The Art of Looking Good


When I’m applying for jobs or scholarships, I’m often reminded to twist the wording on my resumes, cover letters, and applications (not even to mention interviews) to make myself and my experiences look better than they actually are.

I’ve never really stopped to think about how this makes me feel, but I’ll do so now.

Lying is unethical, in my opinion. So is intentionally misrepresenting the truth, which is what you do when you “word things differently,” as they say. I’ve just realized how shameful it is in my mind that being employable and successful in our society is based on our ability to paint ourselves in brighter hues than we really deserve to be painted in.

This summer, I’ll be volunteering at a summer camp for kids in Washington Heights, a neighborhood in Manhattan, where I’ll probably be doing stuff like arts and crafts with them. The idea of the camp is to promote health and mental wellness, though I don’t see how that’s really what I’m doing. I’ll basically be playing games with some kids from the city. But how will it go on my resume? “Volunteered at a day camp for underprivileged children of recent immigrants in north Manhattan, teaching them about health and mental wellness.”

Yeah, something like that.

And I’ll probably mention something about how I turned down a job that would’ve paid me $2,600 for this opportunity.

And here’s the kicker—nobody’s going to ask me what I actually did with these kids. Nobody’s going to go check five or ten years down the line to see if any of my interventions actually did any good in preventing them from developing illnesses like diabetes and depression. Nobody’s going to ask these kids if they enjoyed their time with me. Chances are, nobody’s even going to ask for a recommendation from my supervisor.

But I still get to put this crap on my resume like it’s such an amazing thing that I did. Me, privileged white girl from Ohio, helping these poor little immigrant children learn how to stay healthy, all for no pay. Commuting an hour there and back each day from Queens! In the summer heat! Oh, and working for my parents for a whole month after that to pay them back for sending me there.

This is what I call the art of looking good. It’s how we get into schools like Northwestern and get the sort of jobs that we’ll all be getting afterwards. Playing this game makes me sick. The thought that I, a person who loves to write and understands the power of words, am twisting them around so casually to get ahead in life, disgusts me.

I’m not naive enough to opt out of this game, because I do want to be successful in life, and clearly that’s what it takes these days. But I play this game halfheartedly, and I protest against it and buckle under its weight every agonizing step of the way.

I wish I could’ve written on my college application that, you know what, the prestigious internship I did in Israel the summer before senior year of high school was awful. I learned nothing except that I hate doing scientific research and I hate religion. I also learned that the sacrifices I made to be able to go there were all for nothing. I didn’t make any friends there. I did learn a bit about my native country, but not much, and nothing I couldn’t have learned by touring the country with my dad, which would’ve been significantly more fun.

But that’s not at all what I wrote on my college application, or else I very well might not be sitting in this Northwestern dorm right now.

Nobody wants to hear about my failures, no matter how much they taught me. Like when they ask you about your weaknesses in a job interview, they don’t really want to know that sometimes the amount of work you have makes you cry, or that sometimes you check Facebook at work, or that several times you accidentally made a comment to a coworker that might be interpreted as racist. They want to know that you have some minuscule barely-significant flaw, but don’t worry, you’re working on it!

Likewise, if I end this summer feeling like I accomplished nothing with these kids, nobody wants to know that, so that’s not what’ll go on my resume. My resume will say that I taught. I helped. I volunteered. Never, ever will it say that I failed. Even if I do.

Comments

  1. Ian says

    Another interesting bit is that the Romans were the ones who started “Letters of Recommendation”. You had to get them in order to rise in their bureaucracy, and this led to nepotism and is one facet of the “societal decay” that some historians claim doomed the Romans.

    Great post as always.

  2. Tim says

    I never liked curricula because it is rarely a depiction of yourself then a list of graduations, recommendations and certifications.

    But the problem is that this is often what makes or breaks an employment opportunity. I have seen potential empoyers just count the lines on a curriculum and then give the position to the winner. Heck, the position I am currently in did I only get because I had exactly one certificate more than my competitors.

    • says

      You know, you would think that it’d be in employers’ best interests to find the best person for the job rather than essentially picking one at random, no?

  3. says

    One of my nephews once was screaming because my brother wouldn’t let him do something (I believe he was only 4 at the time). He kept screaming that “it’s not fair”. Finally, exasperated, my brother said, “nobody said life was fair”. Unfortunately, life many times isn’t fair. But we end up playing the game, learning from our successes and failures. We don’t always have to like it, but we take it for what it is and move on.