The Objective Brag: Showing resume strength and confidence without sounding cocky
The voice on the other end of the call belonged to a recent college graduate who came to Executive Drafts to boost his resume before he departed into the real world. Despite his age, this client already had five years of experience performing front- and back-end development on a variety of webpages and mobile applications. You wouldn’t know it looking at his original resume, though.
He represents a common concern. Plenty of professionals, from the entry level to the executive, struggle to describe their strengths and achievements on their resume without coming across overly-confident. The fear of being perceived as arrogant pushes these job seekers to write their resumes in a style that merely lists their accomplishments without providing the details and context that prove why they would be a strong candidate for the position for which they’re applying.
The irony is that, in an attempt to be modest, the people who obscure the details of their achievements end up making their own fears come true: recruiters see them as arrogant. Without data to back them up, their skills and experience end up reading more like a laundry list of humblebrags than a resume.
The humblebrag, for those unfamiliar, was coined by the late-great Harris Wittels and means to congratulate oneself under the guise of self-deprecation. Humblebrags most frequently accompany selfies posted on social media by people with exceptional physiques but insist that they “never work out and eat like crap.” We can only hope that no one has ever included such an egregious humblebrag on a resume. Nevertheless, recruiters receive resumes every day in which candidates sheepishly state their achievements instead of confidently standing by the work they did.
What we need is a way to talk about our professional contributions without sounding too cocky or too timid. I like “the objectivebrag.” The objectivebrag, as I’ve just decided to call it, is a sister-phrase to the humblebrag.
Humblebrags are based on insecurity and false modesty, which makes them great for comedy but useless anywhere else. Objectivebrags are based on real experience and hard data, which makes them extremely powerful when used correctly on a resume. Describing a goal you achieved or a contribution you made to the company creates a narrative of your professional experience as opposed to a laundry list of soft skills and half-truths.
Take a look at these humblebrags that I’ve seen on resumes and pay attention to how I turn them into objectivebrags by including real data:
“Consistently reported highest sales numbers”
I’ve seen this humblebrag on several resumes from clients with sales backgrounds, and I find especially baffling because a resume is literally an opportunity to sell yourself and your experience. Why skimp on the details that set you apart from the pack? Let’s break this sentence down word-for-word and look at how we can make it stronger.
We’ll start with the ugly adverb up top. “Consistently.” Generally, we try to avoid adverbs in resumes because they serve as stand-ins for real data. If you look at your resume and see lots of adverbs, you need to ask yourself what each one meant in the context of your role. When I see the word “consistently” used in reference to a performance evaluation on one of my clients’ resumes, I ask them “how often were you evaluated?” and “for how long were you ranked in the top of your peers?” The answers to these two questions flesh out what the word “consistently” actually means and bring objective data to the situation.
Let’s look at “highest” now. Again, we’re hiding data behind an adjective. The phrase “highest sales” sounds impressive but there’s no substance. In cases like this, recruiters want to know exactly how many other employees you were in competition with. Otherwise, they’re free to assume that you produced the highest sales numbers out of two employees, which isn’t especially impressive. Simply including that this employee produced the highest numbers out of X employees changes this from an unverifiable claim to a real piece of data that will catch recruiters’ eyes.
Finally, “sales numbers.” This one almost feels too easy. Quantified results are the life force of any objectivebrag. Regardless of what field you work in, it will be worth your time and effort to check with your supervisors about how your success in that position has been measured. Including numbers on your resume makes it extremely easy for recruiters to see how you match up to other candidates; not including numbers on your resume makes it even easier for recruiters to move you to the bottom of the pile.
The objectivebrag equivalent of this sentence would read as follows: “Led a team of X employees in total units sold during quarterly sales evaluations, selling over Y units through a Z-year period.”
“Assisted in enhancing quality assurance tests.”
I pulled this one from a textile engineer’s resume. When I reviewed this client’s resume before speaking with him in our consultation call, I was prepared to remove this bullet from his Quality Assurance Engineer experience entry. As far as I’ve seen, engineers are especially prone to humblebragging on resumes because they often assume their work is too technical for the regular people to understand. To an extent, they may be right. Regular people won’t be reading their resumes, though. Recruiters with extensive technical backgrounds will read them, and they’ll want to nitty-gritty details.
I was excited to see that this sentence began with an active verb, but I was immediately disappointed to see that verb was “assisted.” Your resume should focus on you and your accomplishments. Even if your accomplishment contributed to a larger goal, you shouldn’t mitigate it verbs that suggest that you were only a sideline player.
“So what exactly did you do to help enhance quality assurance tests?” I asked him.
“It’s kinda hard to explain,” he replied.
“Don’t worry about being too technical,” I said. “I’m just going to write down exactly what you say.”
He proceeded to explain to me that while testing the elasticity of his company’s spandex-material, he noticed that the synthetic yarn coating the spandex had a different elasticity that the spandex itself. It occurred to him that they were performing quality assurance tests on two different materials instead of just one. This discovery led to the creation of a new quality assurance test that has since been implemented company-wide. That’s way more work than simply “assisted.”
The objectivebrag version of this sentence read like this: “Improved quality assurance testing process for spandex materials by identifying flaws in the original test.”
Simple enough, right?
“Increased productivity under tight deadlines.”
This is maybe the worst humblebrag I’ve ever seen on a resume, and, for the sake of complete transparency, I have to let you know that it comes from my own resume. (Long before my Executive Drafts days, obviously.) To be honest, I don’t know what I was thinking. There aren’t a lot of ways in which this sentence could come off in a positive light to recruiters. I’d be willing to bet that most of the recruiters that saw this sentence read it as “I’m going to wait until the last minute to do most of my work.”
As bad as it is, it’s not completely unsalvageable. Those of us in more creative work tend to think that our work is unquantifiable, which makes many of us (even myself in this instance) insufferable humblerbraggers. However, we can still pull data from our work to help us stand out to recruiters.
I had just received my degree in creative writing when I drafted this resume, and I was scrambling to pull together any scraps of relevant experience. For my college writing courses, I would have up to three weekly deadlines for projects ranging between 1,000 and 5,000 words. See what I just did there? I delivered quantified data for creative work.
If I were still going to include this experience on my resume today, I would phrase it like this: “Delivered up to three creative projects ranging between 1,000 and 5,000 words, in accordance with weekly deadlines.”
It really can be hard to define the line between cocky and confident on a resume. But when in doubt, don’t automatically oversimplify your experience. That’s a sure-fire way to come across as a humblebragger, or simply unimpressive. Instead, dig in to your experience. Ask yourself exactly what you contributed in your role and be specific in your answers. When it comes to resumes, objectivebrags just go further. And remember: it doesn’t really count as bragging if it’s true.