Are You Smarter than an 11th Grader?

Are you smarter than a high school junior?  If you’re looking for a job, it may not actually matter.  RezScore recently conducted a study of resumes, and we found that the ideal resume is actually written at an 11th grade level.

Going left to right, you see stacks of resumes broken down by the equivalent grade level at which they were written.  The height of the bar represents the average grade the resume received when judged by a human expert.  In other words, resumes written at a 5th grade level tended to receive a grade of 1.75 (about a C-), while resumes written at an 11th grade level received an average grade of 2.66 (roughly a B-).  The chart peaks at 11th grade, with resumes written at a 12th grade level dropping to an average grade of about 2.53 (between a B- and C+).

The important takeaway is that you should be writing intelligently, but not too intelligently.  A good resume should communicate with people, not over people.  If you’re trying to improve your resume by whipping out your thesaurus and beefing up your language, you’re doing it wrong.  We often see people who try to pad their resume by taking sentences like…

  • Led weekly meeting of 12 team members by taking notes and picking discussion topics.

…to something incomprehensible like

  • Executed administrative authority surrounding semi-monthly symposium of a dozen workforce employees; observed ownership over transcription of the proceedings and selection of relevant subject matters of discourse.

Yuck!   If your accomplishments speak for themselves, you don’t need this fluff.

Righting Your Writing

“Hold the phone!” you may be thinking.  “How did the geniuses at RezScore decide if a resume is written at a 5th  or an 11th grade level?”  You may be surprised to learn that measuring the readability of a document is actually a very old and well documented science.  People have been calculating the school grade equivalency of documents for over 50 years.  In fact, about a dozen such metrics of readability have been invented, each of which has their pros and cons.  For this blog post, we bucketed resumes by their Flesch-Kincaid score because it spits out a friendly grade level.  In practice we prefer to use the SMOG index, partly because it correlates better, but mostly because of its cool acronym (Simple Measure of Gobbledygook).

The good news for you?  Most word processors have been calculating these scores for decades.  If you’re using Microsoft Word, you can follow these simple instructions to check your writing style as you write your resume.  Many other word processors have similar tools.  Use them!

Big Picture

If your resume is already written at a 12th grade level, there’s no reason to panic.  For starters, the difference in perceived quality between an 11th grade and 12th grade resume is slight.  Additionally, you’re in great company, as fully half of all resumes are already written at this level:

If you’re in the roughly 40% of people whose resume is written at a 10th or lower grade level, you should certainly take the effort to improve your work.  Judgement drops significantly as the grade level drops.

Finally it’s worth pointing out that this metric disadvantages people in the medical, biochemical, and pharmaceutical sectors, who frequently work with very long scientific names that artificially alter the readability of the document.  If you fall into this specialty industry, you should take some extra effort to make sure your resume could be understood by somebody who doesn’t have a degree in chemical engineering.  It’s very likely the HR director won’t be able to tell deoxyribonucleic acid from a hole in the ground.  Be scientific where you must, but take any opportunity you can to shift the conversation to dollars and cents.

Remember, your resume is more likely to be read by Ferris Bueller or Steve Stifler than Michio Kaku.  Plan accordingly.

“Nice resume, bro!”

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