MBA Resume Protocol

Angela GuidoResume

Whether you plan to go to business school one day, are in business school now, have already graduated, or have no MBA plans, but just want to present yourself as a business leader, you need an MBA resume.

I have had the privilege of working with a lot of extraordinary people in my career. And one thing about extraordinary people is that they are extraordinarily busy. What that means is that frequently when they come to me, the state of their professional communications is a complete mess. They are too busy having an impact to worry about updating their resumes every three months, and it’s often been quite a long time since they properly prepared for an interview.

It’s human nature to tackle challenges as they come, so when you realize it’s time for a job transition or to apply to business school, THAT’S the moment you turn to look at that Frankenstein mess of a resume and say: “OK, let’s do this.” And if you are like most people, what you have there is something that started in college when you had very little experience to showcase, and then probably just got a quick update once or twice if you changed jobs. What you have is probably not only outdated and poorly structured given the current state of your career (e.g. is your college still the first thing listed there even though you’ve been working for four years?), it’s probably also targeted for an audience within your current company or field (i.e. completely unintelligible and unengaging to an outsider).

LinkedIn may be a source of referrals, and personal connections may be a way more important way to get your foot in the door at a new company. But a resume is still a sine qua non in any professional recruiting process. So for all of you who are approaching a big career shift or small transition of any kind, here is my official MBA Resume Protocol.

This guide is meant to not only help you transform your resume into a brilliant showcase of your finest accomplishments that will position you for important opportunities, but also to teach you the fundamentals of understanding and communicating real accomplishments in a succinct and compelling way. Think of this think as a course in business communication rather than as a collection of tips, tricks, and dos and don’ts.

If done right, your resume should tell a story of expanding impact; increased effectiveness, awareness, and wisdom; and enriched credibility, trust, and authority.

Enjoy!!

Here’s what’s in this Guide.

  1. What’s the Point of the Resume?
  2. MBA Resume Basics: Stuff You Probably Already Know
  3. Understanding Good Communication
  4. Make it Easy to Read: Formatting
  5. Make it Easy to Understand: The High School Test
  6. Make it Meaningful: The CEO Test
  7. Make it Measurable: Quantitative and Qualitative Results
  8. Make it Logical: The Cause and Effect Test
  9. Make it Personal: Individual Contributions
  10. Make it Vivid: Colorful Details and Confidentiality
  11. From Weak to Wow: Putting it All Together

Here we go!

1. What’s the Point of the Resume?

When you are recruiting for a job (or applying to business school) at some point, you have to tout your accomplishments; you have to brag. Because opportunities early in your career will follow what you have already accomplished, it is incredibly important to powerfully convey those accomplishments.

The interview, however, is not the time or place to do that. Strengths-based interviews are a rising trend, and in those interviews, you won’t even be asked about accomplishments. It’s all about preferences and feelings (“When are you happiest?” “How do you know when you’ve had a good day?”) But even in Behavioral or Competency Based interviews (“Tell me about an accomplishment,” “tell me about a time you led a team,” etc.), if you come off as smug and arrogant, you’ll be dead in the water.

That means you can’t just brag about what you did well in an interview. You’ll need to tell a proper story, and that means you need to reveal the challenges you faced in the process. You’ll highlight not just the heights you achieved, but also the depths you charted to get to your objective. When preparing for an interview, you need to be sure you are ready to talk about your achievements with confident humility.

Paradoxically, many people worry about bragging on the resume, when that is precisely the place to do it. A resume should in fact be like a highlight reel, a greatest hits list, a succinct and potent delineation of your most noteworthy achievements, outstanding results, and competitive wins. It needs to resonate with the person reading it – meaning it needs to be couched in universal terms that cross industries and functions. And it needs to showcase where you truly excelled, not just dump a list of everything you have ever done onto an overcrowded page.

The resume should read like a brag sheet of the greatest results you have produced in your professional, community, and personal life.

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2. MBA Resume Basics: Stuff You Probably Already Know

One page

Unless you are 10 or more years into your career, a one page resume should do it. And even if you ARE 10+ years into your career, it’s highly doubtful that more than one page is necessary to make the best case for who you are as a professional. Whether you are in your first job or your fifth, following the tips in this guide will help you boil all your experiences down to the most important page-worth of bullets. I strongly recommend you challenge yourself to use a one-page resume. At the very least, the busy people who read it will recognize you for your concision and strategic communication abilities.

