How to Make Awards Work For You (On Your Resume)

Though awards could be a selling point of your resume, for most people, they fall sort of... flat. A typical "awards" section on a resume looks something like this:

  • Alpha Nu Scholarship Recipient (2010).
  • 1st Place, Innovation Award (2009).

Although the second bullet is a bit better than the first one, both are fairly meaningless. The reason is that both are totally "unquantified." I have no idea what these awards really mean.

Awards can be a selling for your application because they show at least one occasion where you were, objectively, better than everyone else. So, your job is to show that this is what that award means.

Make it meaningful!

How do you do that? Tell the reader these details:

  • How selective is the award? It's great that you won an award, but there's a big difference between placing first out of 5 teams and placing first out of 500. Tell me how many people you beat out to get that award (percentage or absolute numbers are both fine).
  • What is the award for? I have no idea what the John R. Robertson award is. Tell me why you won the award. Was it academic achievement, test scores, a business plan, etc?
  • What did you win? A good way to make an award "meaningful" is to tell me what you won. If you received a $50,000 scholarship, I know you must have done something pretty cool to get that. They don't just throw $50,000 at anyone.

So next time you're writing your resume, I want to see this instead:

  • Alpha Nu Scholarship Recipient (2010). Selected out of 1,500 students to receive $50,000 academic scholarship from Greenberg Bank due to outstanding academic performance and community involvement.
  • 1st Place, Innovation Award (2009). Awarded most innovative senior project (out of 120 senior projects) by student and faculty vote.

This Is About More Than Just Awards

Before you assume that this doesn't apply to you (because you don't have any awards), remember this is about more than just awards.

Ultimately, this is about how you quantify what your accomplishments, and it's not always as straightforward as it might seem.

Suppose you wrote this on your resume under your projects section:

  • Snakes and Ladders (iPhone App): Built iPhone game for [...].

That's neat and all. But it's not nearly as good as this:

  • Snakes and Ladders (iPhone App): Built iPhone game for [...]. Downloaded 10,000 times and received rating of 4.7 out of 5.0.

The above one shows that it wasn't complete junk, because it got good ratings and a decent number of people downloaded it. But is 10,000 downloads great, or just decent? I don't know - and neither will the person reading your resume.

An even better way of doing this is if you can put it in a way that other people will understand. For example:

  • Snakes and Ladders (iPhone App): Built iPhone game for [...]. Downloaded 10,000 times and received rating of 4.7 out of 5.0. Ranked as #2 game on iPhone App Store in June 2011.

So remember: make your accomplishments meaningful.

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