Passive Voice: How to Avoid this Costly Resume Choice

passive voiceIt’s time to take a trip on the “way back when” time machine. Today, we’re going back to that day in junior high where Ms. Periwinkle preached on about the dangers of writing in the passive voice.

To this day, we still have nightmares about red circles on our essay assignments. Sure, you may have locked these memories away into the “lessons we’ll never use as adults” category. But identifying and eliminating the passive voice can make a big difference in your job search today.

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 frowned upon by savvy prospective employers.

With that being, let’s delve into passive voice 101 at it relates to scoring the job of your dreams.

Turning Passive into Active

In technical terms, passive writing occurs when the verb acts on the object of the sentence instead of the object doing the activity. “I made this” is a simple example of the object taking an action. In the meantime, “this was made by me” conveys the same information. Yet, the verb now becomes the focal point of the sentence. Plus, the phrasing added a unnecessary words that could potentially push you over that preferred one-page resume limit.

For additional practice, here’s a real world examples of changing a passive sentence to make it 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.”

And another:

  • 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.”

When Passive Voice 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? 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 large growth or a big accomplishment occurred. In this case, your individual contributions seem difficult to explain in a few sentences. In this case, the passive voice can come to the rescue. It allows you to promote the accomplishment without making it look like you’re taking all the credit. For example:

“All departments exceeded sales goals during my tenure.”

Another instance where the passive voice can be used in an expert manner? When the action itself should be the highlight of the sentence. Take this sentence for example:

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

Here, the passive voice instantly draws the reader’s attention to the impressive accomplishment of earning “the top prize” which puts a bigger impact on the achievement.

General Guidance on Passive vs Active

By now, you may be ready  bust out that red pen and turn your resume into a horror show that would make Ms. Periwinkle proud. But 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. People often use the past tense 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. Examples of past tense and implied action without using passive voice include”

  • “Managed a team”
  • “Accomplished a task”
  • “Earned top honors”

Still not sure what is active versus passive? Try this handy, easy, and fun way to test for the passive voice:

Add “by zombies” after the verb. If the sentence still makes sense, you’ve got a passive (and instantly spooky) sentence structure.

Your resume, cover letter, and job prospects will thank you!


For this post, YouTern thanks our friends at Simply Hired.


Simply Hired



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