This might require creative editing and strategic selection of experiences to include (and exclude), and that process should be shaped by the audience for that resume. For example, if you are a consultant applying for marketing jobs, the projects you have done involving financial analytics or supply chain logistics may be less relevant, and you will want to select accomplishments that relate to consumer insight, strategic marketing, and initiatives that helped drive topline growth. If you are applying to business school, then you might choose to play up the more managerial aspects of your experience while showcasing a breadth of accomplishments across all the functions you have worked in.

Below, you can download a template to work with, and as you get started, I recommend you first err on the side of inclusion. Put all your meaningful accomplishments in and perfect the bullets. Then decide which ones are least relevant to the opportunity at hand and trim them out to reach one page.

Powerful Verbs in the Past Tense

You probably know you are supposed to choose powerful and vivid verbs. Most people know this, but few go far enough in choosing precise words for their actions. Consider the nuanced differences among these verbs: led, spearheaded, coordinated, managed, initiated.

On the surface, they are synonyms, but each one has a slightly different meaning. Led and managed are actually the weakest choices because they have the most nebulous meanings. Coordinated is far more precise – it means that you brought the different elements of a complex activity or organization into a harmonious or efficient relationship. That has much more meaning than “led.” Initiated means you caused a process or action to begin – it implies ingenuity and the fact that you started something that wasn’t going to happen anyway. Much clearer and more powerful than “managed.”

Make the thesaurus and the dictionary your friends in this process and strive to choose the verbs that most clearly capture the essence of your accomplishments, actions, and contributions.

Why past tense? As I have already mentioned and will discuss again later, a resume is an accomplishment list, and every bullet needs to convey a result or an outcome. Results are by definition something that has already happened, ergo, if a bullet is showcasing an accomplishment, it has to be in the past tense. If you are using present tense for a bullet, it’s not an accomplishment, it’s a task or responsibility – useless information for reasons that will soon be clear.

So work to make sure each bullet starts with a powerful vivid past tense verb.

One Accomplishment per Bullet

The organizing aspect of a resume bullet is a result. It’s not clients, projects, bosses, responsibilities, tasks, or any other aspect of your work. This means you might have multiple bullets for a single project because during that project, you produced multiple meaningful outcomes. Conversely, it might mean there are projects that aren’t featured on your resume because although you spent a lot of time on them, you didn’t produce any results worth including in your “highlight real,” which is a good way to think about your resume. In any case, do not try to feature more than one accomplishment/result per bullet.

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3. Understanding Good Communication

Let’s say you’re an engineer and you are looking to transition to a role in finance. Does your future employer care about all the different computer languages you can program in? Probably not unless you will be required to use them in your finance role. Does a business school admissions committee member understand (or care about) all the technical nuances of that product you launched? No again.

It’s one thing to have great ideas, great experiences, and meaningful achievements. Those phenomena are between you and yourself. But when your task is to communicate those things to other people, you need to keep in mind the rules of good communication.

Good Communication for an MBA Resume

It would serve you well to think that the world of knowledge and experience you have overlaps with each and every other person’s world of knowledge and experience by only a tiny percent, as this diagram suggests. You are a universe unto yourself, and what you have in common with everyone else is less than you might think if you really look at it. This means that the opportunity you have to express yourself is vast. It is both a privilege and a responsibility to make sure you are understood by others – especially those you want to give you a job or admit you to their program.

So good communication happens at the intersection of the speaker and the listener. Both people are required for it to be communication. This means you need to think about who you are speaking to (or writing for) when you craft your resume. You need to think about the audience. (This advice has implications for every single form of communication, by the way). But as far as resumes go, here are two important principles to keep in mind:

  1. Make it easy to read
  2. Make it easy to understand

Let’s tackle those one at a time.

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4. Make it Easy to Read: Formatting

Let’s talk formatting first. This isn’t rocket science, and it is definitely a time to apply the KISS principle (Keep It Simple, Silly). There is an infinite array of resume formats out there. Some get very creative. And while it’s true your resume should also convey your unique personality along with your accomplishments, remember your audience. If you are applying for a graphic design job, or one where your artistic creativity is part of what is being evaluated, then take a look at Canva’s creative resume templates.

For a business job or business school resume, you’re better off keeping it simple: text on a page. Let the accomplishments shine, not the document itself, like all the examples below, which was what came up in an image search on “Harvard Business School Resume.”

