What Does It Mean to “Polish” Your Resume?

Darcy Lear with Dr. Elena DeCosta of Carroll University

Darcy Lear with Dr. Elena DeCosta of Carroll University

The students in Elena DeCosta’s Latin American Civilization class at Carroll University are ready to start their professional careers.

When I went last week to lead a job search workshop, many had resumes already, a few had started their job search (one had an interview two days later), and almost all of them had solid career plans and knew that they wanted to use their language and cultures skills in their professional lives.

It turned into great opportunity to work on polishing resume content–taking that great resume that would get you an “A” grade in any university course and turning it into the A+ perfection that you need to be the candidate who gets the job.  

Here are some of the major takeaways from that session:

Use the categories on your resume strategically  

I posted earlier on splitting employment history into two categories: one for work in the field in which you are applying and one for “other professional experience.”

For college students, a lot of work isn’t clear cut “education” or “work.” Things like service learning, internships, study abroad, and volunteer projects fall somewhere in between education and work.  

To justify having a separate category on your resume, it’s important to have at least two items in that category. So first you have to list all of your experiences and then choose a heading or category that applies to two or more of them.  Maybe it’s “Community Service and Leadership” (if you have volunteered, done service learning, and held a leadership role in a campus or community organization), “Volunteerism and Causes” (if you have volunteered with various organizations and showed sustained commitment to a certain social or political issue; or participated in advocacy or activism related to a certain group or cause), or “Internships and Paraprofessional Experience” (if you’ve done unpaid internships, service learning, or shadowing of professionals).

photo-44Add quantifiable information wherever possible

For each entry on your resume, ask yourself if you can add any quantifiable information.  Over what period of time? How many clients did you serve? How many items did you produce? What was your success rate?

Here are a few before and after examples form last week’s workshop:

Intern at ESPN Radio, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

  • Translated commercial scripts into Spanish for advertising and commercial purposes.
  • Recorded voice overs for the commercial scripts.

Adding a few number doesn’t take up much additional space on the one-page resume, but does provide the employer with a lot more information:

  • Over one summer, translated 50 commercial scripts of 30-35 second duration into Spanish for advertising and commercial purposes.
  • Recorded 50 voice overs for Spanish-language commercial scripts.

This quantifiable information shows that the intern didn’t just help out with Spanish when it came up, but that it was the bulk of the work he did during that internship. It also verifies his claim that he is a fluent native speaker of Spanish: translation and voice over work are highly specialized tasks that could not be completed on that scope & scale by a less proficient Spanish-speaker.

Another student engaged in service-learning at a social service agency and had this on her resume:  

  • Interpreted for Spanish-speaking families.

When I asked her to quantify that, she changed it to:

  • Interpreted for an average of 5 Spanish-speaking families per week.

That is an excellent way to show how much of the work was done in Spanish and it makes it clear that she wasn’t interpreting during all of her time at the agency, but that she did get to use her language skills regularly.  Another bullet point on that section of the resume should detail the other work she did at the agency, including the total number of families she worked with each week if that was relevant.

Always choose action verbs over “supporting roles”

A common error on resumes is use of weak verbs to describe the work you’ve done.  Avoid “volunteered at…”, “helped with…” “assisted in…”  These verbs make it sound like you either shadowed professionals–observing as they did all the work–or that you didn’t even understand what your responsibilities were.  Here are a few before and after examples:

before: Volunteered at elder care center where I fed the elderly & played BINGO with them in Spanish.

after: Engaged in conversation in Spanish with the elderly during meal times & played BINGO with them in Spanish.

before: Prepared visual aids and an oral presentation for dental brigades trip to Honduras. 

after: During a two-week dental brigades trip to Honduras, prepared a series of visual instructions to illustrate effective dental hygiene.  Designed and delivered a presentation about dental health best practices for local practitioners in Honduras.

before: Helped in a bilingual classroom.

after: Weekly for three months, read English-language stories and discussed them in Spanish with five third-grade ESL students.  

I look forward to following up with the nineteen students who attended the workshop to hear about their job search documents, the interviews they get as a result, and the careers they eventually embark upon.


Darcy Lear is a career coach specializing in training students to highlight their language studies so they stand out in the job search and workplace. For one-on-one coaching or to set up a workshop, contact Darcy: darcylear@gmail.com
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