Traditionally, the use of a verb as the first word in a résumé item has become standard advice by most résumé writers and reviewers. The theory (as was taught to me decades ago when I first began writing and editing résumés) is that since a verb is an “action word,” it conveys to the reader the job applicant’s initiative, motivation, and focus on getting things done. Therefore, the assumption is that verbs – action words – are impressive and highly desirable to the résumé reader.

This is such a strong belief, that we constantly see new published lists of the best “action words” and “strongest verbs” to use in a résumé. However, there is no company on earth that concludes, “We’ve simply GOT to hire the person with the best verbs.”

And, if all that is visible as your reader skims his or her way through your résumé is one verb after another, all they’ll see as they skim is “developed, initiated, worked on, assisted, managed, served as, planned,” etc. It’s like reading a thesaurus, and it says little about the applicant.

The major problem here is that the résumé “reader” does not actually “read” the résumé in detail. He or she skims or scans it to see if it is worth reading at all. Ask any résumé reader (or potential employer) who has perhaps dozens to read on any given day, and you’ll hear them tell you that. They simply don’t have time to read in detail.

The key to understanding what is happening here is to understand where a skimmer’s eye goes as they scan through a document. Try it yourself. Skim through a page of anything. Guess where your eye goes. Yes, it may start at the top center, but quickly it goes down the left side of the page. That column – down the left side of the page – is where you fight the battle for the reader’s (i.e., skimmer’s) attention.

And, therefore, what does the skimming reader actually see first? If it’s a traditionally written resume, what he or she sees first is a list of verbs. How to escape this problem (and in the process make your résumé stand out)?

The answer is to think ‘key words,’ not ‘verbs.’

You want your reader to see the key words that really paint a picture of you. If it’s a verb, fine; but it doesn’t have to be.

You must therefore ask yourself is, “If there is ONE word in this item that I want my reader to see FIRST, what is that word?” That’s the word that should begin the item. You then find a way to write the rest of the item, starting with that key word. And, yes, it might be a verb, but it doesn’t have to be – it could be a noun, or a name, or even a number.

The first word may not always be what you think, and selecting the best first word depends on what one wants to emphasize. Take this item, for example:

  • Responsible for answering all phone calls and providing information to potential customers.

This is written as a traditional “verb-led” action item. Now consider the word “all” in the above sentence. This word denotes comprehensive and sole responsibility. Put yourself in a skimmer’s place, and consider this item, leading with “all”:

  • All calls answered from potential customers seeking information on company products.

Or, you may want your reader to see the word “information” first:

  • Information provided to all potential customers telephoning the company.

If you cannot find a way to write the item starting with a certain word, write the word and add a colon. You then have the freedom to write the item any way you wish. For example:

  • Customer service: Answer all phone calls and provide information to potential customers.
Whatever you choose, you have to set ruthless priorities: What do you want your reader to find first?

That’s what should be emphasized, and the best way to do this when you have a skimming reader is to place that word first in writing that item.

In other words, think ‘key words,’ not ‘verbs.



Sander Marcus, Ph.D., CPRW
Career Consultant
Illinois Tech Career Services

Rethinking the Use of the Verb to Start a Résumé Item
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