Harvard MBA Resumes

Each business school has a slightly different format you would be forced to use if you attended the school, but my favorite resume format is the Official Booth Resume Format. I confess, as a Booth alum and someone who had the pleasure of working directly with the legendary Julie Morton, perhaps the greatest head of an MBA Career Services Department in MBA history, I am entirely biased.

That bias notwithstanding, I recommend this resume format for two simple reasons: it’s extremely easy to read and it maximizes the use of space. The bullets stretch all the way across the page, creating plenty of room for all your important achievements. The dates and locations are clearly organized and visible at a glance. Different fonts and capitalization make firm names and titles instantly identifiable. And it leaves space to include community and personal details, which also matter.

You can download my modified version of the Booth resume format in fancy PDF with comment guidance below. I made two versions, depending on where you are in your career. Since the most recent experience should come first so that it’s easy for the reader to follow chronologically, click on the appropriate image below to download your resume template.

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Feel free to take these templates and use them to build your own perfect MBA resume. But the templates alone won’t get you very far. As that picture of “Harvard Resumes” reveals, a resume is black and white. It’s just a little ink on a piece of paper. What will make your resume truly exceptional is its content. So read on.

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5. Make it Easy to Understand: The High School Test

Now we are going to get into the Art of the Bullet. And the next six sections are all about this elusive and important art form. I like to tell my clients that great resume writing is like Haiku – every single word matters. To write a great bullet, you need to understand yourself, your actions, the result of your actions, the way the business world is structured and how everything rolls up to the bottom line, and you need to be a master of language. So keep reading to master this subtle art form yourself.

The first thing to recognize is that your resume is most likely the first and, in many cases, the only document recruiters will screen when they are evaluating your candidacy to determine if they want to continue the hiring process with you. It is also the foundational (and likely first-read) component of an MBA application. So let’s put ourselves in the shoes of the reader for a moment.

Think about who will likely be doing that first resume screen. Within a firm, it will most likely a member of the human resource team who has never done the actual work in your target position and may have no experience outside of the HR department in his or her industry. Likewise, for business school, the reader will be an Admissions Committee member who may or may not have had some professional experience before going into higher education him or herself. In any case, these are very, very busy people who will likely be screening dozens if not hundreds of resumes in a single sitting. It’s easy to understand how someone like that would be put off by a lot of technical jargon and firm-specific terminology. Rather than taking the time to read your bullets three or four times to figure out what you’re trying to say, a busy reader just might put your resume in the “no thanks” pile. Honestly, with a mountain of resumes to sort through, isn’t that what you would do?

Aside from making life difficult on recruiters and admissions personnel, by sending a resume with convoluted bullets, you are signaling a meaningful lack of emotional intelligence to your reader. Most of your professional life – especially if you are a manager – will require you to communicate complex problems and concepts in terms other people can understand. You will have to inspire people with your words and connect with audiences on their levels. If you send a resume full of jargon, you are showing you lack the ability to empathize with your reader – with what he or she knows and doesn’t know. If you are ultimately targeting a managerial role, such a resume could be an absolute deal breaker.

So make sure your resume passes The High School Test.

The High School Test

If your resume passes The High School Test, then an intelligent high schooler, with no specific training in your industry or field of study, could understand every word on your resume. Omit the names of software systems, analytical frameworks, protocols, and the specific words your firm uses for processes that no one else knows. The following examples are not necessarily complete bullets. We’ll get to that later. But in these examples, just pay attention to how easy (or not) the content is to understand.

High School Test Fail:

  • Spearheaded cross-business unit engagement for NTY video initiative

High School Test Pass:

  • Spearheaded cross-functional team of seven to implement a new video streaming platform

See how any high schooler can understand what video streaming is, whereas “NTY” is anyone’s guess!

High School Test Fail:

  • Led the Unified Communication Scalability initiative on the new 5427 router, coordinated the development, testing and marketing effort to enhanced and ensured UC application performance on the most powerful platform of NTY to date.

High School Test Pass:

  • Coordinated development, testing, and marketing efforts for a groundbreaking new Wi-Fi product

Look at how much unnecessary verbiage we were able to remove to turn this into something a high school student could grasp!

High School Test Fail:

  • Performed several analytical, substantive and internal control tests, including analytical tests on ACL (Audit Command Language)

High School Test Pass:

  • Performed senior duties as an associate and coordinated financial statement audit engagements for companies in 11 different industries

The high school test mandates a “need to know” approach. Audit Command Language is jargon that adds no meaning to the bullet. Get rid of those highly technical, specialized terms, and replace them with general concepts anyone can understand, because that is all they will “need to know” to comprehend the scope and scale of the accomplishment.

