’s frequent enough that I don’t assume even the most basic of skills.

            1. Kelly O*

              You want to talk about depressing? Having to teach the person who got the job you applied for how to sort email in Outlook. Or how to indent in Word. Or how to concatenate. (Seriously, I know it’s not an in-depth skill, but if you’re the “Excel Expert” shouldn’t you know that?)

              /end bitter rant… *mumble grumble*

              1. Shane*

                “There are no sutpid questions” is a false statement if the answer shows up on the first page of google or (in cases such as MS office) has an extensive, searchable, and increadibly useful help file.

                1. Jamie*

                  If I ran the world we would be able to charge co-workers out of pocket if the question that are asking comes up in the first three google hits.

            2. Shane*

              I have met a couple fourth year accounting students who can’t use the most basic of Excel formulas. I have tried to understand how this happens but only given myself a headache.

              1. Malissa*

                This makes me sad. I had to take two different Excel classes and use it for statistics before my forth year.

                1. Shane*

                  They do need to take a fairly in-depth Office class as a requirement for any of the business degrees at our university. I can only assume that they worked with someone else who did most of the work for them (I took the class as independent study so I don’t know how much collaboration was tolerated)

            3. khilde*

              I remember reading one time in all the generational literature that a primary misconception about the younger generation being so tech savvy is that they’re not necessarily computer savvy.

              Older generations make the mistake thinking that just because someone is 30 or younger that they have a command of work-related computer programs. When in reality they don’t know as much about that as they do about how to use technology to connect — they’re incredibly savvy at the social aspects of technology. Maybe not so much at the task/work aspects of technology.

              1. Rana*

                This. As someone who has had to shepherd numerous young people through the basics of programs like Word (this is how you do italics, for example) I’ve come up with the following analogy:

                The current young generation are “digital natives” in the sense that all of us are “electrical natives”: we know how to flip on switches, push buttons, turn knobs, etc., to make various devices go on and off. We also know simple things like how to change light bulbs and batteries, to not stick forks in toasters, to not drop things in the toilet or bath, etc. But how many of us know, for example, how to rewire a lamp? To solder connections in a circuit board? To install a grounded plug?

                Young people may use a lot of electronic devices, but that doesn’t mean that they understand all that much about the inner workings and logic of the programs within them.

                1. EngineerGirl*

                  Conversely, many older people actually helped invent the device and have a deeper understanding of it than the supposed “tech savvy” younger person. I’m getting sick and tired of hearing how young people can help me enhance my computer skills.

          2. sparky629*

            I’m only saying that because I work in an environment (Higher Ed) where you would absolutely think that everyone knew how to use a computer but sadly they don’t and I’ve seen instances where the last candidate in the position was so horrible with computers that we are not forced to put it in the job description. *smh*

            I always think when I see stuff like “computer proficiency’, ‘excellent communication skills’, ‘ability to work with a diverse population’ that it means the last person who was in the position was so bad at it that particular thing that it left a horrible taste in their mouth and they want to make sure it never happens again.

          3. Victoria*

            We actually have started putting a version of “computer proficiency” back into our job descriptions. But we’re looking for comfort with computers and internet research, not actual proficiency.

            I don’t care if someone knows how to use Excel (even if they have literally never opened a spreadsheet); I do care if someone has the comfort with the technology to open it up, play around with it, check through the help documents, google things they don’t know how to do, etc. It’s surprising to me (as a “digital native”) to see how many folks can be stymied by simple tech hiccups; my organization doesn’t have the resources for IT staff, or the time to handhold someone through the inevitable glitches that come up.

                1. Nichole*

                  You couldn’t have put a semicolon there anyway; there needs to be a subject and a verb on each side. I also love semicolons.

                2. Jennifer O*

                  @Nichole – I took Kelly’s “ironically typed sans semicolon” statement to mean that she had ironically created a reply that didn’t need a semicolon (rather than -*horrors* – misusing a comma instead of a semicolon).

                  Gotta love the semicolon love!

      2. Laura L*


        When I was job hunting, I got so annoyed when I saw things like that in the job ads. Everybody thinks they are good at working in teams and independently or that they have good communication skills. It won’t tell the person reviewing resumes anything.

        1. Long Time Admin*

          I think good representations of excellent communication skills would be 1) the cover letter, and 2) the interview. The interviewer can see if the candidate can write a coherent sentence, and can hear if the candidate can follow a thought.

          If they had a brain in their heads, they would realize this and stop putting it in the job ad. I feel like an idiot putting it on my resume or in my cover letter because it’s in the job posting. Where I currently work, if you don’t address every single thing that’s in the job posting, you’re done. We had a former employee apply for the receptionist position and she forgot to mention she was experienced at handling multi-line phones. She used to fill in at the reception desk and every knew she had this skill, but since it wasn’t on her resume, she was dropped from consideration. This made a big impression on me, so I parrot, word for stupid word, whatever is in the job post.

          1. mh_76*

            I’ve come to the conclusion that most job descriptions/pre-app requirements (5 years of basketweaving etc.) are written by complete and total idiots. I recently had a recruiter ask me if I knew how to do pivot tables [read: easy, very learnable] and my reply was the truth – I don’t but I can teach myself quickly as I have taught myself most of what I know about computers/software use/tech skills. She got herself into a bit of a twist insisting that the company required previous use of them in a job setting and I replied with more truth that it would be an easy thing to learn by going to the help Excel menu (F1 on a PC) and simply following the directions (I did not verbalize the “DUH” that I was thinking). On the flip side, my last position was using a tech. I hadn’t touched in 4 years and that recruiter (a gent.) said that it wasn’t necessary to mention how long it had been since I’d used SharePoint…and I was training a colleague on day one (I caught on after one qucik demo. and he…well, never caught on but that’s for another comment)…and trained 2 more over that job’s few weeks duration!

            [I’m again noticing a gender difference in how tech. skills / ability to learn / positions of potential “fit” are eval’d…but that’s a whole other discussion in itself]

          2. Laura L*

            I think good representations of excellent communication skills would be 1) the cover letter, and 2) the interview.


            My brother is currently job hunting I’ve told him to leave that out because his cover letter itself should show his communication skills. Adding a sentence about “having excellent communication scales” is a waste of space.

            Which is something I would never have thought about if I hadn’t started reading this blog! Thanks, Alison!

      3. Victoria*

        Heh. This is what we just asked for in a job we’re hiring for right now:

        “You have a knack for communicating clearly and effectively in a lot of different formats: emails, speaking in front of groups, one-on-one meetings, Facebook and twitter.”

        … what we’re really getting it is “code-switching.” There are different codes for communication in different environments and cultures, and our organization works with a hugely varied set of partners. I want someone who can write a formal memo to the School District, lead a meeting with a group of muralists, and shoot a quick email to a long-time partner that we’re on nickname basis with.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Yes! And you don’t expect them to just parrot that line back to you, I’m sure. You expect them to demonstrate those skills through their writing itself and also through examples of times they used those skills successfully.

