Writing for Business Series #1: Active Voice & Strong Action Verbs for Résumés

By Vanessa Palencia

According to GlassDoor.com, San José is considered the top city in the United States for job seekers to obtain a job. With over 60,000 job openings and an estimated 1 million people residing in San Jose, the competition is tough. A higher education and a good level of expertise is often needed even to land a starting position. However, before you can prove how well you perform in a given field, you must demonstrate your written communication skills via résumés and cover letters.

Many people create wonderfully formatted résumés and list top-of-the-line job and internship experiences, but they forget to use strong action verbs along with the active voice to highlight the importance of the task at hand. This small mistake can ruin their eligibility for the position they are applying for.

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Yes, really! That’s just one reason why it is crucial to choose your words carefully. Your word choice can make or break your chance at landing the interview you want. Let’s look at a few examples:

What are action verbs?

Say you were working at a McDonald’s, and you wanted to write down your assigned tasks to demonstrate the skills you obtained to your future employer. You might end up listing your responsibilities like in the example below:

McDonald’s

Crew Member

  • worked at the cash register
  • made burgers and fries
  • talked to customers
  • cleaned tables

However, the hiring manager looking at your résumé may end up throwing your application away after viewing a job listing like this. Why? Because your job doesn’t seem like anything out of the ordinary. There are other applicants who might sound more interesting and experienced. For this reason, strong action verbs make you stand out. Strong action verbs allow you to be more precise and direct about your position and contribution at your previous job. Note the difference between the following list and the previous one.

McDonald’s

Crew Member

  • Operated the cash register
  • Assisted with food production
  • Developed relationships with customers
  • Maintained the eating area

The second McDonald’s job listing is much more precise and well thought out. Not only does your employer notice the precision in which you completed your job, but they also notice how well you communicate in writing. By using stronger action verbs, you allow yourself to be seen in a more experienced light. It’s crazy how something so complicated can be so simple, right?

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However, it’s also just as important to make use of the active voice when writing your résumé or cover letter.

What is active voice?

Active voice is when you write sentences using the subject first and the verb second, making the message as clear as possible to the reader. When we read, we expect to see the subject doing the action denoted by the verb. For example, “Sally ate pumpkin pie.” If we do not have the subject acting on the verb, then the message won’t be delivered as clearly as it could be. For example, “The pumpkin pie was eaten by Sally.” Now, let’s apply this same principle to your résumé. For some of you, an “objective” will be written at the top of your résumé.* This area is where you will state to your future employer the job position you are looking for. It’s important that you state this goal clearly. It will also be another opportunity to demonstrate your written communication skills before you land the interview and demonstrate your verbal communication skills.

Let’s see what a difference it makes when we use an active voice and a non-active (also known as passive) voice in our résumé.

Objective: The technical, analytical, and project management skills I have learned from McDonald’s can prove to be useful to the company in a technical marketing intern position.

This objective, while self-explanatory, forces the reader to put two and two together. However, the average résumé isn’t reviewed for more than a minute, which means it is important for the hiring manager to understand what was written. Compare the following entry to the previous entry.

Objective: I am seeking a full-time position as a technical marketing intern at Intel where I can benefit the company by contributing my technical, analytical, and project management skills.

The second objective is much clearer to the reader. We have a subject, “I,” and a verb, “am seeking.” Thus, the reader heads into the sentence knowing that you are looking for a job. Furthermore, the second part of the sentence clearly states what type of position you are looking for, which is something that the first objective does not state.

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Making these small changes to your résumé and/or cover letter can improve your chances of getting noticed and getting an interview drastically. By employing both the active voice and strong action verbs, you will be able to showcase your written communication skills—a vital skill for almost any job position. Not too difficult, right? With practice, creating a strong résumé will be a walk in the park. Now if we can just create the perfect cover letter.

Watch for our next post about how to write a cover letter!

For more info on what you learned today, visit http://www.sjsu.edu/writingcenter/handouts/index.html

*Note: This standard is changing as many career advisors today say that you shouldn’t include one at all, depending on your experience and field.

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