Opinion | I Have Read Thousands of Résumés, and I Have Some Advice


Here, résumé means summary or recapitulation. In loads of American newspapers, the word résumé appears in theater and book reviews well before it shows up in classifieds. So while this might be the first time someone deployed résumé to refer to a professional summary, it predates the evolution of the word into a stand-alone term.

I care less about French meanings and false cognates than about the word résumé in the United States’ distinctive usage. When describing the “Chiefly North American” use of résumé (most of the world prefers “CVs”), the Oxford English Dictionary points to The Hartford Courant on April 3, 1938. An ad for a “Casualty Claim Examiner” encourages candidates to “send complete résumé with snapshot.”

I found an even earlier example. In The New York Herald Tribune, on December 27, 1931, the “Executive Service Corporation” on East 42nd Street posted the following ad: “Acct & statistical exp.; bring written résumé.” It felt like finding the first sonnet written on a 15th-century bar napkin.

Popken argues in “A Theoretical Study of Indirect Speech Acts in Résumés” that the act of reading a résumé can entail “an aggressive manufacture of meanings beyond those assumed by the literal text.” Herein lies a clear linguistic challenge.

To the floor of my rag and bone shop fall all superfluous meanings and innuendo. I tell advisees to describe previous work in bullet points. Use only strong verbs: led, managed, created, built, sold, exceeded, presented, collaborated, implemented and succeeded. Do this even if you think different words better describe your achievements during these grueling years: endured, survived, marched, overcame, wept, fought, broke, failed, blundered, relapsed, loved. This will improve the impression that you make on the reader!

I didn’t know I would have this career. I don’t remember applying. Sure, résumés are one way to ply craft. To obsess over word counts, syllables and meanings.

But lately, I keep imagining myself as the protagonist in some maudlin campus novel. The protagonist works at an unnamed New England college. He spends his life in quiet service to future captains of finance, technology, medicine and law. He never rises above the rank of Associate Dean, da Vinci Center for Career Advancement. In the end, word spreads throughout LinkedIn that he lies on his deathbed, and his former students flock to campus for a tearful thank you, and one final revision.



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