Skip to content

The Overwhelming Value Of Being Specific

Want to know a simple tactic that will make your resume pop and put you at the top of the short lists of hiring managers?

Eliminate the competition. Got the guts for that? Alright, we’re going to need a semi trailer, a printing store willing to overlook certain inaccuracies and “embellishments” in job ads we’ll be printing on large banners, several dozen gallons of horse tranquilizer…

Nah, just kidding.

The real “tactic” is this: Be fucking specific.

“Alright Tom – what, specifically, do you mean by that?”

Glad you should ask.

I mean this: Whenever you’re trying to communicate the value you can offer to someone else, be fucking specific. Show them exactly what you can do for them.

People crave specificity. When they’re looking to buy a product, they want something that promises a specific end result. Likewise, when someone is looking to hire you, they want you to be able to help them accomplish specific things.

This is why career counselors will tell you to list specific achievements on your resume, along with numbers.

It’s why saying, “I saved my last company lots of time and money” isn’t nearly as valuable as saying, “I saved my last company 230 man-hours and $1,955 over two weeks”.

It’s also why design students always have to turn in process notebooks with their finished projects. Professors want to see the specific process they took achieve their designs.

Example #1: HelloMichael

Speaking of the importance of process notebooks, I’d like to show you an absolutely fantanstic personal website I came across the other day.

HelloMichael is the personal website of Michael Ngo, a fairly recent graduate of Simon Frasier University and current web developer. Here’s a quick peek at his site:


…which does not do it justice in the slightest. Seriously, you just need to go check it out for yourself. The design is wonderful; in fact, it won a Site of the Day award from Awwwards back in December.

However, Michael’s overall design is not what impressed me the most about his site. Rather, it’s the pages he created for each of the projects in his portfolio.

While Michael could have simply taken a screenshot of each website he developed and been done with it, he instead decided to get specific and show off his process.

Take his portfolio page for the Foodsters website, for example.

In it, he explains his entire design process, starting with shaping the site’s branding and doing research, moving on to visual identity development, then mapping out the user experience, and finally explaining the development cycle – both for the front-end design and back-end code.

Development Process

On top of all that, he includes a section on the results of the project. He includes tweets from other restaurants and people in the industry commenting on the redesign, and finally reveals that… the business ended up failing.

But that’s ok. As Leo Widrich says in our podcast interview, failing in entrepreneurship can actually be a good thing if you can take the experience and explain what you learned from it.

And besides, Michael is a designer, and his project page shows that the actual site got great feedback from the community.

Most imporantly, though, is that Michael has shown us exactly how he went about doing the site’s redesign. He’s given us the specific steps he took to achieve the end result.

Example #2: The $100 Ebook

Here’s an example that illustrates how showing the path to an end result can make a product much more appealing.

I’m currently working on my first actual book (yep!). To educate myself on how to best go about this process, I recently bought Nathan Barry’s ebook Authority, which is all about how to write, publish, and market books.

Except, I didn’t just buy the book.

Nathan actually offers his book in three different package. By itself, the book (ebook, actually – it doesn’t come in print) sells for $39.

I know what you’re probably thinking:

“$39 for an ebook? That’s ridonkulous.”

…or maybe I’m wrong, and you actually think that’s cheap because you’re used to being ripped off at your local campus bookstore. (If you’d like to get ripped off a little less, here are some textbook-buying tips.)

Anyway, most people would probably agree that $39 is a pretty steep price for an ebook. But lots of people still buy it, because for that price he’s offering a guide that solves a specific problem: how to write and publish a book. That’s what I’m trying to do, and $39 is certainly a fair price in my mind for that information.

But wait – I didn’t pay $39 for Nathan’s book. I paid $99.

Nathan’s mid-tier package for Authority offers some cool bonuses to go along with the book: you get some Photoshop templates for designing book covers, a few video tutorials, and five video interviews with successful ebook authors.

Those things are all great, but there’s one other bonus feature that I had to have: a 90-day launch plan that lists step-by-step instructions for launching a book.

That’s what I paid the extra $60 for – specific instructions on what to do and exactly when to do it. As a soon-to-be author who wants to maximize the exposure of my first book, this 90-day plan seemed almost more valuable to me than the book itself.

Time for You to Get Specific

So you’ve read the examples. You understand the value of being specific. You’re looking over your roommate’s resume which says, “Helped manager with projects” under their entry for their last job and laughing at them. You’re setting their resume on fire, tearing your clothes off, and shouting, “BEELZEBUB HAS RETURNED” while your eyes roll back into your hea-

-but let’s get back on topic here. How can you be more specific in representing your own skills and accomplishments?

