stop claiming subjective traits on your resume

Do you have anything like the following on your resume?

  • excellent written and oral communication skills
  • strong initiative
  • visionary leader
  • creative innovator
  • able to present strategic concepts clearly and persuasively

If so, remove it! Remove it all!

Your resume is for experience and accomplishments only. It’s not the place for subjective traits that anyone could claim without evidence. Moreover, hiring managers generally ignore anything subjective that an applicant writes about herself, because so many people’s self-assessments are wildly inaccurate; what they’re looking for on your resume are facts.

Here’s the thing: If you really are a visionary leader, or you have strong written communication skills, or you have a track record of taking initiative, the way to demonstrate that is by including accomplishments that demonstrate those traits.

Employers want to see evidence of the traits you’re claiming, not just proclamations.

So: What have you done — what have you achieved — that illustrates your work ethic, or your great writing, or your amazing customer service skills, or whatever else it is that you want employers to see that you have? That’s what belongs on your resume.

{ 104 comments… read them below }

  1. Nom d' Pixel*

    Ah, yes. I have seen a few resumes with things like “excellent soft skills” listed. Whenever I see that, I assume that the person has horrible soft skills. If they had good “soft skills” (which is a BS term anyway), they would know how off putting that was.

    1. Tomato Frog*

      I assume anyone who says they have a great sense of humor doesn’t have much of a sense of humor at all.

      1. Kathleen*

        That is a totally absurd assumption!! Some companies view a great “sense of humor” as a valuable attribute. People are obviously not going to show their sense of humor on a resume, on even during an interview for that matter.

        I hope you do not work in the hiring field!!

  2. Tiffany*

    I’ve seen a few things lately about having a summary section at the top of your resume. What’s your thought on that? I guess it would be there instead of like a profile statement or something. Most of what I’ve seen says limit it to 200 words or less.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Profile and summary statements are basically the same thing, and I’m a fan. They’re kind of the thing that has replaced objectives (thank god) and they can be an effective way to frame your candidacy.

      1. Francesca*

        I’m not sure if I’ve managed to get this right, or if I’m in the fluff category. Are any hiring managers able to give an example of good vs bad profile statements?

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Here’s a good litmus test: Could a bunch of other candidates with similar backgrounds have the exact same one at the top of their resume? If so, it’s too generic.

    2. Clever Name*

      I have a very diverse background and I have expertise in a handful of semi-related disciplines. A summary really frames what I bring to the table.

      1. BeenThere*

        I’m a programmer so my summary is a short table listing the key technologies I’m experienced with. I get loads of positive feedback on that one.

  3. NotSoEvilHRLady*

    My personal favorite (besides wildly inappropriate email addresses) are people who claim to be detail-oriented, yet submit resumes full of spelling and grammar errors. The last one I recieved actually had the sample latin language they use in the sample download in one portion. SMH….

    But Allison, I do have to respectfully disagree with you on the Summary statements. I almost never read them, as I find them to be fluff, and rather subjective. I typically go right to the experience. But that is just me…I work in Employee Relations so recruiting isn’t my specialty anyway.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yeah, if they’re fluff, I don’t read them either (and you can tell at a glance if they’re going to be generic fluff). But a couple of tightly written sentences that really describe what the candidate is all about? I read and appreciate those (although they’re a small minority).

    2. Dan*

      When I was laid off last year, my old boss passed my resume along to some contacts of his in the same industry. He said to me, you know what? Add the following as a summary/profile. It was a full paragraph, and accurate. I asked him, why so much? He said that when he needs to justify a hire to his superiors, that’s the information he passes along to his bosses — make it easy for the next guy to hire you too.

      1. KH*

        I agree with this. The summary is one place where you can make subjective statements that set you apart. What makes you, you? What are your general strengths?
        Of course, support any claims with specific examples in the rest of the resume.

    3. NickelandDime*

      I deleted all of it – summary statements, skill tables – and just got to the work experience on my resume. I suspected people weren’t reading it and it just seemed like fluff. I have a cover letter to introduce myself.

    4. AE*

      “people who claim to be detail-oriented, yet submit resumes full of spelling and grammar errors”

      Dunning-Kruger effect in action!

    5. TootsNYC*

      I once put together a resume that had a list at the top of the types of copy I’ve worked on–because I have a really broad experience (think: fiction, self-help, health, finance, catalogs, shopping credits, technology, recipes, how-tos, personal essays, business; daily, monthly, weekly, quarterly).

      I didn’t use it that long, so I don’t know how people would have reacted, but I was planning to use it for temp work as a “foot soldier” while I looked for “lieutenant-grade” employment. I know that as a lieutenant, that’s what I look for when I’m hiring foot soldiers.