If the reader is alienated by your use of jargon and your lack of ability to communicate yourself in terms that anyone can understand, you won’t have the chance to impress them with what you have achieved. Making sure your resume passes the High School Test will enable you to hold the reader’s attention long enough for him/her to identify your true accomplishments. That is what the next test is for: The CEO Test. You will soon learn why none of the above bullets passed that one.

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MBA Resume Protocol

6. Make it Meaningful: The CEO Test

Once your bullets make sense to a lay person, what you have accomplished can truly shine. Or – if your resume is like most people’s – your complete lack of accomplishment will stick out like a sore thumb. That’s not because you haven’t accomplished meaningful things in your career, it’s because you haven’t structured your bullets to emphasize results.

Why does this matter? Again, remember, you are seeking more responsibility; you want to manage and lead; you want to have a bigger impact. Your ability to do each of those things rests on your ability to understand the impact you have already had and how the work you have done has influenced real business outcomes, even if you were the junior-most member of the team (take note consultants, accountants, and bankers!!)

Even in a team environment, you need to uncover your meaningful individual contributions to the shared outcome.

So that means that each bullet on your resume needs to contain a result. The outcome and impact needs to be visible and, where possible, measured. Did your work lead to estimated time or money saved? Did the relationship you built result in a quantifiable sale? Did your analysis drive a key recommendation that changed the final result of the project in measurable ways? Your bullets need to highlight your accomplishments.

This is why I say the resume is a brag sheet or highlight reel. It’s not the whole movie, it’s just a montage of the high points! Think of it like a movie trailer. It doesn’t tell the whole story, it shows you the sexiest scenes so you will want to see the whole movie. That’s what a resume is supposed to do. (Notice if you were unconsciously thinking your resume is supposed to SUMMARIZE your career to date instead of highlight ONLY the BRIGHT SPOTS.)

And bright spots in business can be reduced to the bottom line. The bottom line is given by this simple equation:

R – C = P (Revenue minus Costs equals Profits).

Even when an organization has social impact objectives, they are still measurable in terms of bottom line impact – a simple measure of the sum total results of the organization minus the cost involved in reaching those results. So for a company like Coca Cola, the bottom line is all the revenue they earn from selling Coke, minus what it costs them to make, market, and distribute the Coke and take care of the Coke brand. For an organization like Doctors Without Borders, the bottom line is the number of people whose lives they save or improve measured against the cost of providing those services.

Take note: I am not claiming that the whole world can or should be reduced to profits. But in the world of business, everything can and will be. Unprofitable companies can’t survive, and social organizations that don’t create more good than they cost will likely disappear. What this means for your resume is simply that you need to be able to trace your own impact to the bottom line and communicate it in these terms. Remember, when you get to the interview, the subtler (and perhaps more meaningful) aspects of your experiences – the challenges you’ve overcome, what you’ve learned, how you’ve grown, and how your personal values have been expressed and evolved – will have the chance to shine. But the resume is black and white. So learn to understand your impact in terms of the CEO Test.

The CEO Test

Here is the CEO Test: If the CEO of your company were to read that bullet, would she shake your hand? Would he care that you did that? Or would she stare blankly with indifference?

The CEO is responsible for the workings of the entire company, and so he or she will likely be unconcerned with the job duties or responsibilities of any one member of the team. Results, on the other hand, especially those that translate to the bottom line, no matter how small, are a matter of CEO concern.

You want each of your bullets to showcase a result that you produced and where you excelled vis-a-vis expectations, targets, or peers. Do your best to measure your results in real terms – dollars or time, for example – in a way that translates directly to the bottom line wherever possible.

Consider these examples:

CEO Test Fail:

  • Responsible for managing a $10M media campaign

CEO Test Pass:

  • Spearheaded $10M social media campaign introducing new skincare product, exceeding first-year sales targets within four months

Notice how the word “responsible” gives us no information about the content of your work or the outcomes produced. It is an absolute no-no as a bullet-opener.

CEO Test Fail:

  • Performed investigations to resolve customer complaints and identify broken processes

CEO Test Pass:

  • Developed a new monthly performance monitoring framework which identified a $2M annual cost savings opportunity and a critical call center data issue in the second month

The second bullet here totally reframes the bullet not in terms of the “task” that was assigned, but in terms of what got created. What you are told to do matters little. The initiative you take to create something new and change the status quo for the better matters a lot.

