Will These 10 Resume Killer Phrases Really Destroy Your Resume?

There’s a Liz Ryan “resume killer” article setting the blogosphere ablaze (well at least warmly abuzz) that offers a list of overworked resume phrases that kill your resume (or so she says) and therefore you should never, ever, positively no way use them.  Here are those dastardly resume-killer word combos that, that according to Liz, are “ones to seek out and destroy in your resume as soon as possible”:

  • Results-oriented professional
  • Cross-functional teams
  • More than [x] years of progressively responsible experience
  • Superior (or excellent) communication skills
  • Strong work ethic
  • Met or exceeded expectations
  • Proven track record of success
  • Works well with all levels of staff
  • Team player
  • Bottom-line orientation

Seek out and destroy? I was scared just reading that! Are we under attack? Are those phrases REALLY so horrendous that they will not only kill your resume but maybe even your chances of ever being hired again? Now Liz is a smart woman with some great advice, so I hope she forgives what I am about to say. But I have to add my ten or twenty cents.

Will These Resume Killer Phrases Really Get Your Resume Rejected?

While admittedly, these resume phrases run the gamut from boring to over-used to downright antiquated, will using just one or even a few of them fast-track your resume to the REJECT pile? Probably not. Or at least not in the places I’ve worked. In fact, with some of the poorly written, sloppily formatted resumes I’ve seen, these would be a step up! (That’s not to say I recommend them, of course.)

But since I know different industries have different ways of judging resumes, I asked my Creative Director buddy, Terry B of the fabulous Blue Kitchen (who sent me the article link in the first place.)  He was way over on Liz Ryan’s side on this point. Resumes that pass his creative writing desk and have these phrases may never see the light of day again. But he is in the ultra-creative world of advertising! If someone applying to him for a job as copywriter, for instance, can’t come up with better writing than that, then they’re in the wrong field to begin with. Just following a list isn’t going to save their butt.

But what about the rest of us? Other fields are way more forgiving (assuming the rest of your resume and cover letter are sharp and attractive). Most times, a corny phrase or two are just not enough to be a deal killer (or resume killer).  For example, sometimes I help hire people for finance or tech jobs. Use all the stale phrases you want if you also  show me you’ve got great  skills. And if you can maybe even write a decent cover letter, I’m in heaven.

And here’s one more confession: I recently used versions of “works well with all levels of staff” and “team player” for myself (I know…the shame) and got the job interview as well as the actual offer for a consulting job within our city school system. But here’s an important point: They advertised specifically for those skills and I merely echoed it back to them in a slightly personalized form.

Even though online experts will warn you away from certain resume writing styles and offer dire predictions if you fail to heed their advice, a good many of the people reading your resumes haven’t read all those articles! 😉 So learning the language of the native population can be very helpful. And of course this cuts both ways; resumes and cover letters for ultra-trendy creative companies would do well to avoid trite.

So should we use these resume killer phrases or not?

If you want to take Liz’s advice and avoid these resume phrases as a great safe common denominator approach to resume-writing, then you can’t go wrong. (And I hope I haven’t convinced you to do otherwise.) I just don’t want you to think THIS is why you didn’t get the job. An otherwise great resume with a trite phrase or two will rarely be rejected.

Sometimes when we read articles, we are given absolutes. It’s a much more exciting way to write than “maybe you should do this or maybe you should do that.” But there are very few absolutes in the world of job hunting.  If you wind up using one or two of these dreaded “resume killer” phrases, you can most likely still land the interview. These are just reminders not to let your resume be filled with empty crap. Substance over trite is always a good way to go.

But please don’t be scared if you’ve already sent out resumes with one of the forbidden ten (or any of their cousins).  In the majority of cases, they are not deal breakers. (Now if the whole resume is like that…ouch!)

What Should You Do Instead to Add a Human Voice to Your Resume?

Liz went on to give an example of what kind of resume you should use to break free from the tried & true and painfully uncreative.  She gave us a sample paragraph meant to show your more human side that begins:

“I’m a Marketing Researcher who’s driven by curiosity about why people buy what they do. At XYZ Industries, I used consumer surveys and online-forum analysis to uncover the reasons why consumers chose our competitors over us; our sales grew twenty percent over the next six months as a result.”

With much respect, here’s where I strongly disagree with Liz. If I got a resume completely like that, it would be in the REJECT pile so fast you couldn’t see the motion of my hand. While Liz sees that as creative and human, I see it as not respecting my time by adding all those unnecessary words. Most people give a resume 8 seconds or less. Sometimes I get 100 resumes or more to screen in one sitting.  I prefer resumes that are clear and easy to focus on the key points. Take Liz’s example, cut some words, make it into bullet points, and make the quantified results easy to see. Now you’ve got a resume that helps me to see who you are.