      I put it in a horizontal list w/ bullet points in order to keep it from taking up too much vertical space. I ran across it recently and thought, “I’d forgotten–I think that’s not such a bad idea!”

    6. Anonymissez*

      “I before e except after c, or sounded as ay like neighbor or weigh!!!”
      Your received is wrong. I can feel Sister Marie de Chantal applying the ruler!

    7. Kelly*

      I guess your mileage may vary and I haven’t had a lot of bites yet so I’m not coming from a place of great authority, but I’m changing fields and for me a “profile” section was a good opportunity to list my skills and training even though I don’t have much work experience to show them in practice. (This could very much depend on your field too, I guess, but since I’m trying to move into creative work that stuff’s pretty hard to glean just from education.)

    8. Felicia*

      Once someone claimed to be detail oriented , only they actually said they were detail orientated.

  4. Case of the Mondays*

    I have read that to get past the computer screener you want to have “buzz words” from the job description in either your resume or cover letter. So if it says they are seeking people with excellent oral communication skills that phrase might get you passed the computer to the human. No idea if this is true.

    1. Kelly L.*

      I don’t think this is really much of a thing, especially not for soft skills. Sometimes, for a government job, you have to explicitly state all your objective qualifications (like your degree or years of experience or types of software, etc.).

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It’s true that employers search for keywords, but they’re not these highly specific words that people think they are, where if you don’t have exactly the right words they won’t spot your application. In fact, if the basic searches they’re doing don’t pull up your resume, it’s almost certainly because you really don’t have the qualifications for the job, not because you didn’t use the right magic words.

      And no one is doing keyword searches for soft skills like “communication skills” or “teamwork.” They’re searching for things like a particular programming language or other hard skills/experience.

      More here:
      http://www.cluewagon.com/2009/09/the-myth-of-resume-buzzwords/

      1. Stranger than fiction*

        Yeah, plus your communication skills are going to come out right away when a company begins contacting you

      2. Dan*

        Well… as a programmer, it’s generally accepted that if you know one language, you can pick up another. What none of us really know is what kinds of searches hiring managers are doing. I’m not even sure a search for “programmer” is going to pull up my resume. The three most common words on my resume? Wrote, developed, and implemented.

        …says a guy whose current career is spent developing natural language processing and computational linguistic algorithms to clean data so that it *is* easily searchable by the people who need it.

        1. sally*

          The software company I work for recruits programmers who are familiar with a particular language. If you don’t have at least a passing reference to it on your resume, you’re not getting an interview.

        2. CAA*

          As a hiring manager, I’ll be happy to tell you the searches I’m doing …

          When filling a back-end web dev role:
          “Java”

          When filling a database dev role:
          “Oracle”

          For front-end devs:
          “Angular.js”
          “jQuery”

          Seriously, that’s it. If my search for “Java” produces too many results for me to sift through, then I’ll add “Web” to narrow it down a bit. Honestly, it’s not anything like as complex as most people seem to imagine.

          1. BeenThere*

            Funny as a backend Java dev I removed web because I was getting to many recruiters contacting me for front end web application roles using Javascript. *SIGH*

    3. cv*

      If you think you’re submitting your application through a bot, what about saying something in your cover letter about how you have excellent oral communication skills as evidenced by the fact that you were invited to present on X topic in Y circumstances, blah, blah. I’d think you could find a way to back up vague subjective things with detail and examples.

    4. Felicia*

      I have no idea if it’s true, but we don’t use a computer screener and people were still writing their resumes as if they thought we did. So it’s important to keep in mind that a significant percentage of employers only use human beings to screen resumes.

      It’s always seemed to me to be one of those things that aren’t as true as people think it is.

  5. Anonypal*

    What if you haven’t achieved anything due to bureaucracy and baloney and a lack of results your office in general (which is why you’re leaving, and why turnover has been over 60% for the last 18 months, because no one in your office can achieve anything due to politics/management is ). How can you talk about efforts without not seeming results oriented and not trashing the employer?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Think about why someone really should hire you over other similarly qualified candidates. Whatever the answer is, that’s what you want to find a way to convey.

      1. Dan*

        The way I tend to look at it is actually making a more realistic assessment of what my competition looks like. It’s not something you can do for your first job, but once you’ve been in the work force a bit, you start to see who your “competitors” typically are.

        I’m not sure I stick out all that much compared to “similarly qualified candidates” because we’re, um, similarly qualified. But if I look at the median applicant, I know when and where my collective skills blow them out of the water.