CEO Test Fail:

  • Conducted detailed analysis of client’s profit and loss statements and presented findings to senior executive team

CEO Test Pass:

  • Drove recommendation to divest three snack brands for consumer goods client by identifying key strategic misalignment in manufacturing process based on detailed P&L analysis

Who you presented to, who trusted you, and who liked your work isn’t the best kind of impact you can show. Early in your career, it’s easy to think that being tapped by a senior executive to do something is meaningful because it shows that an important person trusted you. But the reader doesn’t know that executive. It will be much more meaningful to showcase the work you did that generated or justified that trust.

Also note that in the passing bullet, the impact is “drove a recommendation.” You might think that is a weak result, and in some sense it is. This is why many people get frustrated with consulting jobs and move onto operational roles – so they can own not only the thinking but also the implementation and outcomes. Service providers (bankers, consultants, lawyers, etc.) don’t really own the outcome – the client does. So if you are in one of these functions, you will look to see how your work impacted your team’s work and outcome when you are unable to see how it affects the client. In this case, the owner of the bullet managed to do sound analysis that his team leveraged in the final client service recommendation. For an early career consultant, that is a great outcome!

If you find yourself struggling to understand the results of your work, consider discussing this with your managers and teammates. They can sometimes help you connect what you did to the outcome that resulted. If you ensure your bullets convey the impact you have had in real business terms, you will already be going a long way to demonstrating your competence and professional potential.

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MBA Resume protocol

7. Make it Measurable: Quantitative and Qualitative Results

If you are passing the CEO Test, then every line of your resume conveys a concrete and verifiable result you produced. The best results are measurable in terms of time and money, so seek to understand your bottom-line impact in everything you have done. Let’s look at some examples of this. Again, these are not complete bullets; just pay attention to the outcomes/results being relayed.

Some CEO Test Passes:

  • Decreased report production time by 40%, saving 20 man-hours per week
  • Enabled follow-on project sale, resulting in incremental $10M in revenue for the firm
  • Recommended process streamline, reducing waste by 10%, saving $20K in cost per year
  • Implemented new customer success process, which led to 20% increased customer retention and $5M in retained revenue

Notice how all of these bullets convey results that are measured against a bottom line in terms of money or time.

A Word about Relative vs. Absolute Measures

Recall that your reader does not work at your company and probably doesn’t even personally do the work of your industry. So absolute numbers ($20K, e.g.) might not be terribly meaningful to them. To say that you decreased costs by $20K might be a REALLY big deal. Or it might be a rounding error. Is your company Apple? Or is it Grandma’s Apple Pie Company? Decreasing cost of production at Apple by $20K might represent a .1% reduction, or even less. At Grandma’s Apple Pie Company, on the other hand, $20K might be 20% of costs, a much greater relative impact on the bottom line. Your individual impact depends on the scale of your company, your division, your product, your project, etc. This is part of why it’s very popular to work in startups these days – it’s much easier to have a huge impact on a small and growing organization than on a mature established one.

So as you choose your measures, think about which kind will be more meaningful to the reader: absolute ($, hours, etc.) or relative (% change). You might want to include both.

Qualitative Measures

While concrete measures in terms of dollars and time are ideal, it won’t always be possible to showcase them. Notably, the earlier you are in your career, the harder it will be to understand how the work you do has translated into real results for your company, so let’s talk a little more about measurement. Remember, every bullet needs to convey an outcome the CEO would care about. For example…

CEO Test Fail:

  • Implemented training program for all 300 employees for environmental awareness

CEO Test Pass:

  • Reduced environmental non-compliance 40% during internal audits on manufacturing floor through designing and implementing company-wide awareness programs and training

This is an example of a qualitative concept that has been quantified. If you dig a little bit, you might be surprised how many things can be measured or are already being tracked by your company or your clients. If you offer measures that stray from dollars and time, make sure that any numbers you cite (in this case 40% non-compliance reduction) can be backed up with empirical proof and not just made-up numbers.

CEO Test Fail:

  • Involved in campus recruiting for firm

CEO Test Pass:

  • Spearheaded recruiting initiatives at multiple schools by organizing, leading and attending recruiting events; identified as a top 5% contributor to recruiting efforts last year

Again, something more qualitative (contribution) is measured, in this case, in terms of contributor ranking.

