When you are applying for jobs, you want to stand out, but you aren’t given much of a chance to do so. You may be able to send a cover letter and resume and suggest folks who could serve
as references. For many positions, those elements are the only ones that are evaluated on the first pass by hiring managers.
In that context, it is no surprise that you want to make your resume as awe-inspiring as possible. And that naturally leads to the question: what should I include on my resume?
How you decide what should be included depends a little on knowing about how people evaluate the information they get from you. Consider two possibilities.
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One is that when people read your resume, they look at each piece of information you put on there and decide how good it is. Then, they add up all that goodness and use that to create
their overall impression of you.
If hiring managers are creating a sum total of goodness, then it is in your best interests to find every good thing you have ever done and to make sure it is represented on your resume. You might have had three great jobs that you want to highlight. You might also have gotten honorable mention in a pitch competition. That is an honor (if not a victory), so you throw that on your resume as well. By including every positive item you can, you maximize the internal score you get.
Of course, there is another possibility. Perhaps when people look at your resume, they average the goodness of all the things on it. That makes the decision of what to include on your resume
Clearly, every truly great thing you have ever done should be highlighted on your resume. But, what about the merely good things? That honorable mention in the pitch competition. Is that
going to make recruiters feel better about you? If they are averaging the items on your resume, it might actually be worse to have three great things and one merely good one than it is to have just the three great things.
So, which is it?
As I discuss in my new book Bring Your Brain to Work: Using Cognitive Science To Get a Job, do it well, and advance your career (Harvard Business Review Press), research by Kimberlee Weaver Stephen Garcia, and Norbert Schwarz introduces a concept they call the presenter’s paradox. They find that when you put together a resume (or any other document that will be used to evaluate something), you assume that people will use an addition strategy. So, you throw on as much information as you can. But—in fact—people are generally using an averaging strategy.
As a result, you are probably putting more information on your resume than you actually should. This research suggests that less is more. Focus your resume, cover letter, and other materials
on highlighting the absolute best you have to offer on display. If you have the choice between including something or not, ask yourself whether that element raises the average. If it doesn’t consider leaving it aside.
This advice applies to those elements of your record that are discretionary. If you applied for an award and got an honorable mention, you aren’t obligated to present it. And if you do choose to put it on your resume, you might want to add some context. An honorable mention might not sound so amazing, but if 10,000 people applied for an award, it was given to one person and only 10 other people received honorable mention, then let people know just how much of an honor that mention was.
Finally, the presenter’s paradox is not an excuse to fudge your record. If a company requests your full education history, you have to include everything—warts and all. You can then use your cover letter to explain any aspects of your record that you think require some clarification. You don’t want to get a job under false pretenses. There have been plenty of high-profile cases of people who faked their records early in their careers only to take a significant fall from grace when the lie was uncovered.
Art Markman is a professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas, Executive Director of the IC 2 Institute, and author of several books including Bring Your Brain to Work.
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