Resume Tips: Avoid the Passive Voice

It’s time to take a trip on the “way back when” time machine to that day in junior high where Ms. Periwinkle preached on about the dangers of writing in the passive voice.  We still have nightmares about red circles on our essay assignments to this day.  While you may have locked these memories away into the “lessons we’ll never use as adults” category (right alongside anything advanced algebra and anything other than the most rudimentary biology assignments) it turns out that identifying and eliminating the passive voice can make a big difference in your job-hunting prospects as an adult.  

Using the passive voice isn’t inherently awful.  In fact, there may be a time or two when the passive voice can help savvy resume writers (more on that later).  In general, however, writing passively can make sentences confusing, phrasing clunky and is overall frowned upon by savvy prospective employers.  With all that being said, it’s time to delve into passive voice 101 when it comes to scoring the job of your dreams.

Turning Passive into Active

So now that we’ve lead with the whole, passive is bad, active is good, it’s time to talk about how to eliminate the problem phrases from your resume or cover letter.  In technical terms, passive writing occurs when the object of the sentence is acted upon instead of doing the activity.  “I made this” is a simple example of the object taking an action.  While “this was made by me” conveys the same information, you can see how the verb is now the active and focal point of the sentence.  Plus the phrasing added a whole bunch of unnecessary words that could potentially push you over that preferred one-page resume limit.

For additional practice, here are a few real world and employment search applicable examples of re-writing passive sentences to make them active.

  • Passive: 20 percent revenue growth was realized in our department over two years.
  • Active: My team realized 20 percent revenue growth over two years.
  • Passive: A promotion to Supervisor was awarded to me after only one year of service.
  • Active: After only one year, I earned a promotion to Supervisor.
  • Passive: Responsibility was recognized as one of my strengths.
  • Active: I am responsible.

When Passive Can Be a Good Thing

Now that we’ve hyped up the detriments to the passive voice, it’s time to make a quick addendum.  One of the problems with writing in the passive voice is that it removes the agency of the actor and focuses the reader’s attention on the action, instead.  If you’re promoting your qualities as a manager or regaling readers with tales of your successes, downplaying your achievements can be detrimental to your job prospects.  In some cases, however, this could prove a beneficial tactic.

Take for example a situation in which there was large growth or big accomplishments but your individual contributions are either difficult to explain in a few sentences or were more attenuated.  In this case, the passive voice can come to the rescue, allowing you to promote the accomplishment without making it look like you’re taking all the credit.  For example:

“All departmental sales goals were exceeded during my tenure.”

Another instance where the passive voice can be used in an expert manner is when the action itself should be the highlight of the sentence, such as in cases where your individual involvement is a given.  Take this sentence for example:

“My designs were awarded the top prize for three years in a row.”

The reader’s attention is instantly drawn to the impressive accomplishment of being “awarded top prize” which puts a bigger grammatical impact on the achievement.

General Guidance on Passive vs Active

Before you bust out that red pen and turn your resume into a horror show that would make Ms. Periwinkle proud, there are a few things to keep in mind when identifying and utilizing the passive versus the active voice.  First, try not to confuse past tense with passive voice.  The past tense is often used to help keep resumes concise and active.  

Past tense allows for an implication that you acted without having to actually throw in that pesky noun.  This helps your accomplishments boil down to simple, powerful statements.  “Managed a team,” “accomplished a task,” and “earned top honors” are all examples of past tense and implied action but aren’t passive.

If you’re looking for a handy, easy, and fun way to test out whether you’re using the passive voice in a pinch, we’ve got you covered.  If you can add “by zombies” after the verb and still have the sentence make sense, you’ve got a passive (and instantly spooky) sentence structure.  Your resume, cover letter, and job prospects will thank you!


Article Updated from the Original on October 15, 2017