how can my resume demonstrate initiative, problem-solving, work ethic, and other qualities?

A reader writes:

I’m currently a college student studying engineering. I keep on reading lists with titles like “Top 10 Skills and Qualities Employers Seek in College Grads.” All of the skills listed there are fairly subjective. For instance, a list might include words like teamwork, leadership, written communication, problem-solving, work ethic, initiative, and other good qualities that most people think they’d possess.

Apart from having work experience and joining clubs, are there any specific ways to show an employer at the resume stage that I am good a problem-solving or any other trait? Furthermore, how do employers who are scanning resumes at the pace of one every dozen seconds, recognize those skills?

Yeah, those lists of skills are often remarkably unhelpful, for exactly the reason you name: Most people think they possess those qualities, whether or not they actually do. Few people think, “Oh, work ethic, that’s not me” or “ha, initiative — as if!”

But many job-seekers just load up their resumes with those types of words, which is incredibly ineffective. Self-assessments from relative strangers count for basically nothing in hiring (and probably in life, too). I mean, I could proclaim that I’m brilliant and enormously charismatic, but you’d be right to be skeptical.

Instead, the key is to find ways to show that you have those traits. Employers want to see actual evidence of those things, not just proclamations. And the way you provide that evidence is to talk about what you’ve done that illustrates your work ethic, or your written communication skills, or your initiative, or whatever is that you’re trying to demonstrate. For instance:

  • “In first month, cleared out previous eight-month backlog of cases” (work ethic, productivity)
  • “Devised and implemented faster process for X” (initiative, problem-solving)
  • “Published op-eds in the WinterfellTimes and the Westeros Tribune” (written communication)

… and so forth.

The principle with resumes is always: show, don’t tell.

{ 37 comments… read them below }

  1. Mike C.*

    My fave is “ability to multitask”. “Yes, I’m writing this resume and cover letter while I’m watching the Sounders game”.

    Done and done.

    /Seriously, it’s a silly thing to talk about. Either it’s for a reasonable employer and most folks can handle it just fine or it’s a crazy employer and they expect you to get everything done at once.

  2. The Other Dawn*

    I have a hard enough time already trying to construct a cover letter that adds something new. I don’t need the additional stress of trying to figure out how to write about the other miscellaneous things the they decide to throw out there. But now I know I’m on the right track. :)

    1. AnonyMouse*

      I actually think a cover letter can be a good place to address some of these miscellaneous things, depending on the job description and your skills! For instance, a lot of jobs list being a “team player” as one of their vague desired qualities. It’s certainly possible to craft a resume that will highlight instances of teamwork (i.e. “worked with teapot lid coordinator to build and implement new lid design procedures,” or something like that), but it can also be easier to make sure you’re explaining stuff like this in a cover letter (i.e. “I am always searching for ways to contribute additional value to my team. In Role X at Company Y, I took on additional planning responsibilities for the Great Lid Design Overhaul of ’08, working with the lid coordinator to do XYZ etc etc). YMMV, but if I’m really hoping to spell out how I meet some of these vague qualities, I’ll typically tailor my resume and mention it in my cover letter.

  3. Lily in NYC*

    This is so helpful – it’s such a stumbling block for me. It’s especially difficult as an executive assistant – because my job is really to make someone else’s life easier, not to show initiative or come up with great new ideas (especially where I work – admins here are punished instead of rewarded if they try to streamline a process or otherwise stand out in any way ).

    1. kendallr12*

      I’ve always worked admin positions as well. You probably take show initiative more often than you think.

      For example, after seeing my bosses messy and ineffective file cabinets and storage room, I created an entirely new filing system, complete with a searchable spreadsheet of all of the files and their locations. She loved it and we update it everytime we move a file.

      At my previous job, most employees were part time. As admin, I created a Google doc system where everyone could communicate with each other on what they had done while they were in the office. I especially used this since I worked on the weekends when nobody else was in the office.

      In my current job I created a system to keep track of where we were on all of our open files/clients. I make a list for my boss every Monday for what needs to be done that week. I created a system that allows her to focus on the task at hand while I make sure nothing sneaks up on her as far as deadlines go.

      These are all small projects but helpful in demonstrative initiative since nobody asked me to do these things. I’m sure you have similar projects you have done.


