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A common cultural barrier our clients encounter over and over again is: How do you ‘sell’ yourself in an individualistic culture when it feels uncomfortable?
This challenge comes up when clients apply for new jobs, graduate studies, or fellowships. In my experience the issue is only partly linguistic. Of course it’s always a best practice to have someone edit your cover letter, resume, or application essay for errors and potentially confusing language, but that’s the final and easiest step. The real issue is that if you want to pursue the opportunity, you have to talk about yourself and why you are special, and for some people that feels deeply uncomfortable.
English learners struggle with how to talk about themselves in a way that highlights skills and accomplishments but doesn’t come across (that’s a phrasal verb) as bragging.
The irony is that the people I have met who are uncomfortable with talking about themselves are usually exceptionally accomplished and have so much to offer their potential employer or graduate program, but this doesn’t shine through when they are presenting their experience and talents. For some, it’s just not their personality to “toot their own horn.” For others, it’s culturally inappropriate to point to individual accomplishments over the team.
Additionally, most of us at one point have worked with a person who is very good at drawing attention to themselves, perhaps even taking credit in sneaky ways for the hard work of others – a person who can generate lots of “hype” without much substance, and this type of personality leaves a bad taste in our mouths.
The truth is, in U.S. culture you must be able to point to your individual accomplishments, skills and unique talents if you want to be considered for any competitive selection. Luckily, there are some concrete ways to do this that remain authentic and can help you stand out without bragging. Whether you are drafting a cover letter or application essay or preparing talking points for an interview, try the following techniques:
1. “Show, don’t tell”: in other words, be prepared with specific examples of your work, experience, skills or accomplishments that can “show” us what we need know rather than trying to explain in general terms.
Think back over your entire work history, including volunteer jobs, and identify times when you solved a problem for someone with your own initiative, whether or not it was an expected part of your job. These are often the stories that best show who you are.
For example, I was once asked in a job interview to talk about a time I helped a student with a challenge. A strong memory popped into my mind; it didn’t take place in the classroom at all and had nothing to do with English instruction, but I told the story anyway.
This is what happened: When I was teaching 6th grade, the school had an arbitrary rule that English language students couldn’t enroll in band class and play instruments. The thinking was that they should be spending all their class time on acquiring English. My colleagues and I advocated to remove the rule; we had many students who had played instruments in their countries prior to coming to the U.S. and they wanted to continue. We also knew that for students who were struggling academically because of English, band class was one place where they could excel and feel good about themselves.
One of my Thai students wanted to play the saxophone more than anything, but her parents needed help finding an affordable one. After school one day I went with the student and her mom to the music store that rents instruments to help explain the contract terms and pricing and fill out the paperwork properly. When the student finally had the saxophone in her hands, the three of us danced in the parking lot together.
The interviewers said, “Very good.” I was offered the job the next day.
Why? I could have said, “I care deeply about my students and I want to help them” (telling) but the story showed so much more: I understand how language acquisition works (the silly rule about not playing instruments), I am empathetic to the daily challenges of assimilating in a new country, I care about my students, and I am willing to help even when what is needed is not explicitly included in my job description (this shows me to be a problem solver).
Take some time to mentally go back through your entire work history and recall stories that show your best self. Start a list so you can choose specific stories for whatever you need to show in an application or interview. Rehearse them out loud to prepare for interviews.
2. Use action verbs when describing your work and choose the most accurate one for each activity or accomplishment.
This part is actually related to language development because you may feel you just don’t have the range of vocabulary in English that you need. But guess what? That doesn’t matter. Good writers use a thesaurus to mix up their vocabulary when they feel stuck, and there is no shame in using a word bank (see below).
For example, perhaps you managed a project, and ‘managed’ may be accurate, but that’s a broad term that doesn’t tell us much.
Did you also:
- plan and initiate the project before it launched?
- create something that didn’t previously exist in order to solve a problem, and also design a system for it?
- offer your idea because you knew it would make things better?
If so, ‘managed’ doesn’t do enough to highlight your innovation and initiative. Try something like this instead: “Designed, established and implemented a new accountability system for . . . which increased sales by __% in six months.” Then, in the spirit of showing rather than telling, go further and tell a quick story about how your project, idea, or approach positively benefited a specific person or group.
Another example I typically see across industries is when someone figures out a way to make some existing part of the job or department much better. “Improved” may be a verb that comes to mind, but again, that’s not specific enough and doesn’t fully capture the impact of what happened. “Revitalized” sounds more exciting, and “streamlined” sounds more specific (in general you improved it, but specifically you made it more efficient).
Here is a fantastic list of action verbs for all kinds of work activities, categorized by function. Have a look and choose the ones that best capture what you do or did.
3. Use specific adjectives to describe your skills and contributions and then back them up with stories/examples.
This is the same approach as above. Here is another useful list of specific and effective adjectives for describing professional skills organized by trait.
Are you the person in the office who encourages others to do their best work? Then perhaps you are team-minded. Do people feel comfortable approaching you with their work issues? Then you are personable. Do you work in an intense environment that is constantly changing and presenting new challenges? Then you are resourceful, agile, and multi-faceted.
Go through the list and write down all the power adjectives that you believe describe you. Then mine your memory for specific stories that show these traits.
In short, if you can take the time to brainstorm and select your best stories of your contributions and problem-solving abilities, write them out, choose specific action verbs and descriptive adjectives, and then practice these examples until you can tell the stories smoothly, you’ll have everything you need to show any employer or graduate program your unique qualities without ever having to say, “I’m great and you should select me because I’m great.”