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The "Smart 5th Grader Test" for Military Résumés (and Civilians Too!)

Resumes & Cover Letters

I'm proud to have helped thousands of military veterans with their career transition, résumés, and interviews. By far one of the most common questions I get asked by veterans is, "How can I translate my experience in a way that recruiters can easily understand?" This question also applies to civilian job seekers from other occupations, but it's particularly relevant for vets and military spouses. My answer to this question is simple - apply what I've dubbed the "Smart 5th Grader Test" by asking:

"Would a smart 5th grader understand the point you're making?"

This is not to say you should speak condescendingly to a civilian recruiter. (You shouldn't speak condescendingly to a smart 5th grade either!) But you should describe your experience in a way that is simple, positive, concise, and relevant to the audience. In talking with recruiters from many industries, I've realized most civilian recruiters have about the same understanding of the military as an intelligent 11-year old might. Here are the three questions on my "Smart 5th Grader Test":

1) Are you using easily-understood terms?:

Civilian recruiters and smart 5th graders don't usually understand a lot of military lingo. So don't use military acronyms, jargon, and terminology that isn't commonly understood by the average civilian. When you use simple words it's just easier for recruiters to understand what you're talking about and to see why you're a great candidate for a civilian job.

It may be fair to use common abbreviations like "US" for United States or even "FBI" for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. But don't make assumptions about what civilians might understand. Even very common military terms have very different meanings in the land of civilians. For example, "joint" is a commonly used military term. But to a civilian "joint" probably means something about bones in your body or marijuana. Consider describing a joint force as "interdepartmental," or "inter-agency," or "collaborative," for instance.

2) Are you broadcasting good news only?:

While I recognize the business of fighting war isn't always good news, you should only share good news on your civilian résumé. Highlight the best results you achieved, the beneficial outcomes you influenced, the positive impact you've had on people's lives, and how you've made the world a better place. A résumé is not a job description, so as often as possible, cite specific "good news" using !@#$%, the Signs of a Great Résumé:

"!" Experiences that were “amazing!”

"@" Defining places, dates and things

"#" Numbers that prove past successes

"$" Dollar values of your contributions

"%" Figures that growth and results

Not every point you make has to be quantified with a #, $, or %. The good news you're highlighting might be "@" a point in your career that is relevant or may just be "!" remarkable in and of itself, even without #, $, or %. (Oh, and don't actually use exclamation points on your résumé; it might seem like you're yelling at someone.)

3) Are you concisely relaying the most relevant information?:

Neither a civilian recruiter nor a smart 5th grader has a long attention span. You have to make your point succinctly. A recruiter usually has a ton of résumés to review or candidates to interview. A smart 5th grader wants to get back to chatting with friends on whatever the latest phone app is! Try to reduce the number of background details you share about your examples and focus only on the most relevant parts of your experience. When possible, tie your experiences to the qualifications of the job posting and be sure to include !@#$%.

Grade Yourself:

If you answered yes to these three questions, congratulations: you've passed the "Smart 5th Grader Test." If you have a sharp 11-year old in your life, try it out on them and see if they understand the point you're making. Then let them get back to their Instagram or whatever kids are doing these days!

For more of my best résumé and interview tips visit

This insight really seems to resonate with the veterans and civilians who I help with résumés. What do you think? #hirevets #veterans #hero2hired #resume

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