February 13, 2012

On Résumés

Print More

My résumé depresses me. That’s not because it’s poorly constructed — I like to think that come senior year, all the trips I’ve made to the good people at Cornell Career Services will have resulted in something that will make employers want to hire me. But the whole concept of a résumé depresses me. Every meaningful accomplishment in my life fits on an 8.5” x 11” sheet of paper? It rivals the Seasonal Affective Disorder from a non-2012 Ithaca winter.

I realize there are all sorts of practical reasons why résumés are necessary and useful things. But imagine, if you will, a world where the résumé was replaced with a play-by-play of your activities for a regular week. And then, just for the sake of argument, imagine that applications were all honest and not every graduate school application was filled with hours of fixing cancer, poverty and global warming in one fell swoop. (Though I have been told that these people do actually exist. Major props to you. Now get back to the lab.) What would your hours, stripped of self-important language and unnecessarily elaborate phrasing, say about you?

Mine would probably say that I spend a ridiculous amount of time cooking.  When I’m stressed out, I cook, when I’m happy, I cook. When I’m particularly angry or cheerful or confused, I churn out enough food for a family of seven and then add dessert. (And how do you think I then cope with the stress of not having enough time to finish all my work? It’s a vicious cycle). Before I managed to get this habit under control, I was known to sometimes spend more time in the kitchen during the day than asleep at night.

And predictably, a small gnawing voice inside of me wonders if I could legitimize all that “wasted” time. What if I could turn, “Puttered around in the kitchen making food that I mostly ended up feeding to other people, because college students are always hungry,” into … ? Oh, I don’t know. Something that makes it sound like I ooze leadership and charisma and dynamo out the ears. Because that’s always the goal, right? To make everything sound like you’re a leader.

We all feel this need to polish everything we do to a high sheen. We say “supported critical archival and documentation efforts,” because, well, it wouldn’t be appropriate to say “filed a bunch of paper that quite honestly is probably never going to get looked at again, then browsed the Internet for the rest of the time.” And if we’re not careful, those things suddenly become the focus. Somehow those mindless internship hours factor more into self-identity than how we spend our Friday nights. A prelim score becomes more meaningful than our willingness to help out a struggling classmate. A high GPA matters more than taking really (difficult, challenging and) awesome classes.

There’s this pathology I see, being surrounded by ambitious, high-achieving people, of thinking that one must be defined by what’s written on the résumé. And I’m here, in this season of second and third and final round interviews and offers, to remind you that this is a lie. We’ve all gotten really good at climbing to the top through a system that values specific things, but by no means does that force us to define ourselves by that system. Those manicured lines of typography are a useful metric, used by institutions, to decide whether or not you’re going to be a useful cog in their machine. Nothing more.

Sit down, and think about how you spent your last 48 hours. Are you enjoying a class? Enjoying it should define you more than the grade you get. Do you have a passion for medicine/finance/research? You are the same person before and after getting accepted (or rejected) by Harvard Medical School/Goldman Sachs/MIT.

Think about the small things. The things that happen once a week, maybe once a month — the ones that don’t translate into some sort of official position that you can write down. What about the hours spent counseling a friend the night before an exam? Where does that go? And the 3 a.m. discussions about different worldviews, are those filed under “Skills,” “Leadership Experience” or ‘”Educational Background”?

Think about your hours. Think about how they translate into joy, and not just into titles. They say more about you than a résumé ever could.

Because, well, the alternative is that this exercise in thinking about how we spend our time would just reveal that we spend a truly appalling amount of our time browsing through other people’s Facebook profiles. (Ahem, pardon me. Timelines.) We all know that can’t be true.

Original Author: Deborah Liu