But sometimes quantifiable results are not available. In those cases, be sure to offer more qualitative measures of your success. Awards are a great example of a qualitative result. But they do not mean much by themselves, so be sure if you have been lauded for excellent performance, that those acknowledgements are included as part of the bullet that led to the award.

CEO Test Fail:

  • Work extensively at client offices; communicate with clients frequently through in-person meetings, email correspondence, and formal letters
  • Star Performer Award for outstanding work performed

CEO Test Pass:

  • Met unrealistic demands and deadlines, kept team morale high, and mastered client software quickly on tax compliance project; leading to a Star Performer Award for my work

Note how this bullet integrates both the specific work that was done and the award that resulted. This makes it meaningful from the CEO’s perspective and it also helps with the High School Test, since an outsider would likely have no idea what a Star Performer Award specifically means in this organization.

Consider these last two bullets:

CEO Test Fail:

  • Managed a team of six on a design project

CEO Test Pass:

  • Managed a team of six to design a new client solution on a compressed timeline under budget

CEO Test Fail:

  • Helped design the firm’s five-year strategic plan

CEO Test Pass:

  • Led three executives in crafting five-year corporate strategic plan; plan praised by CEO as the most comprehensive and actionable in firm’s history

You can see how much more powerful the bullets are when they are associated with outcomes. In the first case, the result was reaching a positive outcome under severe constraints. In the second case, it was an acknowledgement from the CEO himself. In both cases, it is easy to see how this candidate excels vis a vis challenges and expectations.

Even qualitative results matter to the CEO, and they will matter to your future employer and business school adcoms as well. So if you can’t credibly connect your work to a quantifiable outcome, then be sure to ferret out the results that are nonetheless measurable, even if that means relying on more qualitative information.

MBA Resume Protocol

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8. Make it Logical: The Cause and Effect Test

Once you have refined your understanding of the results you have produced in your work and couched each bullet on your resume in lay terms that a high school graduate could understand, it is time to make sure your bullets pass the Cause and Effect Test. If you have really thought about the impact of your work and ensured each bullet passes The CEO Test, then there is a good chance you are also passing The Cause and Effect Test. But it happens occasionally that even though a bullet delineates a clear result, it is unclear how the candidate directly achieved that result. Let’s consider an example:

Cause and Effect Test Fail:

  • Improved margins by 14% and created $23M in new profits.

This bullet passes both of the previous tests: it is clear that the CEO would care about this fact, and anyone with a high school education can follow this language. But what is unclear is exactly how the candidate achieved the result. If the reader can’t connect the dots between your actions and your results, then you will at best get partial credit for them.

Cause and Effect Test Pass:

  • Analyzed daily sales volumes and identified opportunity to increase price point in EMEA Region, resulting in 14% margin improvement and $23M in new profits

Now we can see!! The candidate produced this result through her analytical skills – she looked at a big data set, extracted some valuable takeaways, and used those to drive profitability improvements. Now we want to give her a job!

Let’s look at a few more.

Cause and Effect Test Fail:

  • Received exceptional promotion during a hiring freeze

Cause and Effect Test Pass:

  • Received exceptional promotion during a hiring freeze due to demonstrated excellence in client relationship management and top 10% revenue generation in class

The promotion (effect) is connected to its cause (the candidate’s excellence on two specific dimensions).

Cause and Effect Test Fail:

  • Reduced customer dissatisfaction from 40% to 0 in three months

Cause and Effect Test Pass:

  • Reduced customer dissatisfaction from 40% to 0 in three months by streamlining issue response process, training customer service team, and directly managing key customer relationships

Notice how much more credible the candidate appears because the cause and effect are both clear. The results in the CEO Test will be very hard to contextualize and relate to if you don’t clarify the specific actions you took to achieve them.

If you ensure that each of your bullets not only conveys your results, but also reveals the specific actions you took to produce them, your resume will truly help you differentiate yourself and stand out from even the most competitive field.

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 9. Make it Personal: Individual Contributions

This one final concept is worth mentioning because although The High School Test, The CEO test, and The Cause and Effect Test should get you 95% of the way to artful bullets, there is one other pitfall I sometimes see in resumes and – more problematically – in interviews that is worth addressing: the “We” Problem.

In interviews, it shows up as the insidious “we.” At some point in the telling, your stories devolve from delineating your specific and unique actions that drove the outcome into a vague recounting of everything “we did.” It’s a terrible problem in interviews because “we” is a fictional character that hides you. If your recounting of your professional accomplishments prominently features this character called “we,” instead of conveying the image of a humble team player (what I presume this strategy is meant to achieve), you instead give the impression that you are an ineffectual hanger-on who is just trying to ride the coattails of the achievements of others by lumping yourself into the “we” pile.

