Using a passive voice on your resume is not wrong, per se; it is a stylistic choice. However, it can make for a boring read and does not give you much credit for performing the actions detailed in those sentences. Typically, a passive voice can muddy the clarity of your writing and add unnecessary words. (Something you want to avoid when recruiters need to do a quick scan to determine initial fit.)
It might be a decade or two since you learned the difference between passive and active voice. So, this article will serve as a reminder – and also give you some ideas to avoid it in your resume writing.
Active vs. Passive
When you use the passive voice, the object of the action becomes the subject of the sentence. This is different from an active voice, where the subject of the sentence performs the action. In its simplest form, it is the difference between “I did this,” which is an active voice, and, “This was done by me,” which is passive voice.
A trick detailed by Grammarly’s “A Scary-easy Way to Help You Find Passive Voice,” to determine if the sentence is active or passive is to add “by zombies” (or any actor, really) to the end of the sentence. If it makes sense with the addition, it is passive. If it does not make sense, it is active. Here is an example of how it could work on your resume:
“A revenue growth of 14 percent was realized in my department (by zombies).”
The sentence makes sense with the addition; therefore, it is passive. Does the addition work in this next example?
“My department realized a 14 percent increase in sales (by zombies).”
Nope, it does not check out, which means it is active and ultimately a better choice for your resume. In seeing the two examples, the active one tends to sound livelier than the passive one.
Another way to look for passive sentences is identifying a form of “to be” verbs, in which, “is,” “are,” “am,” “was,” “were,” “has been,” “have been,” “had been,” “will be,” “will have been,” “being,” are followed by a past participle. A past participle is a form of a verb that typically ends in “-ed,” like in our example of “was” and “realized,” above. Both of these elements must be present for the sentence to be passive. Do not confuse a verb that ends in “-ed” as always being passive. It may just be past tense, which is apparent on most resumes. You probably noted that both examples above use “realized.”
Tips To Avoid Passive Voice
We have learned passive voice is not preferred, so how do we avoid it? Here are some ideas:
Identify whether each sentence is active or passive
Use the tips above to double-check each line.
Do not be afraid to use “I”
Sure, someone along the way told you that “I” shouldn’t be used on a resume because it sounds like you’re pumping yourself up too much. You do not want to overuse it, but it might be the starting point for turning passive sentences into active ones. (See the next tip for why.)
Put the subject at the forefront
If you start the sentence with the subject (probably you or your team or department), you will fall into using an active voice. While you do not want every line to start with, “I,” “we,” and “my team,” it is a place to start to get the lines to read actively.
Write in full sentences
It is easier to accidentally use passive voice when you are jotting down bullets and are not worried about them being full sentences. That might mean leaning toward using “revenue growth of 14 percent,” as one of your bullets. It is a fragment. Additionally, when you go back later to clean it up, you will likely leave its construction as-is, turning it into a passive sentence.
Run a grammar checker
This is not a fail-safe! However, grammar checkers typically have the capability of checking for passive voice. Microsoft Word, for example, has a setting within its spelling and grammar checker that will flag for passive voice. Make sure it is ticked on.
Pick a different verb
This will help you turn the sentence into one that is interesting to read. Try “achieved,” “advised,” consulted,” “developed,” “eliminated,” “reduced,” “increased,” “presented,” or “upgraded.” The list goes on!
Know when it is OK to use passive voice
You will want to consider using passive voice when you do not want to take credit for a major accomplishment on your own and explaining your involvement or contribution to the achievement is not warranted. An example is if you are just one cog in the wheel for the department, but you want to express the greater department’s accomplishments. Try: “All departmental milestones were achieved during my time as a graphic designer.” Another time when it is acceptable is when you want the action to take center stage, not the performance of the action.
Keep these improvement tips in mind, and make all the difference in your resume by using more action verbs and active voice!