        Oh, and the reality is that many times you won’t stick out over the competition. The moral of the story is stick to the jobs where you do.

        1. NickelandDime*

          “Oh, and the reality is that many times you won’t stick out over the competition. The moral of the story is stick to the jobs where you do.”

          This. It’s just the truth and many times people don’t want to accept it. This is why I tend to stick to jobs where it fits me perfectly or is only a slight reach. It seems like a waste of time applying to jobs and if the hiring manager just cherry picked this and that from my resume, I would be perfect. No, I’m not. And hiring managers aren’t going to do that.

          1. Stranger than fiction*

            I don’t agree (respectfully) . I’ve seen many a time where the job ad lists a long list of requirements but in the end theyre not necessarily looking for every single trait on the list but hire the candidate who they “gel” with and has most the requirements but not all. Myself and several people I know have gotten jobs we thought were long shots.

            1. Artemesia*

              I hired maybe a dozen people over a few years for a type of job where the job description for political reasons internally was somewhat vague and the things we really really wanted and looked for were buried in a laundry list of qualifications we were looking for. But we only seriously considered people who had 2 or 3 of those qualifications. Some of the others were nice to have, but we really wanted A B and C.

    2. AE*

      Perhaps a better move would be to take an interim job, or even a temp job, where you can demonstrate those things you want to do. Even a volunteer “job” is better than unsupported claims.

      1. Anonypal*

        You are spot on with the volunteer suggestion. I actually already got out of this situation earlier this year, and I did bolster my resume with volunteer work. But I was still curious about the best way to describe my then-fulltime job based on this post.

  6. Nanc*

    “If so, remove it! Remove it all!”

    In my defense, I’ve had no coffee but when I read that I flashed on an old Girl Scout Camp song:
    I stuck my head in a little skunk’s hole
    and the little skunk said, “well, bless my soul! Take it out, take it out, remove it!”

    I also hate the self-starter thing. What does that mean? You have a remote control that starts up your brain? Give me an example!

    1. A Kate*

      I hate the “self-starter” thing too, but rather as a candidate. I’d say that about 3/4 of the job descriptions I’ve read lately list being a “motivated self-starter” or something along those lines in the qualification/skills/requirements section. You can’t blame applicants for emphasizing that when their overall sense from employers is that this (super vague) trait is incredibly valuable to them.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Still, though, the better way to show that is to, well, show it — by showing evidence of it in your accomplishments, not just by announcing that you have it.

        1. Artemesia*

          Exactly, you can have ‘taken the intiative to build a model of the boss from legos’ or whatever it was that you did that shows you are a self starter.

          1. Temporary Name*

            I actually have designed work related lego models. My employers put them on their web site.

      2. TootsNYC*

        That’s what they want you to be (motivated self-starter)–so you need to give them EVIDENCE that you are a self-starter, not just parrot their terminology back at them.

        Think, “what have I done, do I do, that would prove that I don’t need my boss to come tell me what to do, that I figure it out and get going all on my own? That I strive to be good at my job without anybody nudging me?
        “And how can I tell that story in a SHORT way?”

        And you then put that in your cover letter.

        And you say, “I created routines and documentations on my own–I’ll list that on my resumé.”

        It’s about what you DO and DID, not about what you ARE or how you FEEL.

    2. Gandalf the Nude*

      Well, I didn’t take it out, and the little skunk said,
      “If you don’t take it out, you’ll wish you were dead!

      I also appreciate the flash back. :)

      1. Persephone Mulberry*

        Thanks – I knew there was a second verse but it wouldn’t come to me.

        “I remooooooved it…”

  7. Amber Rose*

    I had a lot of that for years because that was how I was taught in school.

    I removed it all after reading AAM. Now that I think about it, having those points is sort of embarassing. The #1 rule of writing: show, don’t tell. My resume made me look like the kind of character that the author insists is super smart and amazing, but never does anything particularly remarkable.

    1. Kelly*

      Same! Except instead of it being school it was the resume writing book my Mom gifted me when I first entered the job market. It’s now being put to good use propping up my futon.

  8. Bea W*

    “Visionary leader” made me cringe. I’ve seen that on job postings where it also makes me cringe. If I see this on a resume I think “Full of crap”.

    1. Stranger than fiction*

      Not only that, but those sorts of proclamations shouldn’t be used if you don’t even know if that’s what they’re looking for. Maybe they don’t want someone who’s going to try and change things up.

    2. Dan*

      I’m not a visionary leader, just a visionary. So much easier when you don’t have to manage people’s work load, and can just sit and dream all day.

      1. AE*

        I consistently pass the eye exam at the Motor Vehicle Department, and I’m always first to hit the gas when the light turns red.