And by all means, use a human voice as Liz suggests. Just don’t write me a story! Save the “human” prose for a good cover letter. It really can make a cover letter shine. But even then, sentences (or bullet points) that focus clearly on things you have that they need are probably the way to go. So is brevity.

One last bit of resume advice for the 21st century

Since I know I don’t know it all (or even anywhere close) I turn to one of the people I respect most in the world of resume writing, Susan Ireland, author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Perfect Resume. She tells me she’s been on both sides of the fence on this topic and has even strongly urged people not to use hackneyed phrases.

But she adds a clever twist to how these resume phrases can be used. Here’s what she suggests for job seekers:

Start with the overused phrase in your draft resume just to get the qualification in print. Then try your best to reword it so it paints the picture of how you’ll demonstrate that qualification in the job you’re seeking.

For example, if you’re a technical writer you may want to tell a prospective employer that you have “excellent communication skills,” which certainly supports your job objective. Then reword that hackneyed phrase to say exactly what communication skills you will use on your next job (perhaps “Skilled at translating tech-speak into instructions that are easily understood by novice users.”).

The revised phrase makes better use of your resume real estate because you’ve not only addressed an obvious job requirement, you’ve also “pushed” a prospective employer to envision you working as a technical writer – hopefully for him! That’s good marketing.

It sure is. Thanks Susan. A great resume writing tip for job seekers from someone who really knows! (And no she doesn’t pay me to say that. 😉 )

So now I’d like your take on this resume writing hubbub. Do hackneyed resume phrases make you gag? Would one of these resume killer phrases be enough for you to trash a resume? Do you actually prefer prose resumes to the stodgy old kind?


For Liz Ryan’s original article:

10 Boilerplate Phrases That Kill Resumes

For some Work Coach Cafe resume help and cover letter tips:

Resume Help

How a New Resume and Cover Letter Got Her the Job Interview!

How a New Resume Can Totally Change Your Job Search

5 Must-do Resume Tips From a Fellow Blogger

How to Fix Your Way Too Long Cover Letter

My Number 1 Cover Letter Tip


About the author…

Ronnie Ann, founder of Work Coach Cafe, bases her real-world advice on her many years as an organizational consultant where she helped interview and hire people, added to a certificate from NYU in Career Planning & Development and her own adventures as a serial job seeker. She can also be found on her new blog, and on Google+.


  1. I’m with Susan Ireland regarding these so-called deadly phrases—use the ideas they represent, but not in those exact words. And while I agree that Liz’s more prosy resume style doesn’t work for me in a resume, that example would be an amazing paragraph in a cover letter. It sounds like an actual human being who’s truly engaged in his or her profession, not some drudge spewing jobspeak.

  2. What constantly amazes me is how much job hunting and hiring has become a “game.” We have become a culture of “gaming” – from Wall St. to Work St.

    As I see it, employers are driving the game – instead of using critical thinking, intuition, and human processes to search for and find the best people (overall fit) for jobs, they create filtering systems (the game) and out of the people willing to play & be compliant, they select “winners.”

    It works well for people who are word-wise and players.

    Is this the best way to select/allocate use human resources. I think not.

    The current mainstream employment process is just another slice of the dumbed-down “faux” United States we’ve become.

  3. p.s. I worked with Liz Ryan a few decades ago – she was a nice, energetic, outgoing, articulate woman with drive. Her success in the field doesn’t surprise me.

  4. I love it! Susan Ireland just posted about this on her blog. If you’re interested, check it out!

    Deadly Phrases on Your Resume?

    Will get back to Terry B and eLiz later. Darn this work thing. Takes all the fun out of blogging. 😉

  5. Sound, practical thinking as usual Ronnie Ann!

    There are a lot of resume Do’s-and-Dont’s out there. Lots of contradictory advice that can lead to re-write after re-write too.

    My preference is for a resume that communicates person, career and intention as fully as possible.

    As you said on my blog last week, “when you put your resume and cover letter together, you might as well do it in a way that aims you where you want to go.”

    Couldn’t have put it better myself!

    All the best for now,


  6. When I read the list of phrases, I snickered. But then I don’t really work in the real business world any more, so I’m not sure what’s expected there. I feel these phrases, though, don’t tell me much about the actual person, but, perhaps, that’s what the interview is for.
    I would prefer the applicant would take the top three-to-five skill requirements from the job posting that match her/his skill set the best, then recast them in her/his own words, while still sounding professional. A tall order, but, then, job hunting is a job…
    Great, insightful discussion going on here!!!

