Your Resume, American Style

A resume is a lot like a CV, or so many people believe. Both are supposed to give employers a clear picture of your education, qualifications, and job history. But there’s a big difference between the two documents. 

A CV is normally written according to a strict formula: biographical information + dates + places + your job responsibilities + your skills, educational background, and qualifications. Gaps between jobs must be explained and justified. Your employment history needs to be squeaky-clean, or else! 

The CV model may have been appropriate in the past when most people worked full-time, often staying in one job for many years—but times have changed. The modern resume is a reflection of that change. Full-time jobs with benefits are less plentiful than they used to be. More and more people are working as freelancers or consultants. A recent article in Forbes magazine estimates that freelance workers now make up 35% of the U.S. workforce. 

A Different Animal 

A resume is a marketing document—an advertisement for yourself. It’s an altogether different animal from a CV. You decide what you want employers or clients to know about you. It’s fine to omit parts of your history while emphasizing other parts. For example, if you’re applying for a tech job, you don’t need to mention that you edited a community newsletter right after college. And if you’re seeking a job in the financial services sector, the hiring manager may not care that you taught kindergarten 10 years ago. 

“But my past is my past! Everything I’ve done is part of who I am,” you might object. I agree, but we’re not talking here about what to tell a friend, a romantic partner, or a psychotherapist. You owe your future employer the truth—but not necessarily the whole truth! 

Put yourself in their shoes: What do they need to know? What matters to them? Why should they consider hiring you? 

Step number-one in creating a resume is to list everything you’ve ever done. Then, start paring that list down. Aim for a streamlined version of your history that matches up with the job or project you’re applying for. Be sure to include: 

- Relevant professional experience
- Volunteer work
- Your educational background
- Your professional accomplishments
- Special honors, memberships, and affiliations (if any)
- Noteworthy skills (e.g. foreign languages, specialized software)
- Interests 

Some jobs don’t require much description. If you worked as an au pair for an American family, the term au pair says it all, unless you performed additional duties for your host family, such as bookkeeping, travel arrangements, or party planning. The same advice applies if you worked as a lifeguard. 

Your responsibilities and professional achievements have probably grown more substantial as you’ve matured. Communicate your most impressive ones by using bullet points that start with action verbs. Use the past tense, unless you’re still working for the employer. You can find excellent lists of action verbs online. Here’s just one. And here are a few examples showing how to use them: 

- Managed national customer database.
- Edited web-based publications that reached millions of prospective consumers.
- Raised $2.5 million in grants and donations.
- Coordinated daily operations for a mid-sized insurance company. 

Don’t short-change yourself by skimping on these bulleted items. Conversely, don’t exaggerate what you’ve done. Try to find a midway point between too much and not enough. 

A New Mindset 

This semester, I’ve been teaching Business Writing to ESL learners at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC). In addition to work-related email and other types of business correspondence, we’ve been focusing on writing resumes and cover letters. The American resume remains difficult and even anxiety-producing for many of my students. 

In cultures ranging from Asia to Latin America, Eastern Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, bragging is frowned upon. No one would dare to boast about his or her talents and achievements in a CV. 

But let me remind you that a resume isn’t a CV. It’s a marketing tool. If you don’t draw attention to your own skills, strengths, and accomplishments, no one in a position to hire you will know about them. A clear, well-written resume that presents you in the best possible light will give you an advantage in the job market. Not having one will lower your chances of success. 

Most of my students err on the side of underselling themselves. However, after two months of practice, they’ve gotten more comfortable with the process. And they’ve started thinking about themselves differently, too. The American resume now seems less like bragging and more like powerful communication. 

Interestingly, one or two of my students make the mistake of overselling themselves. They get carried away with the idea that they need to make every little thing they’ve ever done sound huge, fabulous, and momentous! 

In my view, it’s easier to cool an overheated resume than to heat up a boring, tepid one. 

So if you’re updating your resume or creating one for the first time, err on the side of overstating what you have to offer. Then, trim the fat! Show your draft to a few trusted friends, and get their best advice. Even better, get in touch with an English tutor who doubles as an editor… someone like me!


For a complimentary phone consultation to discuss your needs, please call me at 646-262-6060 or send an email inquiry to margaret@olympic-esl.com.

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