by Katharine Hansen
Has this ever happened to you? You've been instructed to list your career accomplishments, and you can't think of any. Or you're asked in a job interview, "What accomplishments are you most proud of?" -- and you freeze up. You know you have had accomplishments, but you just can't dredge them up.
The inability to come up with accomplishments happens to lots of job seekers. We know because we ask our resume and cover-letter clients to list accomplishments as part of the process of preparing their job-search documents. Although we stress that accomplishments are far more important than duties and responsibilities, a surprising number of clients are unable to articulate beyond the day-to-day tasks they performed in their jobs.
Accomplishments are the points that really help sell you to an employer -- much more so than everyday job duties, and you can leverage your accomplishments for job-search success at all stages of the process: resume, cover letter, interview, and more. Career counselor Michelle Watson notes that "employers are seeking success stories." In the Q&A interview she did with Quintessential Careers, Watson observed that "resumes are now focusing not only on 'regular' job descriptions, but also include concrete, measurable accomplishments. Physical portfolios, long thought of as tools for artists, will become commonplace as candidates strive to show their talents, not just talk about them."
Echoing that sentiment, resume writer JoAnn Nix recently gave this advice in an interview on the Guru.com Web site: "A resume should be accomplishment-oriented, not responsibility-driven. The biggest mistake that I see in the resumes people send me is that they list responsibilities. That doesn't grab anybody's attention. People aren't interested in your responsibilities. They already know the general responsibilities of a position so they don't want to know what you do from day to day. They want to know that you're a mover and a shaker: How you contribute to the organization, how you show initiative, that you can be a key player. That's what they want to see."
And if you don't believe resume writers and career counselors, take it from a hiring manager. On the HR.com Web site, KPMG Principal Mary Anne Davidson recently observed, "Candidates write about what their positions entailed and not what they actually did. So they tell us their job was to do XYZ. I know what controllers do. I know what recruiters do. I need to know what accomplishments you made in your role. This makes you different than another candidate.
"In less than two sentences," Davidson continues, "I want to know the scope of your responsibilities, size of budget, geographic territory, number of team members you led or were a part of, product lines, and reporting relationship relevant to each of your roles in the last eight years."
To a great extent, if a job activity cannot be portrayed as an accomplishment, it may not be worthy of mention in your resume, cover letter, or in an interview.
OK. You're convinced. An awareness of the importance of accomplishments does no good, however, if you haven't been keeping track of all your wonderful achievements. So, Lesson One: The minute you start a new job, start keeping track of your accomplishments. Keep a log in a little notebook, or on index cards, in a computer database, on a little tape recorder, or on your palm device.
But what about all the jobs that have gone by in which you haven't recorded your accomplishments? Lesson Two: Use the following prompts to brainstorm all those terrific things you did. Try to list some accomplishments that set you apart from other job candidates.
Susan Britton Whitcomb, author of Resume Magic, one of the most highly recommended resume books on the market, calls accomplishments "the linchpin of a great resume." Her chapter on accomplishments is one of the best sources for getting your accomplishments juices flowing. Here are some of her suggestions:
What if you're a college student with little or no job experience from which to cull accomplishments? Don't miss this page of our Cover Letter Tutorial, which offers lots of ideas for making the most of your college accomplishments.
Finally, a word of caution: Resist the temptation to blow your accomplishments out of proportion. Accomplishments should be measurable whenever possible and always verifiable. Don't risk having a prospective employer call a former supervisor and ask, "Did she really save the company from bankruptcy?" and have your ex-boss say, "Huh?"
Need help brainstorming your accomplishments? Use our Accomplishments Worksheet.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker's Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.
Katharine Hansen, Credentialed Career Master, is a former speechwriter and college instructor who provides content for Quintessential Careers, edits QuintZine, an electronic newsletter for job-seekers, and prepares job-search correspondence as chief writer for Quintessential Resumes and Cover Letters. She is author of Dynamic Cover Letter for New Graduates; A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market; and, with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters and Write Your Way to a Higher GPA, all published by Ten Speed Press. She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.