How to write powerful accomplishments in your CV

In a competitive employment situation, the accomplishments in your CV can make or break your application. So select the accomplishments you write about with care and make them as powerful as possible by telling the reader how you achieved your results, and not just the fact that you achieved results. The former will immeasurably strengthen your accomplishments, whereas a statement of your results alone can easily come across as bragging.

Consider these three different ways of wording a bullet about the same accomplishment:

  • Transferred to the Dunedin branch and restored its profitability
  • Seconded to the Dunedin branch, restructured the branch and restored its profitability
  • Seconded to the Dunedin branch, introduced cross-training of 17 staff, reduced staffing hours by 9%, implemented profit-centre accounting and culled unprofitable lines except for loss-leaders, the combination of which resulted in a restoration of the branch’s profitability

The first bullet can sound like an empty boast. The second bullet implies that the applicant restored the branch’s profitability by restructuring it, but the word “restructuring” can cover a multitude of things so it doesn’t really tell us much. By contrast, the third bullet spells out 4 different projects and, what’s more, it doesn’t even claim that the applicant restored the branch’s profitability. It lays that at the door of the projects themselves.

A lot of recruiters loathe bragging, especially in a relatively egalitarian country like New Zealand, so the less you boast, the better. In the CVs I write, I don’t even use the word “accomplishment”. If I’m going to set off a section of the CV to list accomplishments, I’ll generally call it “Key contributions” (which focuses on what the applicant brought to the organisation, rather than on the applicant themselves).

In addition to killing off boasting, if you spell out the steps you took to get results, it will tell the recruiter about your specific abilities, and how you use these abilities to achieve results. Spelling out these steps is halfway toward the kind of answer that’s expected in behavioural interviews, which are not only used by government and not-for-profit recruiters, but have been increasingly picked up by recruiters in corporates and smaller businesses.

If you haven’t come across a behavioural-interview question before, here’s an example: “Describe a work situation that involved conflict between staff members. What did you do to try and resolve it? And what was the outcome?”.

Behavioural interviews tease out a lot of detail about your abilities — too much detail to include in a CV — but thinking through your accomplishments as if you were being asked behavioural-interview questions can be helpful in figuring out how to describe them.

Just as important as how you describe them is deciding what accomplishments to write about in the first place, which is not always as easy as it sounds.

All too often, applicants make serious errors in their selection. One source of error is including an accomplishment that doesn’t deliver enough bang for its buck — or even has a negative impact. For example, it might involve reaching a milestone that virtually everyone who occupies the same role — or a similar role with a similar level of experience — reached years ago. It’s good that the applicant has finally caught up, but making a meal of such an achievement is just damning oneself with faint praise.

Another source of error is the exact opposite — failing to recognise an accomplishment because the applicant assumes that virtually everyone who occupies a similar role can be expected to have achieved the same thing, when they quite patently haven’t.

The only way to avoid these errors is to step back and take an overview of your performance by comparison with that of your peers. If you’re not in a position to take a bird’s eye view of your performance yourself, your best option is to network with those who occupy similar roles, talk with HR specialists, or work with a CV consultant who has the relevant knowledge and experience.

However you go about it, make sure you present the recruiter with a powerful, coherent skills package that signs off on the key abilities the recruiter is seeking — and does so without blowing your own trumpet.

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