Far from making you seem humble and as though you are trying to share success, “we” talk ironically has the opposite effect. Because YOU are the one in the interview room, not your team, your stories are supposed to represent YOU, not your entire team. So if you are telling the interviewer about all the great work “we did,” it makes you seem like you are trying to take credit for the work of others in addition to your own. You will come off as untrustworthy at best and deceitful at worst.

In interviews “we” talk is dangerous to be sure. But in a resume, where no pronouns are used, it can be deadly, because you don’t have the benefit of the interviewer’s follow up questions to clarify which parts were yours and which parts belonged to others. Conveying “we” accomplishments will be perceived as tantamount to lying.

Let’s explore some examples:

Cause and Effect Test Fail:

  • Implemented cost optimization program for a major CPG company, successfully reducing costs by $8M in their raw material sourcing

If your bullet is not focused on your individual contribution, it will fail the Cause and Effect Test. You can tell by the syntax that this candidate is a consultant because he refers to the CPG Company as “they.” He has highlighted the result of the project in this bullet (the bold), but it’s clear that both the outcome and the action (the implementation of a program) were the product of the entire team’s efforts– not the result of his individual work alone. This makes it impossible for the reader to understand what he did and how it translated into impact. So even when the overall result was a team effort, you need to highlight your specific contribution and how it helped lead to the outcome.

Here is another phrasing of this bullet that would fail the Cause and Effect Test.

Cause and Effect Test Fail:

  • Reduced client costs by $8M by modeling alternative sourcing scenarios

That is because this bullet is overreaching. It is clear this candidate did not single-handedly produce the result of $8M in cost reduction because we all know that modeling does not itself directly reduce costs. That is nonetheless what the bullet implies. This candidate was one component of a process involving many others that led to that result. An easy fix for this problem is to start the bullet not with the result, but with the action, and then connect it to the result.

Cause and Effect Test Fail:

  • Modeled alternative sourcing scenarios, leading to client cost reduction of $8M

But this bullet still fails the Cause and Effect test because there is a link missing. How did we get from modeling to cost reduction? The bullet needs to draw a logical connection from actions all the way to results.

Cause and Effect Test Pass:

  • Modeled alternative sourcing scenarios and developed a strategic recommendation for CPG client, enabling cost optimization program which reduced raw material sourcing costs by $8M

This bullet does it. Even though it is a little wordy and convoluted, it manages to convey both the candidate’s actions, the result, and the linkage between them.

But there is still an even better way to word this bullet, and that requires homing in on the very specific way this candidate uniquely contributed to the positive outcome. What was his precise value add? We’re looking for a pinpoint not a generality. It was his analysis that was used to both motivate and structure the cost optimization program. Even though he didn’t do any of the heavy lifting of implementation, his ideas and insights were what made the savings possible. So here is a better way to showcase that accomplishment in its full glory:

Cause and Effect Test Pass:

  • Drove raw material sourcing cost savings of $8M by creating a cost optimization plan for CPG client based on in depth modeling of alternative sourcing scenarios

To pass the Cause and Effect Test, your bullets need to pinpoint your individual contribution and then clearly relate that to the ultimate result, while using language that acknowledges that the outcome was not due to your single-handed efforts.

You can see that to write a bullet like this, you need to think really deeply about what you did and what it meant. You need to understand the specific nature of your contributions and how they fit into the bigger picture. You need to be able to trace their effects as far out into the world as possible and appreciate the change and improvements that later resulted from your efforts.

Doing this well will not only enable you to create an awesome resume, it will actually transform how you communicate yourself, the value you add, and your accomplishments. When you have certainty about the results that you helped create and the specific role you played in achieving them, your self-confidence and communication abilities will naturally expand.

