Study: This is exactly how much you can brag on your resume before it backfires

Resumes and cover letters are often the first impression an employer has of you. In our effort to make the best impression possible, we sometimes embellish our accomplishments. Our ability to deliver on deadlines becomes “unparalleled.” Our skills with new technologies become “top-tier” and “superior.”

A new study from behavioral scientists at the University of Michigan found that how we brag about ourselves on cover letters and resumes can influence a hiring manager’s decision. Self-promotional language works to make us seem more competent and capable — up to a point.

Analyzing 60 real resumes and cover letters for a university staff position, the researchers found that our bragging can be broken down into different categories with varying levels of intensities: Crediting external sources was seen as the mildest form of self-promotion, and using superlatives such as “beyond compare” was seen as the most extreme use of impression management. In between those two poles are statements such as, “I tripled my product’s reach.”

Medium forms of self-promotional bragging were found to be effective at influencing an evaluator’s perception of a candidate’s fit for the job. But when resumes were intensely self-promotional — the candidate said they were exceptional, superb, and outstanding! — evaluators were less likely to see the job applicant as a good organizational fit.

What kind of braggarts hiring managers need to watch out for 

This study shows that we can be manipulated by flowery language into believing competence that may not be there. “For managers, I’d caution them to focus on credentials and qualifications that can be verified over those that cannot,” the study’s co-author Marie Waung told Ladders.

But that doesn’t mean that we should never use impression management at work, just that we should be cautious about what we choose to believe. “There is nothing inherently negative about impression management. The problem occurs when it crosses the line into exaggerating one’s experiences and qualifications with some job applicants/candidates even going as far as to engage in outright lies, or when its use blurs the hiring manger’s ability to choose the most qualified applicant,” Waung said.

What job applicants should not say in their resumes

As long as there are jobs to fill, employees will continue to be highly motivated to sell their accomplishments. That’s not a bad thing. Waung’s advice to employees is to ground your self-promotion in confidence in your abilities, not false bravado.

Don’t lie on your resume. Do put your best foot forward.

“Being confident is a good quality in an employee, whereas being a braggart is not,” she told Ladders. “The key to self-promotion is to do so in a low-key way. For example, describing yourself as an ‘expert,’ as ‘superior,’ or as an ‘ideal’ applicant in a cover letter may go a bit too far. However, using adjectives such as creative, conscientious, energetic, results-oriented, etc. may convey one’s qualifications without giving the impression of arrogance.”

Moderation is key

The study shows us that the best bragging is done in moderation. When you brag too hard about yourself, you come off as less likable. Selling the story of your career with good manners and gratitude — key elements of ingratiation tactics — could be the important step needed to get your resume past the slush pile.

“Bottom line: if you are going to use self-promotion tactics be sure to also use ingratiation tactics to balance them out,” Waung said. “If you are going to brag, do so in a way that people will still think that you are nice.”