      1. Broke Philosopher*

        I’m a recent grad, and I think it’s very possible that if they’ve seen a bunch of job descriptions with that clause (and they almost definitely have), then they might be copy/pasting that over–or including it because they think it’s important to all employers. I wish that your blog had been required reading for us pre-graduation!!

      2. KayDay*

        At least 3/4ths of job description I see has this phrase, so I think people keep it in because if it was important for employers A through Y to include, it’s probably an important skill to Z too. I agree, that, along with general phrases are useless, but when it’s on so many job descriptions, it’s understandable that candidates (especially entry level) think it’s important to employers… now you just need to convince all (or at least a critical mass of) employers never to use this phrase.

      3. mh_76*

        There are still a lot of people who still send generic cover letters & resumes and don’t know that they are supposed to be tailored & tweaked for each different listing. A relatively recent (2010?) grad told me that she had been advised by X University’s [joke of a barely existing] career center that her resume should have an “objective” section on it which, though still true in a couple of cases (e.g. drastic change in professional focus), is largely advice from the past now considered to be bad advice (a “summary” section is a bit different and a point of debate).

    2. Josh S*

      ^Exactly this.

      So many job descriptions have listed under the requirements: “Must be able to work independently and with a team.” A lot of applicants are trying to cram in every qualification/requirement listed in the job description in hopes of getting past the supposed automatic filter. (And there’s no way of telling which companies use the stupid automatic filters/keyword search.)

      When employers start putting out good job descriptions that aren’t full of cliched platitudes and vague requirements, perhaps the trend of getting resumes/cover letters full of cliched platitudes and subjective qualifications will taper off as well. But probably not–the world will always be full of silly people who represent themselves poorly.

      1. Lee Zaruba*

        Hear Hear, Josh. The various systems of keyword filters mean applicants are learning that if applications don’t include key words, they won’t even get through the first electronic gate. So when you as a manager are seeing things like “works well in groups and individually”, 3 sentences which are just alternately-worded versions of the first sentence in their job roles, and so on? You are seeing the work force echoing the employer. Or worse, workers are trying desperately to get past the sometimes irrelevant keyword screening gates.

        Put more pressure on your HR departments, management societies, and so on to stop it. Then we’ll see less of it from applicants. Most workers are just trying to give employers what we are indeed asking for, on the whole. We get what we incent. If we generally incentivize this garbage via unintelligent filters and the like… that’s what we are going to keep getting.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I’m still not convinced this is the explanation. First of all, these are cover letters, not resumes, and secondly, they’re sending them in response to my postings, which in no way sound like a jumble of key words; they sound conversational.

          1. Kimberlee*

            But if applicants are trained to respond to all job openings in the same idiotic way, they’ll probably use it against even good job postings. After all, most people just make tweaks to their resume and cover letters for each job, rather than creating a new set of application materials. Teaching students to include a million rote keywords is much easier than teaching them to write well, or to create a resume of accomplishments rather than job descriptions. Especially if the latest news in employment is how you need to use code words on applications to have a shot. Reality has SO much working against it right now!

          2. photodiplo*

            If my memory serves me, I remember that you advocate that drafting a cover letter shouldn’t take more than 20 minutes for any given job. If that’s the case, some recycling is bound to be involved, not matter how unique your particular job advertisement is.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Right, but the pieces that you’re recycling (or tweaking) should be really good pieces — not pieces with stuff like this in them.

              1. Laura M.*

                lol when I first read this post, my thought was that these cover letters were poor efforts at what a good cover letter should be. So a young person, or recent, with little experience who has seen this saying used ubiquitously in job postings included it in his/her cover letter because they didn’t have anything else to write and couldn’t be bothered to muster up the effort to write anything better.

    3. T.*

      Arrrghh yes!!! As a recent grad currently on the job hunt I can confirm that almost every job posting I see contains this phrase. When its one of the job qualifications important enough for the employer to list, you feel like its something you should also address in your application, no matter how basic of a skill it is. It’s frustrating because it doesn’t help me understand the role any better… Would I be spending a lot of time working independently? Or in teams? Both?

    4. TheAssistant*

      Yes! This! And so many other things.

      When I was tackling my first job search, I actually listed “armed with a sense of humor” on my resume because I saw it in So. Many. Job Postings. Ditto “can-do attitude” and “excellent communications skills”.

      Because (obviously) having it on the resume makes it true!

      1. Anonymous*

        My friend had a HR person where she worked redo her resume. She put the phrase can-do-attitude and excellent communication skills on there. I thought that sounded pretty good. I like the armed with sense of humor. Where are the days when you could just be yourself and not have to jump all the hoops?

  3. Rob*

    Colleges are strongly advocating ‘working in groups’ because they view it as a skill that is strongly desired by the professional world. At least that was the case a few years ago when I was still in school. As a result, I suspect people are putting it on their resumes because it’s what they are being told – and they view themselves good at those things.

    I’m with you Alison…it seems pretty straightforward and to me, it says ‘I can walk and chew gum!’ Don’t use fluff like this and put on your resume what your real skills are and what separates you from the competition!

    1. Alisha*

      According to my friends (and my husband’s) who are parents, the emphasis on group-work has trickled into the K-12 curricula. I wondered if it was something specific to our city’s schools, because I didn’t remember having to do group work when I was a kid growing up in a rural area in the Reagan/Bush years, but I looked into it, and apparently, this is a nation-wide trend that started around the time of No Child Left Behind. Some studies indicate that the emphasis on group-work may explain the gender gap seen among current high-school students.

      Anyway, I totally agree with Alison and Rob that those kinds of statements don’t tell employers much of anything. While some of these new grads may simply be obeying the recent spate of job-search articles that advise them to cram as many “hot” key words/phrases into their resumes and cover letters as possible – and “working well independently and in groups” is one of those “hot” phrases – I have to wonder along with Alison if they’re also getting this information elsewhere. If it’s not from career centers, maybe these young candidates are reacting to recent media stories (or feedback from their parents, relatives, etc.?) that generalize them as entitled and unable to work alone without constant praise and feedback, and perhaps this is their attempt to mitigate that perception of their generation, however awkwardly.

      Hopefully, they can learn from this article that itemizing specific accomplishments they achieved (alone and in groups) is a better way to demonstrate their skills to hiring managers. My entry level days are long behind me, and I still find a lot to learn on AAM myself.

      1. Erin*

        I’m a high school teacher, and there definitely is a push towards group work. Much of the professional literature about how to assign groups talks about how important it is in the working world. I suspect that students get too used to working in groups, and thus working well individually has become a desirable trait too.

        1. class factotum*

          Much of the professional literature about how to assign groups talks about how important it is in the working world.

          Yes. In the work world, you are also stuck with working with people over whom you have no authority and who sometimes, don’t do what they’re supposed to do, so you end up doing it all yourself.

          Which reminds me of a story from a friend who worked for a consulting company after she got her MBA. She said, “I didn’t think my MBA had done anything to prepare me for this job, but the last time I was at work at 2 a.m. making photocopies for something stupid, I realized that yes, it had.”

          1. Josh S*

            The best group project I ever had in college was in a business class–a management class, at that. Completely shocked me.

