How One Common Phrase Can Undermine Your Job Search

A seemingly harmless, inconsequential combination of words can really get in your way, argues Mike Firmand.

December 2, 2019
 
 
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In my work as a career coach for grad students, I read a lot of application materials. I read résumés. I read cover letters. I read statements of all kinds. I’m lucky that I get to be an audience for all of these stories that students tell about themselves and their work, and I always look forward to engaging with someone’s writing for the first time.

But I have a confession. No matter how many stories I read, no matter how many statements cross my desk, there’s a persistent and recurring phrase that completely turns me off to even the most compelling cover letter. A phrase that I have committed myself to highlight, circle, underline or cross out in every instance so that I can share this pet peeve with each student I see. A phrase that has become the bane of my very existence: “I had the opportunity to …”

What’s the problem?

Some may call this fixation unusual. (Many have.) Others say I am being overly obsessive or stubborn. (I am.) But I assure you, I have good reasons for my vendetta against this seemingly harmless, inconsequential combination of words. Simply put: it’s unnecessary, imprecise, passive and diminishing. They are words wasted when you have so few to spare, and they make it harder for you to convince a stranger of your ability to do great work in your application materials.

Here are the ways using “the opportunity to” hurts your writing.

It’s unnecessary. “I had the opportunity to serve as a teaching assistant for four sections of research methods.”

In most cases, the words just get in the way. Saying you had the opportunity to do something doesn’t technically mean you did it. If your reason for including the experience is simply to demonstrate you have done it, why not be direct? “I served as a teaching assistant,” or “I taught four sections of research methods” is a much clearer approach, and clear writing sounds confident. Deleting the phrase altogether is more straightforward and makes room to write other, more useful words.

It’s imprecise and passive. “I had the opportunity to volunteer at a local nonprofit.”

Beyond getting in the way, the phrase can hide what’s actually interesting about an experience. Many employers are eager to learn about activities beyond what is required in your academic work. Pursuing passion projects, applying your skills in new contexts and giving back to your community are great stories to tell in applications. The point you are trying to make is not that you merely had the chance to do those things, but rather that you actively sought them out. They were not passive opportunities you stumbled upon. They were active choices that demonstrate your initiative and commitment, so do not obscure your agency in making these decisions. “I sought out ways to positively impact my community through volunteer work at a local nonprofit” emphasizes the decision making that guided your actions.

It’s diminishing. “I had the opportunity to present my research at national conferences.”

Grad students are good at getting awards, honors and recognitions. Application materials are meant to be promotional. This seems like an easy match. Yet this phrase ends up undermining your ability to excel by devaluing how you earned your accolades. If you were specifically selected for opportunities that were not available to everyone, tell your reader exactly that! “I was one of five Ph.D. candidates in the country invited to present my research at a national conference” is appropriately celebratory and much more persuasive.

Questioning the Opportunity

As my awareness (and anxiety) around this expression grew, I set out to understand why it forms in the minds and on the pages of so many grad students. Each time I see “had the opportunity to” appear, I ask the student why they chose that phrase. In most cases, they used it without thinking about it or really meaning to. But when I start inquiring about the meaning in the message, I get answers that reveal a lot more is often happening behind the words.

Students tell me they include it because they are uncomfortable and unpracticed writing about themselves. Or they say they want to avoid sounding overconfident or cocky by not taking too much credit for experiences that, in their view, occurred via privilege or happenstance. Or they admit they lack conviction about their fit for the role. In practice, “the opportunity to” is an attempt to camouflage feelings of self-doubt without facing them head-on. In that way, it’s become a sort of catchphrase for the impostor phenomenon in the job search.

Beyond its negative psychological impact, this kind of excessive self-criticism can seriously hinder your job-seeking efforts. No matter the underlying reason, displays of hesitancy about your abilities or uneasiness about your fit, even at the subconscious level, are counterproductive. You need to eliminate passive, imprecise and diminishing language in your application materials. And here’s how you do it.

First, ask yourself some questions. Fortunately, one of the (many) strengths of graduate students is their ability to ask good questions. Questions meant to probe and poke holes in conventional wisdom. Questions that analyze and critique the soundness of the authors’ logic in every text. Start applying some of that penchant for scrutiny to your job applications. Each time you see your fingers involuntarily typing out a “had the opportunity to,” ask yourself:

  • What did I actually do in this experience?
  • Why did I want to write about it?
  • What did I want to convey about myself in this story?
  • What do I hope the reader learns about me by reading it?
  • Are my word choices reinforcing, emphasizing and strengthening the point I wanted to make?

After answering these questions you’ll have a clearer idea of what you want to say.

Next, use active, positive language that better explains your experience. And in the process of changing your language to something more confident, it may help to change your mind by alleviating some of that self-doubt hiding behind your words. You really did do that thing. You really were selected for that honor. And you probably are a really great fit for whatever you want to do next.

You’ll probably never be as obsessive as I am about it, but hopefully I’ve convinced you that there are good reasons to be mindful of the phrase. So ask yourself more questions, write with more conviction and take full advantage of the next time you have the opportunity to persuade an employer of your ability to do great work.

Bio

Mike Firmand is assistant director of employer outreach at the Graduate College of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing am international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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