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Speaking civilian: Taking military jargon off of your resume

When it comes to applying for jobs in the civilian sector, even VA jobs, transitioning military personnel like you need to remember to anticipate your audience when building your resume, and emphasize what you learned in the military without relying on jargon.

Yes, some of our recruiters and hiring managers are Veterans like you, but there are plenty who are not. All that jargon is like a foreign language, and it can make your resume confusing for folks who have not served.

Don’t take the chance that the person reading your resume will understand the words, phrases, and especially acronyms you use in the military. Take the time to translate your experience into terms that will be more familiar to a broad audience.

Translate your rank

In the military, your rank is an immediate indicator of your experience and your position within the Armed Forces food chain. A quick glance at your shoulder boards or collar explains who reports to you (and who you report to), but civilian titles typically aren’t as direct.

When writing your civilian resume, focus on communicating the functional area of the job title, as opposed to rank. This is particularly helpful when it comes to leadership roles, as civilians aren’t likely to know the duties that accompany rank. For example:

  • Warrant Officer — Specialist/Department Manager
  • Senior NCOs — First-Line Supervisor
  • Sergeant Major — Senior Advisor
  • First Sergeant — Personnel Supervisor
  • Squad Leader — Team Leader
  • Platoon Sergeant — Supervisor/Instructor/Trainer

While you’ll still have the opportunity to explain your duties more in depth in your resume, having that quick “at a glance” understanding will help a hiring manager get a grip on who you are and what you can do more easily.

Translate your military occupational specialty (MOS)

Some military occupational specialties are easy to decipher, even for civilians.

For example, a culinary specialist works in food services: food preparation and presentation, food safety procedures, inventory management, and menu development. An administrative specialist deals with accounts payable processes, auditing, customer service, data entry, typing, and payroll.

Some specialties may be a little more complicated to those who haven’t served in the military. Someone might be able to guess that a unit supply specialist dealt with cargo handling and inventory management, but they might not know that the role also addresses firearms handling and maintenance and loss prevention techniques.

The best way to translate your MOS is to focus on your duties. Our recruiters recommend describing the specifics that made your work unique. Just like a civilian job description, your MOS outlines the typical tasks of a role, but doesn’t necessarily cover everything that you did personally.

Translate the job description

Speaking of job descriptions, if you’re having trouble translating your military experience, take a look at the postings associated with the jobs you want.

Every job announcement will have a “duties” section that describes the expectations for the role, as well as a “qualifications” section devoted to the experience and skills an employee should have before applying.

These two sections are a wealth of knowledge for applicants, and have key terms and phrases written by hiring managers and human resources teams. These are the people who will be reading your resume, so the job announcement can give new insight into their preferred terminology.

Hybrid theory

Want to hedge your bets? You can build a hybrid resume that uses both civilian terms and military vocabulary.

For example, you could place your military rank alongside the civilian equivalent, like “Sergeant Major / Senior Advisor.” You’ll phrase your job title in such a way that both components are present, and any reader can get a clear picture of your experience.

The trade-off here is that the more you add to your resume, the more likely it is to look cluttered and complicated, so consider applying this tactic sparingly for your resumes and only in instances where an obvious civilian equivalent might not exist.

Work at VA

Learning to speak civilian on your resume may seem hard at first, but with a little effort, you’ll find all sorts of ways to share your military experience with a broader audience.

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