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MBA Resume Protocol

10. Make it Vivid: Colorful Details and Confidentiality

Let’s take one last step to make your bullets even more personal and relatable: add as much colorful detail as confidentiality and the 2-line limit allow. See which of these you prefer:

Cause and Effect Test Pass:

  1. Drove raw material sourcing cost savings of $8M by creating a cost optimization plan for CPG client based on in depth modeling of alternative sourcing scenarios
  2. Drove organic ingredient sourcing cost savings of $8M by creating a cost optimization plan for Fortune 500 beverage company based on in depth modeling of alternative sourcing scenarios

Both these bullets pass the Cause and Effect Test, but notice how much more relatable the second one is when we add the colorful detail. When you know it’s about organic beverage ingredients, the meaning of the bullet connects better with your brain because it’s grounded in reality. It’s no longer some conceptual disembodied impact. It’s about a beverage!! You drink beverages! You know what kinds of things go into them. In fact, maybe this is one you drink!! Maybe it’s Coke or Dr. Pepper or PBR!! The bullet means more to you when you can connect it to what you know.

So once you pass the High School, CEO, and Cause and Effect tests, go back in and add as much vivid detail as you can while still

  1. Not exceeding two lines per bullet and
  2. Preserving confidentiality.

No more than two lines per bullet is the rule.

Trimming them down to this length will likely be your last step. As you are exploring the depth and meaning of your contributions, your bullets will probably get a little bloated at first. But I have never met an accomplishment that couldn’t be conveyed in two lines. It looks better, it imputes your ability to be concise, and it ensures the reader won’t get lost or bored.

If you aren’t able to get your bullets to two lines, you are either lumping multiple accomplishments into one bullet (a no-no), or you are including extraneous detail and thereby likely failing one of the above tests.

As far as confidentiality goes, respect the norms of your company.

This is especially important in some industries (client service, government work, e.g.) I have worked with military clients whose resumes started like this: “I was somewhere doing something, and it went well, but I can’t tell you what it was or where or who was with me.” I’m only barely exaggerating here. It is a unique and fun challenge to convey meaningful results when confidentiality constraints are high.  But confidentiality can be a big deal, and if you violate it in your resume, you will completely destroy the trust of the reader.

So as you look for vivid details to include, go as far as you can without crossing the line. That’s why the above bullet says “Fortune 500 Beverage Company” and not “PepsiCo.” Fortune 500 gives us the sense the company is big and important and listed. And “beverage” tells us the product and industry. That’s as much as we need to know for the bullet to be more meaningful without revealing a client relationship that is strictly confidential.

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MBA Resume Protocol

11. From Weak to Wow: Putting it all together

No matter what industry you plan to enter, your resume needs to make sense to the reader. To recap our MBA Resume Protocol, it is your duty to ensure that each individual one passes these three tests:

The High School Test: A high school graduate with no exposure to your industry could understand every word and concept named.

The CEO Test: If the CEO of your company read each bullet, she would care because the results of your work are clear and your impact on the company’s profit and loss statement, or bottom line, can be directly seen or at least inferred. If direct-to-bottom-line results are not available, then meaningful qualitative results are offered instead.

The Cause and Effect Test: The reader can understand exactly how your work translated to, influenced, or related to the outcome indicated in each bullet; your specific contribution is clear and not disguised by an emphasis on group work or by implying total credit for a team result.

When you keep these three tests in mind, then you can begin to turn your weak bullets into wow bullets. For example:

Weak:

  • Interoperability Test (IOT) Engineer for testing of data card with access points in the network layer for new wi-fi network

High School Test Fail, CEO Test Fail, Cause and Effect Test Fail, and no verbs

Wow:

  • Achieved 100% closure of critical field issues found during network infrastructure trials in Asia, thereby directly impacting the successful acquisition of an $8M contract by the company

Weak:

  • Mentored team in UNIGen Fin product innovation case comp

High School Test Fail, CEO Test Fail, Cause and Effect Test Fail

Wow:

  • Led a six person team of rising college juniors in a case competition as a part of firm’s recruiting efforts, after which all six students applied for an internship vs. firmwide 50% application rate

Weak:

  • Redesigned business reporting structure and metrics to reflect new direction and to drive accountability

High School Test Pass, CEO Test Fail, Cause and Effect Test Fail

Wow:

  • Designed a business reporting structure with increased accountability and measurability for a 50-person division with $300M in revenue, leading to 100% regulatory compliance the following year

If you follow our MBA Resume Protocol, not only will you create wow bullets every time and a wow resume, but you will also transform your understanding of the work you do, the value you add, and the accomplishments you have achieved. Use these lessons as the foundation of your professional communications. When describing your positions in greater detail on LinkedIn, use these same principles. When talking about your achievements in interviews, use these ideas. Even when introducing yourself at networking events, these concepts can come in handy.

Achieving more begins with understanding what you’ve already achieved.

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Good luck building up your foundation in the form of your MBA Resume!!