      1. Cassie*

        This is what I’ve started doing too, after being stumped about what “accomplishments” I’ve had over the past x number of years. Being the “go-to person” or just being plain awesome :) is a bit difficult to convey to someone on paper. So I’ve highlighted deliverables: I’ve created a spreadsheet template that allows me to quickly estimate costs. I volunteered to tackle a backlog that nobody wanted to touch, and everyone claimed was too time-consuming to deal with – within 3 weeks, the backlog was gone. People had been griping about the backlog for at least 5 years! For me, this type of framing is better than just “accomplishments-that-are-really-just-your-job-duties”. Stuff like “I organized this event” or “I hired 2 new staff members to replace retiring staff members”. I mean, yes, those are part of your job, it’s on your job description to actually do that, and you want some kind of award for it?!

        For the OP’s field (engineering), I’ve seen a lot of student resumes that describe (briefly) some of the projects that they’ve worked on. It’s particularly strong when they can explain why the project matters (especially if you can tie it in with numbers – e.g. reducing the processing time by 50%).

  4. LBK*

    I know previously you’ve said to think about what would be the difference between someone who does a mediocre job at your position and someone who does it exceedingly well, but I’m not creating pieces. I’m not making sales. I have basically no metrics I’m responsible for. My job is 99% maintenance and operational work, and the flow of it is daily, so there’s no backlog to chop down or a list of future tasks I could get a jump on. Is there any time when it’s appropriate to talk about work duties rather than accomplishments when the list of stuff you’ve done that’s impressive is basically 2 sentences? Or is this a sign that I need to find ways to branch out of my position so I can throw stuff on my resume? I already exceed my manager’s expectations for the position just by being proactive day to day, having a good sense of the business as a whole and keeping my coworkers in check via peer accountability, but I don’t know how to show those things on a resume because there aren’t specific actions I’ve taken to do that. I just do little things every day that contribute.

    I did create a new tracking system for our mailings and revamped the way we do referrals to the sales reps, so those things are on my resume, but like I said – 2 things isn’t really that impressive, and I don’t know how an outsider would understand their importance.

      1. LBK*

        I think I did that as much as I could, but even some of those concept just don’t apply to my job. If I ask for feedback for what sets me apart at work, for example, I’m usually told that I’m extremely reliable and knowledgeable – people come to me for answers and for help with issues because (this is verbatim from one of my coworkers) “when I give you something to do, I know it will be done quickly and correctly and I won’t have to follow up”. But again…I don’t know how to put that on a resume, because it’s not like it was a big project, or something I can necessarily quantify. It’s part of my personality.

        Sorry if this is hijacking the thread too much, but here’s roughly what I have for my current job on my resume (this is the LinkedIn version but it’s pretty close to what’s actually on my resume). Does this sound accomplishment-based enough? Or do I need to find a way to quantify/clarify?

        -Created new tracking system for mailings to ensure timely approval and delivery of customer materials
        -Revamped process for referrals to internal sales associates, leading to dramatically increased response
        -Assisted with onboarding of division to Teapot Universe platform, including creating department standards/procedures and providing ongoing feedback to development team
        -Go-to person for reporting and other business analysis needs; resident Microsoft Teapots and Teapot Universe expert
        -Maintain relationship with external partners, including serving as main point of contact within company for any issues related to those partners
        -Provide additional support to sales consultants, including: preparing mailing materials; managing scheduling and follow ups; and addressing client inquiries

        (software names removed just in case they’re somehow too identifying)

        1. Kyrielle*

          “Maintained average turnaround time of (X)” (“, compared to departmental standard of (Y)” if appropriate)

          “Increased overall department response time by Z”

          “Increased reliability of Q results to other teams”

          Something like those? Maybe?

          1. Zahra*

            Yeah, adding numbers to your list of accomplishments will help a lot.

            -Created new tracking system for mailings to ensure timely approval and delivery of customer materials (improved reliability/delivery time by X%, X days)
            -Revamped process for referrals to internal sales associates, leading to dramatically increased response (how much faster?)
            -Assisted with onboarding of division to Teapot Universe platform, including creating department standards/procedures and providing ongoing feedback to development team (over how much time? What is the industry/organization standard for that kind of thing?)
            -Go-to person for reporting and other business analysis needs; resident Microsoft Teapots and Teapot Universe expert (how many reports are you producing? how many questions are you fielding?)
            -Maintain relationship with external partners, including serving as main point of contact within company for any issues related to those partners (how many clients, how many issues on average per month)
            -Provide additional support to sales consultants, including: preparing mailing materials; managing scheduling and follow ups; and addressing client inquiries

            1. Anonsie*

              The thing that always gets me with this is that those metrics don’t often exist for me, as those things aren’t tracked overall. I could say what I do but not how it compares to departmental or institutional averages, for the most part. I have no comparative metrics.