            We had groups of 4. The first time the prof assigned our groups, he had us each sign a pact with each other about our standards for getting things done and consequences if we violated it. Our group was something like, “If the other 3 people in the group unanimously vote that you didn’t pull your weight, you get an automatic C- for the group project grade.” We all had to write a short statement and sign our agreement to it. (The prof retained the right to veto any group’s action, but he said he never had in years of teaching. )

            When there’s a consequence to slacking (ie. you know you can’t get away with letting the teammates do the work for you), you have an incentive to do your part. It was the ONLY group project I’ve ever had where there wasn’t a group ‘slacker’.

      2. Laura L*

        Interesting. I did my K-8 in the ’90s and we had to do TONS of groups work. Especially in elementary school (K-5). I don’t know if it was because I was always in multi-grade classes or what, but I definitely did a lot of it. I was so excited when I got to high school to not have to worry about it anymore.

        Also, I think that what schools mean when they say “group work” is different than what employers mean when they say “can work well in groups.”

    2. AX*

      I think this is on the nose. Students are constantly told “these are great job skills” and think “put it on my resume”. Especially if their resume is a little thin in general.

      1. Ry*

        You may be onto something here. If a new graduate doesn’t have a lot of work experience, s/he may be reaching for general life skills to add to a cover letter to try to make up for weak spots on the resume.

        Why Alison is seeing this specific line, “works well independently and in groups,” is a mystery to me. As others have said, this particular kind of flexibility should be expected of most members of the workforce. One of my colleagues strongly prefers to work independently (programmer by training, working in another area right now), but she does just fine when a task or project requires working collaboratively.

        …by the way, Alison, I work well with almost anybody AND I know how to type words correctly! And I can even brush my teeth! I could probably sculpt a chocolate teapot if I tried really really hard. Hire me? (No, seriously, are you back with the MPP, or working somewhere else? I thought you were just consulting now!)

        1. Ry*

          Ugh, that “just consulting” sounds awfully dismissive. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that that was less valid work at all.

    3. Anonymous*

      I agree! I’m a recent college graduate and saw so much push into group work, even when the teacher admitted the students were likely to just chatter about useless things. I use these examples of group projects in interview questions such as “Tell me when you had to work with a group to accomplish a goal” since I do not have group work experience professionally.

      Also, to echo what many said, it seems to be a key phrase in job postings along with other basics you would find at the bottom of the requirements list (attention to detail, proficiency in Word, etc.). I’ve heard the advice of using key words from the posting in your cover letter so I guess it’s a question of which came first: the lame phrase in the posting or in the cover letters. Who is reflecting who?

    4. mh_76*

      This is definitely a recent change, though the amount of group-work depends on the course subject. I was in HS & college (liberal arts major) in the ’90s and group work consisted of maybe a lab partner in science classes…and the multiple extracurricular music groups that I was in (still playing in groups now). I took a lot of classes in the mid-2000’s because I worked for X Univ. (tuition benefit) and about half of those classes (business & IT) had a group-work element. I don’t remember as far back as K-8 (1980’s) but I think that there was a lot more individual (go home & do your HW) work than group (outside of band etc).

    5. Suzanne*

      Absolutely true. When my kids were in school, it was group, group, group projects. They hated it. Invariably, half the group were either slackers or dense as boxes of rocks. The teachers always told them that these group sessions were necessary because that is how it is in the real world. Teachers are great people, but what do they know about how the business world operates? Not much.
      That said, I’ve put “good communication skills” on my resume and in my cover letters because, as many have posted here, that is what is in job description after job description. Do employers really have any idea what they want in a candidate? I truly do not believe they do.

  4. Andy Lester*

    From my rant on the topic, these gems:

    Able to work well with others
    Strong work ethic
    Attention to detail
    Interested in improving efficiency
    Able to find innovative solutions
    Proficient in Microsoft Office and the Internet

    Might as say “Can go to bathroom and not wet self.”

    1. ChristineH*

      Last sentence = LOL!!

      So glad it’s not just me! I have a hard time defining how my qualifications fit into job requirements, and now I know why: they’re not specific! Some of the terms are so nebulous, so I can imagine why recent grads are compelled to use such terms, because they probably have no idea how to tailor that to their own experience.

    2. Elizabeth West*

      The “proficient in MS Office and the Internet” are showing up in job descriptions. “Must have a good command of Microsoft Office: Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook.” I agree, it’s another one that is pretty obvious. But I’m still seeing it.

      I added “various databases specific to positions” just to show that I can learn new software fairly easily. I’m getting pretty sick of the whole charade by now, though. All the job postings have the same stupid junk in them!

    3. Rob*

      It’s the attack of the ‘buzz word’ and it’s just run amok. Just like mission statements, both are a complete waste of time and irrelevant.

    4. mh_76*

      Part of me is LMAO but part of me knows that there was once a day when cover letters, especially those of a new-grad, were supposed to be peppered liberally with these & similar phrases.

      In the late 1990s, the “Proficient…” phrase was much more important than it is now because MS Office was still new-ish, people could still easily get through college without owning…or using…a computer at all, and the internet was still new to the general public. Nowadays, though, that phrase is as outdated as “Telegraph [or abacus] expert”, even elementary schools require computers to be used (handwritten paper?!? what’s that?!?), and the internet is so ubiquitous that I’m not sure that I know even one person who hasn’t ever used it.

      1. mh_76*

        When the internet was still new to the general public, proficiency wasn’t almost universal like it is today so that “proficient in…the internet” did need to be in the descriptions for jobs with internet use among the responsibilities. In my first job out of college, the internet was blocked on our computers except for “” domains (x being the univ. where I worked) and the intranet, which was still a very very new idea back then. Now, though, that requirement is unnecessary to mention because it should be automatically assumed.

        1. Ry*

          Ha! No, I understand what you mean; when I started using the internet, we didn’t assume everyone did – there was a lot of Telnet-based communication going on ;) For a job requirement in 2012, it just seemed like a ludicrously general statement to me – there are too many things that it could mean.

          If you’re “proficient in the internet,” that tells me nothing about what you can actually do. Can you write code? Can you write content? Do you do graphic design? Do you just slap some stuff into FrontPage/Sharepoint and be done with it? Or does “proficient in the internet” literally just mean “able to open a web browser and look at a website?”

      2. Jamie*

        Every so often I see a resume where different browsers are listed under computer skills.

        These aren’t people designing for different browsers – these are people who want to point out that they can use Internet Explorer, Firefox, AND Chrome.

        Seriously, people need to stop that.

        1. your mileage may vary*

          I actually like it when people say they can use Chrome or Firefox. It means that they are aware that there is something else out there that didn’t come installed on their computer. I think there is a cartoon on xkcd that I can’t find right now that equates people’s computer knowledge to which browser they are using. Funny how true it seems to be.

    5. Victoria*

      Re: that last sentence. Wasn’t that a problem that actually came up on this blog??

  5. Dr. Speakeasy*

    Hmmm, I do tell students that working in groups is going to be an important part of their lives – so they might as well get used to it (and learn strategies and make their mistakes) in college. However, I don’t really intend for them to put that on their resume!

  6. Anonymous*

    Probably because so much advice says in order to get passed the computer screening process you need to echo words in the job posting. So they do.