  7. momma moon says:

    Glad to see you’re still here, helping peeps with your sage advice, RA. You’re the best! Thinking about you! Mmmwah, MM ♥

  8. When I first read Liz’s article a few days ago, I was very surprised. As a resume writer I am guilty of using some of the ten deadly phrases. When I have used them, I make sure my client can back it up.

    If you are a result-oriented professional, then it would be important to show the reader how you produced results. Telling does not make the cut; you have to “show and tell”.

    It is always better to be creative when writing a resume, especially in today’s competitive job market. Having a resume that sounds like everyone else will not put you above your competitors. It would not hurt to avoid as many commonly used resume phrases. Purchase a Thesaurus; this is a good tool when expanding your vocabulary.

    Great topic!

  9. Great thread, Ronnie Ann. Sounds like we all sort of agree on this. Thanks for the post!

  10. Thanks everyone for the great comments!

    Hi Terry B: Agreed. Human speak is an important part of resumes – and even more so for cover letters. One of the things that kind of bugs me on a resume is “references available upon request”. Like I think you won’t give me your references? But of course that used to be standard and I get that.

    Hi eLiz: Great to see you again. Terrific comment. Too many rules and pitfalls that ideally should not be the reason a good person isn’t hired. When I get a resume and cover letter, there’s the exact words and layout and then there’s a gut feeling that I can’t quantify. Quite a few times that gut feeling caused me to pick someone good that the company wouldn’t have. If only… 😉

    Hey Paul: Appreciate your visit from way across the pond. Thanks for adding the thought about what we’re aiming for. That is, in the end, the whole point. Cheers!

    Hello Muse: Good reminder that a candidate should echo back (with their own personal resonance) what the employer is looking for, especially if there’s an actual ad. BTW…still thinking of Banff. Just love that word. 🙂

    Momma mooooon! What a wonderful surprise. It’s been ages. I was just thinking about you last week. Hope all is fabulous in your world. And while I thank you for the kind words, when it comes to helping peeps, you have the gift. Big Brooklyn hugs to ya, grrrl!

    Hi Giselle: Thanks for stopping by. Appreciate your comment. Always helps to stand out from the crowd (in a good way, of course). As for a thesaurus…great suggestion. I think I use an online thesaurus every day. 😉

    Hello Susan: Glad you stopped by. I’m heading your way too. Enjoyed your own take on all this – in my post and yours.

  11. Hi Ronnie Ann!

    On the surface, it’s hard to disagree with Liz. But I agree with you that one or maybe even two such phrases won’t “kill” your resume.

    But using such phrases invites a reaction of “Oh yeah? Show me!” That’s why you need to support each of those “empty phrases” with a notable accomplishment or two from your work experience. Otherwise, the phrase is indeed empty.

    ~ Rick

  12. Hey Rick! Nice to see you again. Absolutely. Substance is always way better than empty crap. 😉 But if a person does get the job interview anyway – even with these empty phrases – they better be well prepared to fill in the dots when they’re face-to-face with an interviewer!

    Ronnie Ann

  13. I think the problem with these terms is that they take up space in a resume that could be used for stronger, more specific language–language that shows not tells, as Giselle mentioned.

    Also, if you are posting your resume online, you should probably keep in mind that potential employers are not searching for terms like “team player” or “strong work ethic.” They are searching for actual skills and certifications. I would think a stronger resume (whether written for online keywords or not) demonstrates HOW you are a team player, rather than just declaring, “I’m a team player.”

    Just my take. I am far from an expert on resumes.

    P.S. I definitely agree with you that article writers (and blog posters!) tend to write in absolutes. Would never do such a thing myself. Heh heh.

  14. Yes…I’m sure neither of us would! Ahem. Nice to see you, Karen. Hope your new book is selling like hotcakes…or better yet like best-selling books. 😉

    Good reminder that resumes need to be written to make them optimally searchable and these 10 deadly phrases are not only a waste of space but they would never be a keyword or key phrase!

    My only addition is that, if the rest of the resume is chock full of good stuff and someone throws in an old clunker, they shouldn’t think THAT’S the reason they got rejected. And conversely, they shouldn’t think that if they fix just those, all will be well. But it’s certainly a good start!

    Ronnie Ann

  15. Good article and timely advice. Thanks.

  16. HR Lady says:

    Our last opening had us wading through more than 500 resumes for a receptionist. As you can imagine, we don’t spend much time on the initial cut. How do we sort first? Grammar, spelling, and punctuation.

  17. Thanks Mark Ste. Marie! Nice to see you. Much appreciated from a fellow career blogger. 😉

    Really appreciate you sharing that HR Lady. Much as I wish it weren’t so and you could magically see how wonderful each candidate is, when you are faced with those numbers, you have to find a sorting mechanism. Some really good folks might get eliminated, but you have no choice. A word to the wise…now hopefully wiser!

    ~ Ronnie Ann

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