      2. Jesse*

        That’s totally my dream job — but the only time I’ve ever heard about it as an actual job was at Lehman Brothers, a few months before they went under.

    1. Switched-on Proactive Go-getter*

      I’m not a hirer but I play a variant bingo when I’m reading job ads.

    2. Dan*

      I do the same with job postings.

      Did you include a paragraph of absolutely useless company boiler plate telling me nothing about the products you sell, the services you provide, and how I’d fit into that?

      1. F.*

        I’m amazed at the number of applicants who don’t bother to look our company up on the internet to find out what we do. They then tell me their experience in a medical or law office makes them a “perfect fit” for our company. We do construction consulting. I can see why companies do include that “useless boilerplate”, as you put it. I’d rather let the lazy ones self-select themselves out of the process.

    3. Book Person*

      Hah! I start counting the words until the first typo / comma splice / dangling modifier the moment someone tells me about their superlative writing skills. (Unless I’m hiring a copy editor, those don’t ordinarily matter too much to me, but I expect applicants to back up their claims!)

  9. Anyonymous*

    I have good customer service skills. Customers have told me that. But I’ve never won any awards and there’s no way to track how my skills have impacted sales when working in a retail environment because all employees are lumped in together. So I don’t really know how to show achievement with those skills. The reason someone should hire me instead of somebody else is because I willingly internalize customers’ bad attitudes and rudeness and do t let it outwardly affect me like some people I’ve worked with, but that’s not something I can put in a resume and again, it’s just a self-assessment.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      “Lauded for remaining calm and compassionate with especially difficult customers and for finding fast resolutions to challenging customer complaints” (or something)

        1. Cordelia Naismith*

          Why not? If it really bothers you, change it to something like “Received positive verbal feedback from customers for finding fast resolutions to challenging customer complaints.” I like “lauded” better, though; it’s cleaner and simpler.

      1. Nashira*

        This gives me an idea for explaining how I did that, except our customers were also our coworkers and the office as a whole was pretty growly. Gotta love being on a contract in a government office. Thank you for the demonstration!

  10. super anon*

    I’ve never included “excellent written communication skills” on a resume or cover letter (even when it’s included in the job posting), because I believe that my writing ability will be evident in how the writing in my cover letter is. I’ve included concrete examples of times my written communication was used, such as: “created and authored _______ that improved student yield by 25% for the ____session”, but that’s about it. If a job was more focused on writing they ask for writing samples anyway, so it seemed extra redundant to include it. Glad to see I got something right in my job searches!

    1. Dan*

      I’ve never done any written work for my company, it’s mostly been software development or other analytic stuff. My boss wants me to do a deliverable, and asked, “How’s your writing skills?”

      My response was “hell if I know, do you read my emails?” “Yeah, they’re good.” So there’s your answer ;)

  11. Viva L*

    I get the theory behind this advice, but the job descriptions themselves have “we’re looking for X personality quality” in them, so I feel like it’s helpful to hit at least a few of them in your “Elevator Speech” section.
    Also… what if you don’t have work accomplishments that show X quality? I have lots of skills that I don’t use in my work that might qualify me for another position. How do I communicate that to a potential employer?

    In the role I have now it’s very very siloed – there’s simply not things I can do to demonstrate my skills (hence the reason I’m looking to get out of it). But given that it’s such a tiny role, I’ve done quite a bit work-wise that shows my potential, but sometimes, there are some skills, I simply haven’t been able to demonstrate. I cant exactly put “Consistently knows more than the corporate trainer about Excel and other applications” on a resume and I don’t use it in my day-to-day work. Bad example as that’s a hard skill, but… I also don’t have any accomplishments that show “Consistently knows the ins and outs of how to GSD and avoids bureaucracy at every turn!” but it’s one of the most highly valued skills that I have at my current job (and reviews are a joke here, so that’s not an option for me).

    Sorry, I think this came out more negative than I intended, I think I’m just in a frustrating position at the moment. How do others handle this sort of thing?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      But the point is that just announcing that you possess those things isn’t compelling or credible. What I want is for people to understand how to reframe it in a way that WILL be credible. Throwing in a bunch of buzzwords isn’t.

      If you don’t have work accomplishments that demonstrate a particular skill/trait, you’ve got to point to something else that demonstrates it — maybe from volunteer work or even your personal life (like the candidate I’ve mentioned here before who mentioned that her friends teased her about her obsessive organization because she color-coded her closet and used a spreadsheet to organize her CDs). But if you can’t point to any evidence of it, an employer isn’t going to be convinced that you have it just because you say you do.