  7. Corey Harlock*

    Honest, to the point and really helpful! This is the advice I love, the stuff that can really help and change the way people approach their job search!

    Statements like these are just noise, buzz terms, stuff EVERY OTHER CANDIDATE IS SAYING. It doesn’t make you stand out, it makes you the same as everyone else. Statements like these don’t help you get hired, they help you get eliminated.

  8. Corey Harlock*

    This article rocks – short, to the point and really effective.

    Statements like these are really just noise getting in the way of the info a hiring manager wants to hear. Not to mention the fact that EVERYONE ELSE IS SAYING THE SAME THING.

    Saying things like this or the things mentioned by Andy (nice list too) don’t make you stand out, they make yoiu the same as 99% of the other applicants.
    If it isn’t helping you get hired, it is helping you get eliminated – statements like this only serve to get you eliminated.

    Great article!

  9. Alisha*

    Worst of all are those jobs where they demand you keyword match every single phrase in the posting, and warn that applications not meeting these criteria will be discarded? I tend to pass on those, since it would be mighty tough to cram items like “uses printers, fax machines, telephones, and keyboards,” and “can listen, interpret, read, and write information,” (which I hope would be obvious!) into two pages or less while still leaving room for the genuinely resume-worthy material.

    I’ve been sick these past couple days – ergo, my ratio of blog comments to job applications is flipped around – but tomorrow, I look forward returning to the Wild West of applicant tracking systems. Good times.

    1. Camellia*

      If the company is using electronic resume screening you can try copying the keywords, pasting them into an innocuous spot in your resume such as the spacing between paragraphs, shrink them down to the smallest font possible, then color the text ‘white’ so it is not visible to the human eye.

      I’ve never had a chance to test this myself and it might be an IT ‘urban legend’ but it’s worth a try.

      1. mh_76*

        I’ve heard that but they’ll figure it out if they highlight a section of your resume or convert it to .txt format. I have at times had a “keywords” section at the bottom of my resume, regular font and visible. Same goal as the white-text idea, just not hidden from view.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Yep. And some applicant tracking systems strip formatting out and display all the text that’s there (even white font text), which will not make you look good.

      2. Jamie*

        We had a discussion here a little while back (I don’t recall the thread) but a lot of us IT types are using the IT format where there is a sidebar with skills and software down the side. It’s a great way to make sure all the keywords are in without taking up valuable resume real estate.

        The danger with hiding keywords, besides how wonky it will look when the formatting gets parsed, is that if I had a resume which was pulled because it contained a key word and I couldn’t visually find it I’d be irritated – and if doing a ‘find’ turned it up in a hidden background I’d be even more annoyed.

        I wouldn’t recommend this.

        1. Kelly O*

          The husband is an IT guy and he has something very similar. I forget which side, but it’s just a strip with this (pardon the phrase) long-ass list of what looks like alphabet soup to me. But it means something to him, and to the other tech-types.

          1. Alisha*

            I have a couple lines of this, where I list all the scripting and mark-up languages I know (every last one – because employers want you to know XHTML, XML, and HTML5, and they’re all different), as well as various big-name content management systems and analytics programs I’ve worked with. But many companies have proprietary systems that I couldn’t learn unless I worked there, so I cover that scenario with “and various proprietary systems” tacked to the end of the list.

            My resume is pretty well keyword optimized, but I wouldn’t feel right using the white-font trick. Many ATS strip out the formatting of resumes, which exposes your trick!

  10. Anonymous*

    It is just me, or does a lot of the stuff in job ads are basically grown up versions of stuff we learned in kindergarden?

    Good interpersonal skills= plays well with others
    Detail oriented=colors inside the lines and writes her A’s neatly
    Dependable=will not run with scissors or wet pants

  11. Nathan A.*

    What about:

    % Ability to think outside the box
    % Self starter or any other Blank Blanker
    % Ability to take complex things and communicate them in a simple manner
    % Sense of humor

    Writing stuff like this is so unnecessary.

  12. Andie*

    I think the phrase might have come from job websites that have sample resumes and cover letters or resume reference guides. I feel like I have seen it in sample resumes.

  13. Ponies!*

    “Works well independently as well as in groups” is so general as to be almost meaningless, as others have pointed out. But because that phrase is thrown around so much in interviews, on job descriptions and in “example” resumes, I think candidates feel they’re leaving something out if they don’t include it. Like, if I don’t mention my awesome communications skills (which actually ARE pretty awesome :)), will the employer assume it’s something I’m actually not good at, hence why I’m not highlighting it on my resume?

    For someone who works in an area that isn’t numbers driven (no sales figures, for example) it can be hard to get employers to understand what makes you great. You have lots of qualitative evidence and not much quantitative. It takes some experience to know you should say something like “Worked with a team of line of business partners to create a new, more effective process for processing returned clown-themed checks and independently created an associate communications plans to drive the change,” or whatever, instead of something general.

    1. Suzanne*

      I, too, have mostly worked in a profession that is not numbers driven, so what do you highlight? A service oriented industry counts service as the highest importance, not numbers. That is hard to put in concrete terms in a resume or cover letter.

  14. Oz*

    I’m about to send out a rejection email to a group of grads who almost all did this in their applications. Maybe I should include a link to this blog…

  15. Daryl*

    The reason you hear it so much is that it is mentioned in EVERY JOB LISTING. “Must be able to work well independently and in groups.” Google that line. You will get 14 trillion job listings. And of course, applicants want (and need) to address the requirements in those listings.

    Plus, who is really going to say “Oh, I am terrible at working in groups. I randomly stab people.” ????

    1. Camellia*

      Made me spit my tea! My husband tells me I have a look that says “I am going to leap across the table and stab you,” that I use all too frequently with people who annoy me, which, since I am an introvert forced to work in groups, is practically everyone.

        1. Liz in a Library*

          I really like her. She did a longer talk at a conference I went to this year–and her book is really interesting, too!

      1. Eric Brasure*

        If only introversion were a protected class. We could all get offices with doors.

    2. Ry*

      I want to say this so badly.

      I did know a surgeon who was prone to throwing scalpels, suture needles, or even removed body parts at med students in the OR when he was angry (and, yes, therefore sometimes stabbing them). That is Mega Not Okay, but it definitely happened. Poor kids.

      1. EngineerGirl*

        We had a guy that used to throw chairs. Super brilliant, and hated noise anyone made. Actually, they let him start work at 6 pm just so he didn’t have to deal with the rest of us.

    3. hindenburg2002*

      THIS!!!! Although I must admit there have been a couple times when I thought about saying this. Maybe to avoid having to work in groups, the next time I’m asked about working with others, I’ll say that while I won’t stab anybody, if they ask or do something stupid, I will make them cry.

  16. Emily*

    It’s like a dating ad that says, “I like to have fun, laugh, and hang out with people.”

    1. Liz T*

      Yeah, and now you’ll find blog posts saying, “Stop putting these 10 things in your online dating profile!”