        2. Puddin*

          I think this is a good list. What would be impactful to interviewers would be to see the outcome of these initiatives.

          Created new tracking system…resulted in reducing time to completion from 4 days to 2 days.
          Revamped process…response time was improved by 15 days.
          Assisted with onboarding for project…which came in under the deadline for all milestones as a result.
          Go to person – ok here you talk about analysis, what kind of analysis? Marketing analysis expert for a team of 12 salespeople, providing data to support $X in annual sales. Provided Financial analytics to A/R team of 7. Data provided resulted in reducing avg billing period by 4 days and capturing $257,390 in delinquent invoices over a 6 month period.
          Maintain relationship – I imagine this involved a contact database of some sort? Managed stakeholder relationships of 55 partners, serving as the primary contact for broken teapots, new teapot colors, and teapot logistics. Be specific about what you are in contact about, this will highlight your areas of expertise.
          Provide additional support – if you did not do this job how much less would those salespeople have sold because they had to do it themselves? may be this is actually 2-4 points…mailings generated $32,967 in sales revenue, client appointments and inquiries lead to $2,435,567 in sales. You marketing dept/person may have some of these numbers.

          In short, WHY did you do those things. You had a desired outcome, explain what it was here. The process improvements like the ones on your list will almost always increased productivity, reduced downtime, lower costs, improve profit, or minimize errors. Smart hiring managers will know that translates to $$ the bottom line.

          Just some ideas, they might not fit your specific role/company.

        3. LBK*

          This is all great advice. Thank you guys! I think I was struggling with what kinds of figures would be impactful to add, and I like the idea of including more of why I would do those things – like why we needed a tracking system for the mailings (which was because my coworkers were super lazy and never kept track of it themselves so things would sit around for a month when all we needed to do was make one 5-minute phone call to get them out, but obviously I would write a more appropriate version of that).

  5. Biff*

    Frankly, I’ve noticed that employers also load up job opening and descriptions with these subjective, meaningless words too, even if they have nothing to do with the work. I’ve worked for companies that prefer docile workers that are not intuitive or forward thinking. But the job description was for fast-thinking problem solvers with good ideas and a go-get-em attitude.

    So…. they kept advertising for what they didn’t want. You can imagine how that went.

    I really wish there was a rule of thumb to choose FIVE key traits. E.g. “Local business seeks local candidate (that’s one) with a strong eye for color-coordination (that’s two) that can stand for long periods of time (that’s three), cut a straight line (that’s four) and has a welcoming demanor. (That’s five.) There’s usually closer to 15-25 traits int he entire description. I end up guessing which are the most important and try to speak to those five key points.

    1. Jillociraptor*

      Yes! I think those laundry lists are also the result of the hiring manager not having a well-developed sense of what’s really critical for the role, too. They’re either listing all of the traits that made the last person good at the job (or all the things they were lacking), or trying to anticipate every single thing the person could do, or detailing every single trait that would help the person be successful whether it’s necessary for success or not.

    2. PEBCAK*

      I think this is a function of employers wanting the “best” candidate, instead of the best fit. For example, I have made most of my career as an individual contributor in a very niche area. Why does every opening say “teamwork”? Of course nobody wants to work with a cranky asshole who can’t communicate, but the bottom line is that most of my work is going to be done on my own.

      1. Biff*

        I think people don’t really know what teamwork means. Teamwork is a collaborative design and build process, not an organized group of individual contributors that meet deadlines and have pieces that slide into place. Teamwork is doing the same thing at the same time, not just being on the same page.

    3. Ann O'Nemity*

      Yes, it bugs me too. I think applicants are so accustomed to seeing a laundry list of desired skills that they no longer take them seriously. If I post a job ad that requests someone with good time management skills, for example, it’s because the position requires that sort of soft skill. Unfortunately, I think job applicants just ignore it – even if they are complete procrastinators!

