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Ask an Ethicist: Embellishing on a résumé

In preparation for Fall Career Days at Penn State, we are publishing a five-part series retailed to the career-fair. In many cases, the résumé is your first point of contact with the employer. You know how important it is and you really want to stand out from the competition. Is it ethical to embellish or exaggerate a bit on your résumé?

In partnership with the Rock Ethics Institute, Penn State Today’s feature column, "Ask an Ethicist," aims to shed light on ethical questions from our readers. Each article in this column will feature a different ethical question answered by a Penn State ethicist. We invite you to ask a question by filling out and submitting this form. An archive of the columns can be found on the Rock Ethics Institute website.

Question: I am starting the process of applying for internships, so I need to create a résumé. I have a résumé that I’ve used to apply for part-time jobs, but now I need to create a professional résumé that is geared towards internships in the field of health promotions. I have some volunteer experience and I’ve been very involved in THON and several clubs. My friends say it is okay to embellish my experiences a bit and make a little more out of my involvement in some of my activities. I was told this is normal to do on a résumé. I am concerned though that this would make me appear dishonest. Is it ethical for me to embellish or exaggerate on my résumé?  

Erica Kryst HeadshotAn ethicist responds: Whether you are applying to a full-time job or an internship, your résumé should paint the best possible picture of you, your skills, and your experience in relation to the field or position to which you are applying. A résumé typically includes your education, part-time job, internship experience, leadership experience and involvement, service or volunteer activities, study abroad, skills, and any honors or awards you have received.  Depending on the field or position you are applying to, you want to emphasize the skills or experiences you have that are directly related to that position or field.  Your goal is to present yourself as a qualified, new professional.  

While you are trying to present your best self to the potential employer, it can be tempting to embellish or exaggerate about your educational qualifications or experiences. Falsifying information on your résumé or anywhere in the application process is an unethical decision (check out this podcast and article from the Wharton School for more insight: When do exaggerations and misstatements cross the line?”). Yet, you may be thinking: who is really going to know, right? It won’t hurt to round up your GPA from a 2.98 to a 3.0, or to list projects or achievements from a student organization you were a member of, regardless of your involvement in that club, right? When you submit your résumé to a company or hand it to an employer at a career fair, that information is perceived as being an honest representation of you as a candidate. If information is later found to be false, it could damage your professional image and your credibility with that company. How would they know if you’ve included false information? Well, for one, people talk! You never know who people know, especially with such a large alumni network at Penn State. Also, your employers will likely end up speaking with key people from the experiences on your résumé when they conduct reference checks. You want your stories to match up.  The most likely way that embellishing on a résumé will catch up with you though is during the interview itself. Often, the candidate’s résumé is used to guide the questions asked during an interview, meaning that you could be asked about anything listed on your résumé. It will become apparent rather quickly that you really don’t know what you are talking about. If you are caught in a lie, your chances for that position or for working in that company are really over.

Presenting exaggerated and inaccurate information on your résumé is unethical. You want to feel confident and comfortable in how you are representing yourself as a candidate. There are many ways you can achieve your goals without including false or exaggerated information. Here are a few tips:

  • Numbers are important!  In your bullet points, try to include numbers wherever possible. How many people did you lead as president of your club? How much (%) did you increase efficiency when you reorganized that file system? How much product did you sell during your shift as a waitress? These numbers help quantify your accomplishments and give employers information about the scope and scale of your experience.
  • Write strong bullet points. Try to capture your responsibilities, skills, and accomplishments using strong verbs that truly convey what YOU did in your position.
  • Organize information in a way that makes sense for the position for which you are applying. If you completed a Health Promotions internship at UHS, don’t list it last in your experience section. Move important information close to the top of the résumé so the employers see it first.

Finally, it is really important to have someone else look at your résumé (and I’m not just talking about your parents)! There are many career professionals on campus who can help you make the most of your résumé. You can have your résumé reviewed at Penn State Career Services, located in the Bank of America Career Services Center, every day from 8:30 a.m. - 4:30 p.m. There may also be résumé assistance available in your college, so check your college’s website to see what resources they offer for résumé help!  Good luck with your internship and job searches and don’t forget to attend Fall Career Days from September 13-15!

 Erica L. Kryst is a career counselor at Penn State Career Services where she also teaches career development courses and leads the Peer Career Assistant program. She is also a PhD Candidate in Educational Theory and Policy with a minor in Comparative and International Education in the Department of Education Policy Studies at Penn State.

Have a question? Submit it here.

Note: The "Ask an Ethicist" column is a forum to promote ethical awareness and inquiry across the Penn State community. These articles represent the interests and judgments of each author as an individual scholar and are neither official positions of the Rock Ethics Institute nor Penn State University. They are designed to offer a possible approach to a subject and are not intended as definitive statements on what is or is not ethical in any given situation. Read the full disclaimer.