Here are a few ideas:

Highlight specific accomplishments on your resume. When writing your job history, don’t just list the duties at your last job. Talk about specific things you did, or specific (and positive) feedback you received from superiors or customers. Here’s an example (and my full resume if you’d like to see more):


Quantify it. Use numbers ‘n shit. This goes hand-in-hand with the last tip; if you can cite specific numbers to go along with your accomplishments – hours you saved the company, increased revenue or expenses cut, etc – list them. They help your case immensely.

Put a portfolio on your personal website. Recruiters don’t just want a resume or a contact form; they want to see what you can do. What better way to show them than to display what you’ve already done? A portfolio does that perfectly, and having it on your website makes it easy for you to get your foot into the interview room. If you don’t have your own website, I’ll teach you how to build one.

Keep a record of your progress. I mentioned before that design students are often required to build a process notebook for each of their projects – a record of how they went about achieving the end result. You should do this as well, as it’ll show off how you’ve grown and progressed. If you’re a programmer, your GitHub profile can do this. If you’re a film student, put together a sampler of how your work has progressed.  If you’re in a different field, get imaginative.

Prepare for interview questions beforehand. You can be sure that interviewers will ask you questions about specific experiences. Think about your accomplishments before the interview – times when you innovated, overcame difficulties, dealt with people who weren’t easy to get along with, etc – and come up with answers you can recall when the questions are asked.

“What if I CAN’T be Specific?”

Some majors lend themselves to more specificity than others.

Design students are constantly doing projects. Computer science majors are always tucking new pieces of code under their belts. Circus majors are always shooting themselves out of cannons, getting their friends to take pictures, and building portfolios with them.


But other majors make it harder for you to show off specific accomplishments.

If you’re majoring in something like psychology, management, marketing – basically, something that doesn’t focus on a hard skill – how do you come up with specific examples of work to show employers and recruiters?

The answer: Don’t rely on your major. Get out there and gain specific experience.

I grew up with lots of people telling me not to major in the fields I just mentioned, because they don’t teach hard skills and therefore make it harder to get a job. And I believed them…

…but I don’t anymore.

You see, even if you’re majoring in a “softer” area that doesn’t have you building things all the time, you can still go out and gain experience that’ll let you be specific when communicating your skills and abilities.

Here are a few ideas to get you started:

Volunteer. If you see an opportunity where you can put what you’ve learned to work in your community, take it. You can even be forward and ask a business you like if you can help them out. Example: If you’re a marketing major who frequents a local co-op, offer to build them a marketing plan for free and ask if they’ll provide feedback. Even if they don’t use it, it’s a portfolio item – and you might even get a referral out of the deal.

Start a blog. I’ve written about the many reasons you should have a blog already, but creating one can be especially helpful if you’re in a more general major. Writing blog posts can show employers the progression of your thoughts and what you’ve learned over time. It also positions you as an expert in your area, since you’re writing to teach others (even if you’re not an expert, you know more than someone else).

Example: If you’re a psychology major, you could start a blog that teaches people about topics in psychology – and how they can use this knowledge to improve their lives (overcoming heuristics and biases, being more mindful, etc). You can check out my tutorial on creating a successful blog if this type of thing interests you.

Get specific experience in other areas. You’ve seen the lists of qualities employers look for in candidates, right? Often, there are qualities that actually trump specific experience or knowledge in your major area, such as:

  • Communication skills
  • Leadership abililty
  • Planning and organizing skills
  • Computer proficiency

In fact, in a job outlook survey done by the National Association of College and Employers, technical knowledge ranked 7th in the list of qualities that employers wanted to see.

Obviously this should tell you that it would be highly beneficial to cultivate these other skills.

But besides that fact, this also provides you with more opportunities to gain specific experience you can show off. You can:

  • Take a speech class, join Toastmasters, or give presentations at Ignite events (like I did) to gain speaking experience
  • Become an officer in an on-campus organization to gain leadership experience
  • Help a club, business, or your local library to plan a big event in order to gain planning experience
  • Use Codecademy or Lynda to get good at a coding language or computer program, which lets you show off specific computer skills

The key here is to get out there and get experience. Experience is what lets you be specific; it lets you draw back on specific experiences.

Wow, that was redundant…

Anyway, my laptop battery is dying, and this coffee shop has way too many windows and is thus unable to keep out the -5,000,000 degree weather Iowa has graciously bestowed upon us. So I’ll wrap it up here.

Before I go, I’ve got one specific request for you:

If you found this article helpful, please share it with a friend who could use it. Or just post it on Facebook, Twitter, or the bathroom wall of your local IHOP.

Lastly, if you’d like to get more awesome content like this, sign up for the College Info Geek newsletter using the box below this article! If you have a question about your specific situation or goals, ask me in the comments or on Twitter.