      1. Beancounter in Texas*

        Agreed. We listed typing 40WPM and organized as two required skills for a job & turns out, the hired person hunts/pecks and is so disorganized that he misses deadlines. Poor screening on our part for not requiring a typing test, but how does one qualify that they will be organized, or work well with teams before hiring? I guess references will serve for those qualifications, if they’re honest.

        1. J.*

          I’m the OP. Thanks to everyone for responding to my questions!

          What do people think about my strategy of responding to those requirements on the cover letter? Many of my most meaningful experiences happened in class or during volunteering for events. It’s not convenient to put them on the resume. I usually list some of the requirements on the cover letter and respond to them in a Q&A fashion.

      1. Biff*

        You shouldn’t work in measured goods then (by the yard, by the foot, etc.) Of course, you already know that. But if you’d read a listing where that was buried in 10-20 other traits… would you have known to NOT apply?

        1. Puddin*

          Would I apply? Most likely not, because this is a true deficit of mine that most likely cannot be solved with training, change in process, better tools, etc. However, if everything else were dream job material, then yeah I would at least apply. I’m kooky like that.

          1. Biff*

            Followup question — would you respond to the listing I created, with just the five traits? If not, then I kind of proved the point — succinct job ad is more likely to get the employer what they want.

  6. Jillociraptor*

    I spend a big chunk of my first interview with candidates asking the same question over and over: “How did you know that was successful?” Take the list of things you did, and explain to me in your application materials how you know you did them well.

    I think there’s this tendency to think of the application process as this opaque game where hiring managers could be asking for anything, and you just need to do your best, but honestly it’s really simple. You are an expert on your prior experience and strengths. I’m an expert on this position. I need you to succinctly convey the information from your expertise to help me make a decision based on my expertise. This is a skill most people use in their jobs too (in fact I use evidence from the application materials to evaluate how good candidates are at it!).

  7. Beancounter in Texas*

    I think the answer to the OP’s question is, “No, there really isn’t way other than having [work] experience to demonstrate those skills.” Alison’s answer is a good one, but it requires experience of some kind. If you’re utilizing those traits in college and you’re applying for your first post-college job, list how you utilized those skills in college. For example, I’ve got on my resume:

    – Streamlined processes in QuickBooks that were previously tracked manually or in Excel
    – Restructured dysfunctional accounting department to accurate, current books with smooth operating processes

    What did I really do?

    On the first item, I setup a liability account in QuickBooks and trained employees on how to record the debits & credits to that account. I found it very simple, but the fact that it hadn’t been done in years shows that someone thought it was too complicated (or didn’t know how to do it).

    On the second item, the books were an absolute mess. When I hired, there was not a single liability or bank account that was correct. The accounting system was integrated with headquarters (which tripped up a lot of previous bookkeepers). I learned out how the system was supposed to work, adjusted as needed to get to a clean starting point, locked the books down & then trained my help with the correct way of booking things.

    Maybe talking to someone about how you work with the traits you possess in plain English will help you get it into a short statement on a resume.

  8. Nethwen*

    I cleared a six-year backlog for something that should never have been allowed to become a backlog. I worry that if I include this on my resume or in an interview, it will come across as talking badly about my boss. Anyone in my industry should immediately think, “Why did the boss allow that?!” I’ve compromised by saying I cleared a backlog and implemented a process for the task to be completed on a schedule without specifying how much of a backlog it was. Plus, it took me a year to clear which is only impressive if you have worked for my boss.

    1. Megan*

      I know what you mean! I’ve been trying to find a way to express “turned this position from a bottomless pit of despair into a streamlined and efficient breeze of a job” without putting down the people who had the position before me.

  9. Leah*

    It’s good to have these examples and what quality they relate to figured out for interviews as well. Then when you get the string of, “Tell me about a time when you…” questions that will likely be a significant part of your interviews, if my interviews are anything to go by.

    Interviewers really ought to go easy on using that question opening. It sounds natural and conversational the first time but I was once asked it 6 times in a row and it immediately felt dry and stiff.

  10. voluptuousfire*

    Thank you for posting this! I’ve not really gotten a good response to my resume lately but I added some numbers that were relevant to my positions and changed around some things and it looks much better. Qualifying things a bit hopefully will help!

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