  17. Jesse*

    99% of the jobs I’ve applied for recently have included a variation of “most work well together or in groups.” I hate it, but its in there.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Believe me, it is NOT expected. I understand that you guys are saying that applicants think it is, but it’s not. It’s one thing to parrot back key words like a type of software; no one is doing a keyword search on this.

      1. Anonymous*

        Then why are so many job ads including it as a requirement? Should I not mention it in my cover letter even though, according to the ad, it is required?

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          They’re putting it in there because it’s an inept attempt to describe the person who will succeed in the job. You don’t need to put it in your cover letter, any more than you need to put “punctual” in your cover letter.

          1. nyxalinth*

            I’ve been guilty of it, for the same reason Anonymous at 10:11 am said. It looks like something they want to see reflected in the cover letter.

            So if I don’t include it, are you saying there’s really not that high of a chance of them blowing me off over it? Unless they’re really stupid, in which case I wouldn’t want to work there, anyway?

            Considering I’ve had three interviews in two months, I don’t think it can get any worse :P

              1. nyxalinth*

                I’d rather take your advice over that of John Q Job Expert any day, Allison. You’re the best.

          2. Dana*

            HA, once we got a cover letter from a recent grad that contained two sentences about having “reliable transportation.”


            1. Natalie*

              That is someone who has spent a long time working in retail or food service.

              Retail managers, as far as I can tell, are obsessed with “reliable transportation”, which in my city apparently means “car of any condition, but not the excellent and affordable public transportation system that drops you off literally right outside the door.” Apparently poor people’s cars never, ever break down and there is never, ever unexpected traffic due to an accident or road construction.

              1. Anonymous*

                Yes! I never forgot this. I remember going for an interview at Burger King at age 16 for one of my first jobs. The manager who interviewed me asked me about reliable transportation and I answered “yeah, my parents or the bus.” I didn’t get the job, unfortunately. :) Considering the bus stop was less than 100 yards from the front door and I lived less than ten minutes away by car, I must be unreliable, huh?

              2. Anonymous*

                Sadly, even with bus stops right next door, many people are late because the “missed their bus”. These are usually people who take the bus that arrives immediately before their shift, so the next bus brings them to work 20-60 minutes late (depending on your city’s schedule). When you are working retail and the manager can’t give overtime it causes a lot of problems.

                And the managers have probably also heard too many excuses about how someone else made the worker late, so they don’t want the worker to count on a family member or friend for rides.

                1. Natalie*

                  Absolutely, I’m sure these managers have heard lots of excuses. I just don’t buy that they’ve heard less excuses from the car-owning, particularly given the average traffic in my city and the average condition of the cars in the employee section of the parking lot.

              3. KellyK*

                I think there are jobs where public transportation wouldn’t really be sufficiently “reliable.” If your hours vary, or you’re expected to come in on short notice, or if you’re likely to end up working after the buses stop running for the night.

                For most retail jobs, though, it seems silly to view “owns a POS car with 200k miles on it, key components held together with duct tape and dental floss” as superior to “lives near a bus stop, comfortable using public transit and getting places on time.”

  18. Laura*

    My boyfriend (just graduated in May) just went on about 10 different interviews (multiple per company). He landed a job. At EVERY interview he was asked that question, and the interviewer commented that they are looking for someone who “works well in groups and independently” and even asked him to cite from his experience examples where he did well at both. This was not just at one company, this was at about 4 companies, and multiple people asked.

    I agree it is stupid to put on your resume (and he didn’t), but I was shocked by how many people asked him this question.

    So if this many hiring mangers are interested, you don’t think I should put that in my linkedin profile or something? I wouldn’t put it on my resume.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      No. It doesn’t belong on a resume or a LinkedIn profile for all the reasons I’ve given here, plus the fact that it’s a subjective self-assessment and thus carries no weight to employers. Trust me, they might be asking about this, but they are NOT screening people out because they don’t mention this in a resume, cover letter, or online profile.

    2. ChristineH*

      “and even asked him to cite from his experience examples where he did well at both.”

      This is where it seems applicants can try to stand out. Rather than parroting back the requirements, sharing CONCRETE examples is the way to go.

  19. ShutTheFrontDoor*

    When I’m applying to a job, I try to approach it like they used to tell you to write essays in high school? Write as if the person who is reading your essay (resume/cover letter) is an absolute idiot. Don’t be condescending!! but make sure everything is easy to understand and qualifications are easy to find.

    So, if the job posting mentions that I need to be familiar with Microsoft Office and work well in a group, then I feel like those are points that need to be addressed, regardless of if the person who wrote the posting did a bad or good job. Not all hiring managers are as great as AAM. And if someone wrote those qualifications into their posting, then I’m going to assume they’re the type of hiring manager that wants to see those qualifications addressed (even if everyone with a bit of common sense knows they are super standard).

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I’d be wary of that approach. Lots of ads are just recycled from the last time or posted by HR and the hiring manager didn’t write them. Also, my mail and this blog are full of stories of people who started writing smart, thoughtful, engaging cover letters and started getting interviews when they hadn’t been before.

    2. Ry*

      Hm. I think you got bad advice in high school. “Write as if the person who is reading your essay [were] an absolute idiot… [d]on’t be condescending,” is not something anyone should be doing.

      I am NOT trying to be snarky at you, and I believe you that that’s what you were taught, but I do wonder whether sources like that are also providing bad resume/cover-letter advice.

    3. Ponies!*

      This is similar to the point I was making above. Let’s say I’m a mediocre hiring manager and I have two resumes I’m reviewing: one mentions working well independently as well as in groups, one doesn’t, but they are very similar otherwise. That’s a quality that’s important to me, and I’ve listed it in the job description. I decide to go with the candidate that actually highlights it specifically.

      I’m not saying this is a good approach for hiring managers, or even that most would take this approach, but I do think this is a scenario candidates are thinking about when they include these kind of “duh” qualities on their resumes.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I’m telling you, even a crappy hiring manager is unlikely to be swayed by a mention of that in the cover letter or resume. It just doesn’t impress.

  20. Kelly O*

    I honestly think the reason you’re seeing it is because someone has either read one of the “456,782,974,981 Best Resumes for 2012” books, or went to a career counselor at their college, or they’ve seen it in other ads and think “look at how proactive I’m being, telling them I play well with others before they even ask.”

    The real frustrating thing is that we hear all this talk about changing the way applicants are viewed, or changing the way resumes are viewed, or even updating the application process, but the sad thing is probably close to 80% of companies seem to want to do things the way they’ve always been done. They don’t want anything but a list of what you’ve done, or the generic resume information you can get in the aforementioned books or career centers.

    So the people sending you these resumes and cover letters are either not paying one lick of attention to what you’re saying (which seriously may be happening more than we’d like to think) or they’re following what they think is awesome career advice. Either way, I guess I feel like it shows another symptom of what is really broken in the hiring process in general.

    (And before someone says it – yes, I get it Hiring Manager – although not necessarily AAM – you are getting eleventy billion resumes every day and you don’t have time to read them, or look at everything that comes across your desk, and there has to be some sort of way to filter through them all. But seriously we know that we need to be able to speak, or sit, or play well with others, or lift a box of paper, or whatever. But some of the “job requirements” I’ve seen lately have made me think twice about whether or not I want to apply. )

    1. Jamie*

      On the topic of job requirements – it’s important to keep in mind that depending on the company those can be a guideline or suggestion or can be hard and fast absolutes.

