Every freelancer has had to tackle the ever-dreaded “professional summary.” Now, we’re not talking about the “About Me” page on your website, nor are we referring to your LinkedIn bio. The professional summary is a beast of its own—and an increasingly popular one at that, especially on the many new platforms aimed at matching freelancers with work opportunities. It’s what you’ll get asked for countless times by mentors, former bosses, and other professional contacts when they offer to forward on your resume or portfolio.
“A professional summary is your ten-second elevator pitch,” explains Dana Leavy-Detrick, director and founder of Brooklyn Resume Studio, a firm that specializes in personal branding and resume development. “It’s your best opportunity to convey a quick branding message: who you are, what you’ve done, what your expertise is—and, importantly, what you can bring to the table.”
While we can all agree that writing about yourself can be awkward (if not straight-up horrifying), it doesn’t have to be. Here are some tips on how to tackle this challenging yet important aspect of your professional life.
1. Provide a Taste of What You Have to Offer
If your About Me page is designed to introduce yourself, a professional summary is designed to pique the interest of a potential client.
“Clients want to know who you are, what you’ve done, and get a feel for your personality and what makes you uniquely qualified for the role,” says Jenny Galluzzo, co-founder of The Second Shift, a platform that helps female freelancers find work.
“The professional summary shouldn’t be a copy of your resume,” says Leavy-Detrick. “It should be an introduction that sparks a conversation.” To that end, don’t list out all your experience—just a few of your most relevant, recent projects. “Keep it targeted and top-level, to the last ten years or so. And in general, the further back you go, the less detail you should give,” adds Leavy-Detrick.
Takeaway: Shine the spotlight on your most relevant experiences and skills.
2. Don’t Get Overly Personal
While it’s acceptable for an About page to blend personal and professional, a summary should focus solely on your professional value.
“I’ve seen summaries that try to be cute or funny and that always runs the risk of seeming immature, or having the humor fall flat,” explains Galluzzo, who vets many of The Second Shift’s members. “Also, stay away from personal details and focus on what makes you a superstar.”
That means highlighting your core competencies as they relate to the work you’re seeking in a clear and concise manner. How? Try this trick from Leavy-Detrick: “Ask yourself, ‘What do I want potential employers to know about me as a candidate and as a professional in my field?’”
But remember: Getting personal and showing personality are two different things; being professional doesn’t mean you can’t have voice! “Tone is driven heavily by industry,” says Leavy-Detrick. Employing common phrasing, cadence, and tone demonstrates an understanding of your field’s communication norms, which may be equally as important as your hard skills. After all, sounding clinical in an industry that’s more casual can be a liability in its own right.
Takeaway: Don’t risk jeopardizing your first impression—make sure your professional summary reflects the standard tones of your industry.
3. Name Dropping is Okay
“It’s important to throw in names of companies that will immediately lend you gravitas and get clients to look deeper at your work and resume,” shares Galluzzo.
Don’t overdo it by listing every single company you’ve worked with—save that for your portfolio—but sprinkling in a few blue chip brands or industry darlings will help you stand out. Just make sure you’re allowed to list specific names, as some contracts might forbid the use of brand name in your personal marketing. You don’t want to violate any NDAs!
Also: Don’t share numbers or figures—save those for case studies or your CV.
Takeaway: Shout-out big names that have benefitted from your work, but be prudent when doing so.
4. Go Ahead and Show Off
“I work with a lot of people who do branding professionally, but who can’t do it for themselves. It’s something that even the highest level of people struggle with,” explains Leavy-Detrick. But while writing about yourself might seem boastful, that’s the exact point. “Remember,” she adds, “If you don’t promote your skills and talent, no one is going to do it for you. Clients want to read your summary and come away with a sense of confidence that you can do the job.”
Not sure where to start? Check out your peers. How are they offering their services? What are some of the common terms and phrases you see? What sort of tone do they use? Job descriptions in your industry can offer inspiration, as well. Try writing in both the first person and the third person—either is acceptable, and some folks are more comfortable with one or the other.
If you’re really struggling, there’s no shame in bringing in an expert. “If writing a professional summary is hard for you, hire someone to write it for you,” says Galluzzo. “Sometimes it’s easier to tell someone your story and let them make you shine.” Think of it as an investment in your success. And if you’re a cash-strapped freelancer, you could always find a professional contact looking for some kind of help and barter a swap.
Takeaway: Even the most successful individuals struggle with self-promotion. Give it your best, but if it’s truly not your thing, outsource the job to an expert.