Q: When I look for a job, how should I treat educational programs that I started, but didn't finish, on my resume or CV?

A: Resume or CV padding isn't just unethical; it also has consequences.

Remember Scott Thompson? He was the chief executive who had to leave Yahoo in 2012 for misstating his educational credentials on his resume. Thompson had said that he graduated with a computer-science degree, but it turned out that the university he attended didn’t offer such a degree until he had completed school. When this fact came to light, he left after just four months in the job.

If you didn’t attain a degree or certificate, don't imply that you did. That doesn’t mean you need to leave off an unfinished educational program. Instead, add it to the education section of your resume with a few words that describe the classes you took and the program you were in. Say something like "progress toward an X degree" and explain what you actually did while you were in school. 

“The ability to articulate how your education translates to knowledge, skills and abilities relevant for the job you are seeking will take you much further than misrepresenting yourself,” said Carl Persing, an industrial and organizational psychologist at Metrus Group in Somerville, New Jersey, in the US.

And don’t try to wiggle out of your awkward educational pickle by devolving into incomprehensible resume jargon or corporate-speak.

“Don’t say something like: “leveraged my initiative and collaboration training to develop, coordinate, and facilitate a successful initiative that produced measurable results,” Persing cautioned. Nobody understands what that means, and it will make you look silly. Instead, explain what it is you actually did at school.

On job applications or on your resume itself, be transparent. Persing suggests explaining your progression in terms of what skills you picked up.

“In the X program at ABC University, I completed classes in X, Y, and Z which provided training in X and enables me to do Y and Z.” You’ll convey the impression that you can apply your education to real-world situations, which employers appreciate, he said.

You can also use your cover letter to highlight this point. That’s where you might mention, briefly, why you didn’t finish the degree you started. Be prepared to answer this question in interviews as well. Don’t delve too deeply into personal details; it’s a job interview, not a counseling session. Stick with the positive: what you learned, and how you decided to move on, to where you are now.

Although it’s not OK to claim qualifications you don’t have, it’s perfectly fine to play up those you do. Didn’t finish your doctorate? Perhaps you received a master’s degree as a consolation prize; that’s worth a lot to many employers, so don’t leave it off your resume. You may have earned a language certification while studying for a graduate degree you didn’t finish, or received a research fellowship — even if you didn’t complete the degree portion of the program. Every little bit counts when looking for a job — as long as it’s legitimate.

To comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Capital, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.

Work Ethic is a twice-monthly column on BBC Capital in which we consider the ethical and interpersonal dilemmas that workers face around the world. We welcome knotty questions from readers at workethic@bbc.com.