      For example in an ISO certified company, there may be things which are preferred (skills, traits, experience, whatever) and will be noted as such. The things listed in actual requirements have no leeway – because the company is audited on position requirements and has to prove that up.

      It’s just something to keep in mind – depending on the certification and regulation of the company – that some requirements are written in stone.

      (Which means a good company will judiciously craft the job requirements as to not rule out perfectly awesome candidates, but that isn’t always the case.)

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Kelly, you’re seeing those job requirements because some lawyer has convinced them that if they don’t list “ability to lift a box,” then they won’t be able to fire someone who can’t lift a box (such as someone with a disability that makes that impossible). Their lawyers have convinced them that they have to put in in the job posting to make it an “essential element of the job,” since the ADA says you can’t fire someone disabled for not being able to perform a non-essential element of the job.

  21. mh_76*

    Reminds me of the details-oriented bit… yes, a person can be proficient with both details and big picture. Without the big picture, details are pointless & inane (read: boring, WTF am I doing here, why am I doing these things) and without details, there is no big picture.

    1. Bonnie*

      In my company the difference between the two can determine career path. Yes, I understand that everyone can do both but most people default to one or the other in their day to day working environment. In my workplace the detail oriented individuals have a more “traditional” career path and big picture people have a less “traditional” career path. We have room for and need both types but knowing your style helps me place you where are best suited to learn the business.

      That being said, when I ask in interviews for examples of successful uses of being detail oriented over big picture, you would be amazed at how many people cite an example of using the big picture instead.

      However, it is not a part of our job descriptions nor do we expect to see it in cover letters. But we do ask the question and we do have a very specific reason for doing so.

  22. Elizabeth*

    I use almost that exact sentence in the assessment reports I write about people… however, I’m writing report cards for third graders, where these skills are not a given. (And not everyone does get this assessment – I also write things like “…works well independently, but struggles to listen to classmates in group work.” or “…collaborates effectively with classmates, but becomes distracted when working alone and chats with her friends.”)

  23. Tekoa*

    Oh. My. Goodness. I’m a recent grad of one month and…. I have the phrase “work well both independently and in groups” in my cover letter. The university career center said I should put it in. *facepalm*

    1. AMG*

      I hear you–I have seen myself in quite a few AAM posts. But you take something away from it and use the great feedback to make yourself better. Don’t worry about mistakes you can’t change; just focus on moving forward!

      1. Tekoa*

        Thanks for the encouragement. Its both embarassing and amusing to be “that applicant” who made such a silly mistake. Mostly amusing. I should have suspected the career center after this conversation…

        Me: So, I have an anthropology degree. What can I do with it?

        Career Center: What do you want to do with it?

        Me: Get a job. What are my options?

        Career Center: You can do anything.

        Me: Thats….great…. Where do anthropology grads usually end up working?

        Career Center: Everywhere. So what do you WANT to with your degree?

        Me: *sigh* I want to be a Chinese Jet Pilot. Has my education trained me for that career?

        Career Center: *confused look*

        Okay, so this conversation is slightly exagerated. But if felt good. :)

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Well, you have plenty of company — I wasn’t kidding when I said that I see this in half of new grads’ cover letters.

          Also, your career center messed up even earlier than that conversation. They should have been encouraging you to think about what you’d do with the major before you ever picked it! It baffles me that schools encourage students to pick majors without helping them think about how they’ll use them.

          1. Tekoa*

            I’ve gotten feeble advice on how to pick classes and use my degrees. It can be summerized as “Pick classes you think are interesting. Find a job you’d want to do for free.” And yes, I said degrees. I have a Bachelor of Arts in Behavioural Science (minor in biology) and a Bachelor of Science in Anthropology (concentration in primatology). Since I’m here reading your website, I can only conclude that I am not a slug like individual who expects Career Centers to make all my choices for me. My situation can only be improved by your work. I’ve already learned a lot that makes sense.

          2. Advisor*

            I’m a new student advisor at a community college, and I second this wholeheartedly. We have a career services department, but students generally don’t think to go there to choose a job, only to get a job, which isn’t really what they do. Instead, that usually falls to me. I have students who know exactly what they want and how to get there and just need me to fill out the forms and cheerlead a little, straight up to those who will not process that taking a CNA course isn’t a direct path to becoming a neurosurgeon. I learned fast that bringing these things up early and connecting the plan to the goal is crucial if you don’t want to spend the student’s entire first year changing their major to match what their best friend’s mom thinks will be a hot job in the next 3 months. I love the career advising aspect of what I do, but I wish that students came in understanding that research is not optional when choosing a major if you ever want to find a job with this degree.

            1. Tekoa*

              Thank you for your comment. I wish I had you as my student advisor. I understand I have to do my own career research…and yet… I wish I was getting more advice than “you can do anything.” How can I explain that I actually want to know what I can do with an Anthropology degree before picking a career? Or should I accept the Career Center perspective that the correct question is to ask “What do you WANT to do with your degree?” Then research from that starting point. I hope I’ve explained myself clearly.

            2. Anonymous*


              I have an anthropology degree too – my concentration was in its practical use. I’m guessing that because you focused on primatology that you are interested in early human history and group behavior? What you chose makes me think that you might be interested in how humans actually became human. If that is your interest, I would pursue a career in research and seriously consider a PhD.

            3. Max*

              Part of the problem is that students often don’t know what they’re going to college for in the first place. It’s just that their parents and their highschool counselors and every other authority figure have been telling them for their entire lives that they have to go to college to make something of themselves, so they go to college – even if they have no idea what they want to do with their lives.

              They don’t have a plan, they don’t have a goal, and they probably weren’t really ready to go to college just yet…but their family would throw a fit if they took a year or two off after high school for some soul-searching and goal-making, so they succumb to pressure and spend their entire college career trying to choose their path instead.

              Of course, colleges aren’t really doing well at guiding students. However, the idea of university as a mandatory work preparation step rather than an academic institution is relatively recent, and I think educators are generally reluctant to turn academia into a four-year vocational counseling session, so the necessary reforms have been extremely slow in coming.

              1. Jamie*

                I agree with much of this – but I understand the reasons behind the fear of taking the time off.

                In my parents generation not everyone went to college, and there were plenty of career paths for those who didn’t. With a high school diploma (or less) you could be self supporting and even raise a family.

                The people who a generation ago would not have opted for college have no choice but to go to school and make it work. As more and more jobs are “knowledge” jobs and even those that in prior times didn’t require college, now do (police, firefighters, etc.)

                It’s terrifying for a lot of people – and their parents. It’s just the fear that in this economy losing time can be such a serious disadvantage that kids are in the position to make life choices maybe before they are ready.

                The alternative being poorly paying job with no chance of advancement is bleak – so people try to do what they can.

                My grandfather was a mechanical engineer and had a high school education. Aptitude and on the job training was what you needed then. Today he wouldn’t have even been able to get an interview without at least a bachelors. I doubt my grandparents knew many people who went to college. When my dad was young college was optional – typically for the bright kids from affluent families.