      1. AE*

        Exactly. Announcing that you are great at something only shows an employer that you are good at bragging.

  12. M M*

    How about language fluency levels, especially is the job listing requires that skill? The hiring manager won’t able to assess that from a resume, but the applicant will want to (truthfully) show their skill level on a resume.

  13. Green*

    Two twists:
    (1) What if it’s in the cover letter instead? and
    (2) What if it’s based on someone else’s assessment (i.e., referring to recent feedback or reviews)?

  14. Eva*

    I’m a little late here, but I’m hoping that someone might have some comments to help me. A lot of job ads for new-grads list a bunch of soft skills as requirements for the job (in lieu of valid experience), such as excellent verbal and written communication, ability to work in a team, self-starter… etc.

    I worry that if I don’t explicitly state that I have those skills, and only try to show them through my previous work experience, then a hiring manager might not actually make the connections between my experience and my skills. Whereas another applicant who says “I have great communication skills and I work really well in a team” might appeal more since they have spelled out to the hiring manager that they have the skills they are looking for.

    I’m sure that there are great hiring managers out there, but I have always followed the rule of KISS = “keep it simple stupid.” I.e. there must be also be hiring managers out there who can’t make those connections and need it spelled out to them.

    Or, is there a way to spell it out to them while also demonstrating that the skills come from past work experience? E.g. “verbal communication skills developed through many years in customer service roles”

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I’ve literally never heard a hiring manager say, “Oh, she says she has great communication skills — let’s bring her in!” But I hear a lot of “Oh, look at this great (communications-related accomplishment) — let’s bring her in!”

      Hiring managers, in general, totally dismiss it when people announce they have great communication skills, initiative, etc. First, sooooo many people say them as basic resume boilerplate that they’ve lost all meaning, and second, few of us trust that someone has a trait just because they declare that they do.

      1. Eva*

        Thank you – it’s great that you are able to give us perspective from other hiring managers that you have worked with! I’ll try to come up with better ways to show off my skills :)

    2. Kelly*

      I’ve been struggling with this sort of thing too and I’ve been trying, in my cover letters at least, to find ways I’ve demonstrated these qualities during my work in school. If you had the chance to do any group projects during school or school related projects where you got into those things at all you can try to bring that up.

      Although, yes, you absolutely can list your customer service experience as a demonstration of your communication skills, but I think if you can try to frame it a little more specifically than just, “verbal communication skills developed through many years in customer service roles.” Did you build up a good reputation with managers and coworkers for excelling in communicating with customers? That can be a more useful way to frame it. “In my role at Teapots R’ Us I was consistently praised by management for my ability to diffuse tense customer interactions and to articulate store policies in ways everyone can understand.”

      1. Eva*

        Thanks Kelly. I find it tough to show how my skills are transferrable, but I will think about ways to show them through achievements at work, as you suggested.

  15. Scott M*

    What if you just come to work and do your job? You don’t have any grand achievements. You didn’t save your company tons of money, or implement some amazingly new efficient process.

    Your achievements may be that you did what was asked of you, you were reliable enough to keep your job and get regular merit increases in your salary, and your boss was generally happy with your performance. How do you measure that?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Can you focus on the reliability element of it — consistently meeting deadlines, reliably hitting X type of targets, regularly praised for Y, that kind of thing?

  16. KaraB*

    I think a lot of candidates believe these statements are a good idea on a resume because job postings keep asking for them, and the candidates believe they’ll be a stronger match with keywords if they include the statements. Maybe if employers would stop asking for these vague, generic, subjective traits, candidates would stop including them on their resume.

    I totally get your point, I just wanted to play devil’s advocate. I do resume reviews for friends and acquaintances, and have said over and over for people to stop including these types of unverifiable statements. So, I agree – they’re useless and subjective…but they’re also giving the employers what they’re asking for by including them.

    1. Artemesia*

      Perhaps a way to split the difference is to discuss communication skills for example in your cover letter linking them specifically to some written and oral communication triumphs; you use the buzz word but only to introduce the examples?

  17. Spice this time*

    Thank you for this post. Perfect timing! I am updating my resume this weekend and going to start looking for a new job.

  18. Book Person*

    Thank you for this! The soft skills claims become very repetitive when reading stacks of resumes. My personal favourite was from an applicant who wrote a lengthy sentence lauding her copy editing skills and attention to detail… and then spelled the name of our company incorrectly. If a cover letter is written well and edited impeccably, I’ll notice!

  19. Amanda*

    How would you advise writing a professional summary (who/what/how) without any feathering of subjective claims? Tell us please! :)

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