Job Applicant Pitfalls

Joseph Barber provides advice for avoiding them in your CV, résumé or interview answers.

November 23, 2015

Unless you are a zoologist or a posterior anatomist, the word “asses” is not a word that you would generally want to use in your CV, résumé or cover letter. I am a zoologist, but I still haven’t found a good excuse to use this. I do talk about chickens a lot (an awful lot), but fortunately my research focused on laying hens, and so I never had to talk about the male birds.

Most people who talk about asses in their application materials probably don’t want to. Chances are that they actually wanted to say “assess” -- that extra “s” makes all the difference. To be honest, I have only seen this four or five times in the many different types of application materials I have reviewed at the University of Pennsylvania, but every time I see it, I really see it. This mistake doesn’t slip by unnoticed. And if I were an employer wanting to make sure that my future hire has demonstrated attention to detail, or a high motivation for the position (as evidenced by taking a lot of care about their materials), then this might be one of those arbitrary mistakes that I could use to take well-qualified candidates out of the running to get down to a manageable short list of similarly qualified candidates who don’t mistakenly talk about asses.

Microsoft Word is pretty good at picking up on these types of errors, but common ones to look out for as you are doing your final proofreading would be “discus” instead of “discuss,” “is” instead of “it” (or vice versa) and “form” instead of “from” (or vice versa). The more you read your documents -- draft after endless draft -- the more your brain remembers what you are trying to say and the less it bothers to check to see if that is what you actually said. You get a form of spell-check blindness. Solution: get other people to review your materials and offer to review theirs in return.

Publications and Presentations

CVs are great places to list publications, presentations, conference abstracts and other such evidence of scholarly productivity and communication skills. Most Ph.D. students and postdocs can list their complete lists of publications and presentations in their document. But even in CVs, these lists can sometimes become unmanageable, and you can shorten them by making the section header “Selected Presentations.” One way not to lose out on the opportunity to highlight your productivity when only listing selected publications and presentations is to include something like this as part of the title: “Selected Conference Abstracts (out of 33).”

In a résumé, a list of publications, even selected ones, might not be the best way to highlight your relevant skills. You can talk about them as outcomes of your other skills (e.g., “collaborated with a multidisciplinary team of physicians, clinicians and bioengineers, resulting in three publications”), or as a communication skill (e.g., “Published three first-author publications, and presented research to diverse audiences at three national and five international conferences”).

What Is Your Greatest Strength?

If anyone asks you about your greatest strength in an interview, take a moment to breathe before answering so that you will remember to stop yourself from saying, “Um … I think my greatest strength is ….” Nothing detracts from your greatest strength like the phrase “Um … I think ….” Try this instead: “My greatest strength is ….” or “In the context of this position, my greatest strength is ….”

Also, how convinced are you by the following answer, which is similar to many I hear in the mock interviews I run at Penn?

“My greatest strength is my communication skills. I’ve always been able to take complicated subjects and make them easy to understand for different audiences. So, yes, definitely communication skills.”

Not very convinced, right? What would make it more convincing? Correct -- an example! If this is actually your greatest strength (or the greatest strength you have relevant to the position you are interviewing for), then you should have plenty of examples that you can choose from to illustrate your strength in action. Your goal is to paint a clear picture in the mind of your interviewer so that they can envision you using this skill. You want to make your experiences come alive so employers can also imagine you doing the job they want to fill.

What Is Your Greatest Weakness?

If someone asks you what your greatest weakness is in an interview, then please just give them one, not three. If I pair the greatest strength and greatest weakness question together in a mock interview, then I usually get the “Um … I think ….” response to the strength question and something like this for the answer to the weakness question:

[Awkward laugh] “Well, one of my weaknesses ….”

Followed by: “And, also, I am not very good at ….”

Which in some cases leads to: “And then I don’t have ….”

People seem to be much more comfortable offering up very specific details about their many, many weaknesses. Even if people just talk about one, the commonly used phrase “one of my weaknesses” leaves me wondering how many you have in total. You want to spend as little time as possible talking about weaknesses. If you are struggling to answer this type of question, get some ideas for framing an appropriate response here.

Responsibilities Include

I commonly find this type of statement in résumés but have seen it in a few CVs, too. Whenever I read it in a résumé or CV, my brain likes to add on its own interpretation. You might write:

“Responsibilities included managing team projects, writing monthly reports, overseeing selection committee for 10 interns each year.”

That sounds pretty good until my brains adds: “…but I just sat in the corner and read my book.”

In other words, saying that you had responsibilities doesn’t actually demonstrate that you successfully fulfilled those responsibilities using some of the great skills you have, and leading to some of the tangible outcomes that resulted. If those responsibilities are important to the reader, and if you actually fulfilled them, then consider making separate bullets for each one. For example:

“Managed a team of three project coordinators on field assignments, successfully keeping over 15 separate projects running smoothly and completing them by project deadlines.”

“Summarized project results on a monthly basis, writing one-page briefs and 50-page board reports that were shared with executive committee members and used for communication with media outlets.”

Taught, Worked, Participated and Assisted

I call words that could describe a broad range of experiences “umbrella words.” They have the ability to trigger a memory in the writer’s mind, because they are shorthand for a much bigger set of memories. To the reader who doesn’t know the writer, and who lacks a shared context for the experience, these umbrella words are not very helpful. Here’s an example:

“Worked on a project and assisted with all phases of the research as part of a team.”

I can’t really imagine what skills the words “worked” and “assisted” represent in this case. I can’t picture anything the reader hasn’t specifically written. Even in the “Teaching Experience” section of an academic CV, just stating that you “taught a class” can miss out on useful and interesting information.

Yes, the readers will know what teaching involves in the broadest sense, but would it be helpful to reveal whether you taught majors or nonmajors, graduate students or undergrads? Would talking about your large class experience make you a better fit for the university to which you are applying? Would it be good to demonstrate your diverse teaching experiences by talking about the different ways you have taught: lectures, discussions, online, using real-world problems and so on?

Especially in résumés where specific skills relevant to the jobs you are seeking are more valuable than broad, ill-defined skills, try to avoid umbrella words. Instead, talk about the different aspects of the experiences. You might have to engage in a little verbal origami to put the emphasis on the skills relevant to the reader, but this is a useful exercise and will demonstrate to the reader that you know how your experiences match what he or she is looking for.

This brief discussion of asses, publications, strengths, weaknesses, responsibilities and umbrellas can help you refine your application and interviewing approaches. Small improvements can make a big difference when many similarly qualified candidates are applying for the types of positions that interest you.


Joseph Barber is associate director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania.


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