                By the time my siblings and I came of age there was nothing optional about it. The assumption that you and everyone you knew would go to college was just a given. I don’t recall ever questioning that – nor is it optional for my kids.

                There are just very few alternatives these days.

              2. mh_76*

                I was one of those kids! I went to college because I was “supposed to”, because it was de rigeur to finish college 4 years after finishing HS. I don’t know how my parents would have reacted if I had wanted to take a year/two off or if I had wanted to work & go to school at night…but I didn’t know that those were options at the time. I didn’t know in college that I was supposed to choose a path (wasn’t interested in Edu., Engineering because I had bad math teachers in HS, other professional schools). It was thought that the Liberal Arts were The Gateway Degrees but that changed sometime while I was in college. You’re right that colleges aren’t doing enough…or anything, in the case of X Univ, re: guidance. We need the English system of education (as I’ve heard it described, anyway). We need mentorship programs for adults who are “normal” and still haven’t figured it out even in. our 30’s and beyond.

        2. Liz*

          You forgot the part where they mention a famous novelist (because that is such an attainable career for most new grads) and say that he used his skills in x graduate program to write a best-selling book. Otherwise, it is spot on.

          1. Tekoa*

            Or, to continue the slight exagerated Career Center conversation.

            Me: So, is the point of going to university to get a career somewhat related to what I’ve been studying?

            Career Center: Maybe

            Me: What?

            Career Center: You can get a job anywhere. You could be a professor.

            Me: That would require a Masters and Ph.D. What can I do with just a Bachelors in anthropology?

            Career Center: (Job B)

            Me: Trade School X offers a 2 year diploma in Job B. What did I learn at University that I couldn’t get at College X?

            Career Center: Transferable job skills.

            Me: Like what?

            Career Center: group work experience

            Me: So, your’re saying that I paid $10000 a year to learn how to play nice with others?

            Career Center: Yes

            Me: *sob*

        3. Anonymous*

          I’m a Sociology major and get so frustrated with the “you can do anything with it!” reply. Yes it may be a versatile degree, but that doesn’t help you figure out what YOU want to do. I work with a Career Counselor at my college Career Center who took my personality traits, values, and interests and helped me focus on what I can apply that to. It’s been really helpful and now I have more of an idea of how to answer the bewildered “what can you do with Sociology?” questions!

        4. Rana*

          Heh. I can tell you, it doesn’t get any better if you have more degrees. I still vividly remember going in for a career consultation with my university’s career center. I have a PhD in history, and have been unable to find full-time work using it as I’d planned, and wanted to know if there were any other career options that could make use of the skills I learned while getting that degree (because going back to school for another degree was just not going to happen!). Several useless computer assessments later, I learned that my career options were forest ranger, spiritual counselor, and nuclear submarine pilot.


          1. Tekoa*

            I boggle at the career options listed. I never would have guessed nuclear submarine pilot was a logical career choice for someone with a PhD in history. -_-

    2. Natalie*

      Don’t be too embarrassed – I’m fairly certain we’ve all been there.

      I had to dig around in my archived email a few months ago and found some application materials from when I had first graduated. I couldn’t even bring myself to look at my old resume.

  24. Victoria*

    Yeah, I think this is one that comes from the job descriptions themselves. How often have you read a (nonprofit) job description that essentially asks for this in their list of qualifications? I always have to fight to leave it off (and I say exactly what you say: that’s a baseline, assumed ability. Who CAN’T work independently or in a group?). If you ask for it, folks will think it matters and highlight it in their applications.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I would look at it this way: Job postings ask for plenty of things that are subjective — excellent writing, diplomacy, initiative, etc. But you don’t just write a cover letter asserting that you have those things. If you want to address them, you demonstrate them — good writing through writing a great cover letter, diplomacy and initiative through citing an achievement that demonstrates those, and so forth. But you don’t just say “I have initiative,” just like you shouldn’t announce “I work well independently and in groups.” If you want to address those, you demonstrate them. (Or at least you do if you’re going to be a strong candidate.)

      1. Victoria*

        Dang, you’re fast!

        This gets back to my question about hiring entry-level folks, who don’t know how to demonstrate these skills (or don’t know that they should!). Think it would would be crazy to list some advice in a job description? (… “As you’re putting together your application materials, think about how you can show us that you will excel in XYZ requirement.”

        The Brazen Careerist blog linked to our current opening yesterday, and included this line:

        “To qualify, you should have 1-3 years of experience in nonprofit or community-based programming — or simply be able to show that you’ll perform as though you have that experience.” “As though” in italics.

        The author tweaked what I had in the description, and I liked her version a lot – it’s getting at the idea that they should demonstrate how they could perform in the role.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I have that question about hiring entry-level staff in my queue to answer, so it’s coming up soon! But yes, I think giving additional guidance like that is great — it will also help separate out the people who don’t bother to take your suggestions from the people who do. However, I might get even more specific because a lot of people new to the workforce won’t know what it means to demonstrate that, so I’d nudge them: “As you’re putting together your application materials, think about how you can show us that you will excel in XYZ requirement, such as through examples of real-life situations where you’ve successfully used this skill.”

  25. queenBee*

    I’ve never been able to understand the whole “must work well in groups/must be a team player” thing (I see it in EVERY job advert). Everytime I’ve been in a group, barely any work gets done because people are too busy discussing irrelevant things. I get twice as much done when left to my own devices as I do when I have to “share the load” with others who are not so keen on working hard. I am easy to get along with, but I work so much better alone. Not all of us can be “team players”, and it is silly for every single job posting to insist on it. After all, regardless of whether someone prefers working alone or in a group, adults are expected to be mature about their work and get it done, co-operating with others when needs be. It should be made obvious by a well-written job description whether the position will require a lot of groupwork or not. Telling me you need a team player doesn’t tell me anything, because a lot of the time it simply means you are looking for someone who isn’t going to start sh*t with co-workers all the time, rather than the job involving lots of close collaboration. Likewise, it really should go without saying that you can work both on your own and with others because as an adult, you are expected to be mature about things. And let’s be honest, who is going to admit that they can’t get along with others or motivate themselves to work alone when they apply for a job?

    If both sides simply dropped the meaningless jargon, we’d all progress a lot more quickly!

    1. Liz T*

      Studies show (sorry, former psych major here) that groups perform better at tasks than the individuals would have independently. It sounds like you’re used to working with people who DON’T work well in groups–and experiencing a lot of what’s called “social loafing.” The best way for a group to achieve goals is if every member works independently, and THEN brings that work to be discussed by a group.

      I find this stuff fascinating.

      1. Liz T*

        (But I also believe in teams having leaders and have been a task master about meetings running to schedule, so I sympathize deeply with your bad group experiences.)

      2. Ask a Manager* Post author

        The thing that’s really key in group work is that you have really clearly defined roles, that each person know what their role is and what they’re responsible for, and that there’s an owner either in the group or outside of it who’s in charge of keeping things on track.

        1. Jamie*

          All morning I’ve been posting within in seconds of Alison – unintentionally shadowing her making similar points but wordy and convoluted.

          Sorry about that!

        2. Charles*

          ” . . . clearly defined roles . . .”

          Thank you! That’s the part that so many folks seem to miss, along with “clearly defined goals.”

          The phrase “Team Player” being misused is one of my (many?) pet peeves.

      3. Jamie*

        I didn’t know it had a name – other than “letting the overacheivers do all the work and take joint credit for the success” but a good project manager will mitigate the risk of the social loafing.

        That way everyone’s different talents and expertise are utilized, but structured so everyone knows what is expected of them and when.

  26. Jamie*

    “Everytime I’ve been in a group, barely any work gets done because people are too busy discussing irrelevant things.”

    This made me smile. And this is why I interpret the “do you work well in groups” question to mean “can you refrain from rolling your eyes in pointless meetings and then go back to your desk to get something done?”

    In which case, yes I can.

    1. Kelly O*

      This is what I called High School and College.

      No joke I seriously had someone who told an instructor in college she just wanted to be in a group with me because she knew she wouldn’t have to do anything – if they just let things go, eventually I would get frustrated and just do the whole thing myself.

      (That conversation was in the context of explaining to me that the instructor knew when others were not pulling their own weight, and I didn’t have to do the entire group project myself. After I did an entire group project myself. And presented it pretty much myself. )

      So yeah, I am skeptical of working in groups.

  27. Anonymouse*

    “Works independently as well as in teams” is right up there with “excellent communication skills” and “computer literate”. Candidates will stop putting these on CVs/resumes and cover letters when employers stop including them on an exhaustive list of requirements in their job ads.

  28. Joey*

    I’ve stopped hypothesizing all of the weird stuff people do on their resumes and cover letters. I saw one today that’s written in third person. Made me chuckle a little when i imagined the person writing it. It’s amazing how many candidates throw common sense out of the window and do all kinds of weird stuff in the name of getting a job.

    1. Alisha*

      I hired an intern a couple of jobs ago who went on to do exactly that! This person’s portfolio cracks me up and seriously reminds me of the 1996 election:

      “Bob Dole makes websites. Bob Dole gets results. Hire Bob Dole today.”

  29. hindenburg2002*

    Funny thing is, I just tweaked my resume last week to address this. For each listing in my work experience, I gave a concrete example of how I worked either independently or with someone or both. One says something to the effect of, Performed the research by myself but collaborated with mentor to interpret the results. Another says, Worked with another intern to complete the project (again, I’m paraphrasing). If the person reading my resume can’t interpret that as “works well independently and with others”, then I probably wouldn’t want to work with them anyway.

    As for the equally ubiquitous “able to communicate effectively in verbal and written formats”, there’s one line that says Presented results to department, at a symposium, and in a paper. So, I can talk about this stuff to people in my field, people who have never heard of it before, and I can write it all down!

    I can also walk and breathe at the same time, so I guess that makes me a multi-tasker too…

  30. Anonymous*

    One thing I’ve started seeing lately in a lot of job ads are candidates who have social media experience, but never really explain what they mean by that. Speaking for myself, I use Facebook a few times a day and Twitter is a good friend.

    Anyone ever really figure out what that entails?

    1. Eric Brasure*

      “Social media experience” is the “must be proficient in MS Office and demonstrate an ability to use the internet” of the ’10s.

    2. Charles*

      Just guessing here; but, the ads could mean that they want someone who has social media experience for work as many organizations are now “getting their message out” via social media in addition to old fashioned advertising.

      It would be nice if they made that clear; but, maybe that is part of the organization’s problem and why they need to hire “communication experts.”

  31. Heather*

    I had an interviewer ask me if I had to pick one would I rather work alone or in groups. I thought that was the worst question ever! You should be able to do both (as AAM mentioned)!

  32. PB*

    So, let’s say the job ad says they want someone who can” work independently as well as in groups,” and in my cover letter I say that “in my current position, to accomplish the goals of my position I have to exercise independent judgment to make decisions while collaborating with other work groups to ensure that all factors are taken into consideration when making decisions.” No good? I think what I’m struggling with is a way to “demonstrate” in the cover letter that I work well independently as well as in groups. Also, I figured this particular characteristic is requested so often because not everyone is good at working independently as well as in groups. I wish my current employer put that in the job ad for my current position – I might not be experiencing some of the issues I’m experiencing now!

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Hmmm. No :) It’s almost jargony without having any actual jargon in it — it doesn’t read the way you’d talk in actual conversation. It’s also kind of — well, you’re describing the minimum expected. Describe times when you’ve achieved things by going above and beyond!

  33. Ann*

    When applying for a paralegal job at a law firm, I said “I don’t really consider myself a “people person,” so I think I’m well suited for the law firm environment.” They hired me, and I worked at the firm for almost 20 years. Honesty is the best policy.

    But competence and a sense of humor also help.

  34. Student*

    Nearly every job posting I’ve seen in my field for the past 6 months has that phrase in there. That’s why it shows up in resumes, CVs, and job interviews. We assume it’s necessary to get past the computer filters at many companies because it is so ubiquitous.

    AAM is completely correct that it’s become a useless buzzword. However, from what I’ve seen, job postings are what drive this specific buzzword. No career counselor at my school has brought it up, no online job advice that I’ve seen mentions it. I think the blame is on whoever writes the job descriptions, not on job-seekers for this one.

  35. Erika (Canada)*

    Alison…I’m wondering if this is just the same ‘old’ trend reappearing to the younger generation. When I graduated in 1992 in the healthcare field, our student coordinator told us it would be helpful to include in our cover letter that we are able to work well independently as well as in a group. Also, I am now changing careers and looking for work and I can’t tell you how many job postings I’ve come across that state the very same thing: candidate must be able to work well in groups and independently. So does this originate from employees or employers…I’d be inclined to say employers, and therefore, employees feel it necessesary to include in their cover letter.


    This is cracking me up because I’m really careful NOT to insinuate that I work well independently. I’m definitely a capital-E Extrovert and while I am capable of working independently, it is not preferred, nor am I as effective alone as I am in a more collaborative, team-oriented environment. So don’t worry — you won’t see this on my resume.

  37. Anonymous*

    I believe the line “work well both independently and in groups” is often included in cover letters and resumes is because that same line is listed among job requirements. Its pretty common now to see that I “need X number of years in the industry, able to do Y and must work well both independently and in groups.”

  38. Kate*

    @AAM – Agree completely! If the touted skill is one that appears on my third-grader’s report card, like:
    * Works well independently
    * Plays well with others
    * Follows directions
    * Uses scissors and art materials properly
    * Practices good hygiene

    …I wonder if they’ve acquired more complex skills in the years since elementary school.

  39. Naomi*

    Job postings usually say they want a candidate who works well independently and/or in groups. This is probably why applicants include it.

  40. Four*

    For quite a number of jobs, the ability to work well in teams is part of the job descriptions. This is understandable given that employers are unlikely to list technical requirements for an entry-level position. So, job descriptions would have things like; good communication skills, high attention to detail and being ambitious.

    So, I wouldn’t blame the graduates entirely.

Comments are closed.