Putting a spin on work experience
Work experience can include anything you've done full-time or part-
time as a volunteer, temp, or paid employee.
When it comes to organizing your work experience on your resume, these
are the fundamental principles that should guide you in deciding which
experience goes in and the order you want to present them in:
What makes things a bit tricky is that these principles can often
conflict with one another. For example: Chronological order is best,
but your most relevant experience may not be the most recent. You want
to omit irrelevant details, but you've been working in an unrelated
job for a while, and leaving out may make it seem like you've been
unemployed for over a year. You have experience with a very highly
respected company, but it was 15 years ago.
- Experience that is most related to what you're looking to do
next should be placed closer to the top of your resume where they are
most likely to be seen at a glance and most likely to be read.
- Chronological order is the easiest for the reader to get a mental
image of you and your achievements. Hopping around can cause
confusion. It may also create the appearance of gaps if you're placing
experience from different periods next to each other on the page, or
leading off with something other than your most recent experience.
- Any experience that's entirely irrelevant to what you want to do
next should be left out. Managers like to talk about the benefits of
having a flexible, adaptable staff, but they usually still look to
hire people that look like specialists. As much as possible, you want
to make it look like what you've done is just like what you're looking
to do next. Irrelevant details take attention away from your related
experience and erodes your credibility as a specialist.
- You'd prefer not to have noticeable gaps -- especially ones of a
couple years or more. In the past this was a big issue because people
were expected either to stay at one company or to move immediately on
to something else if they did leave. This isn't the case anymore, but
there are still a few anal retentive types who get all agitated about
gaps. And since everyone has it ingrained in them to look out for
employment gaps, they'll likely spot it and wonder about it.
- The last 10 years is what you want to focus on. Anything before
that is fast becoming ancient history.
- Experience with well-known and respected organizations gives you a
- If your resume is too long, you may have a more difficult time
getting the reader to focus their attention on the key points you're
making. As a general rule, a decision to go beyond two pages is one
that should be made consciously and with consideration of what you're
trying to communicate (and sometimes you may decide that three or more
pages is fine).
It is in these instances of conflicting principles where you'll have
to use your best judgment of the trade-offs involved and make a
decision. Each situation needs to be judged within its unique context.
All your work experience can be sorted into four groups:
- Highly relevant -- same kind of work or same industry.
- Functionally related -- shows skills that can be transferred even
if they were used in a different area.
- Not related, but fill what would might be a distracting gap in
your work history.
- Irrelevant and fill no perceptible gap.
You'll almost certainly want to showcase your experience from the
first group, and make the most out of your work in group two. And
you'll want to list these jobs closer to the top of your resume where
they are more likely to be seen and create a stronger first
You should just leave off anything from the fourth group without even
thinking about it. It serves no purpose whatsoever. It's no value to
you, and it's the kind of irrelevant detail that will only bore,
frustrate and confuse the reader. (I'm writing here from a Canada/U.S.
perspective. In some other countries, particularly in Europe, you're
still expected to account for every moment that's passed since you
were a teenager.)
If you decide to include irrelevant but gap-filling experience, you
might consider relegating it to the bottom, possibly under a heading
of "Other Experience". One way or the other, it should be reduced to a
bare bones listing of title, employer, and years, and possibly no
When deciding whether to include this unrelated experience you should
consider the length of the gap and how much (if any) damage to your
image in your targeted field this irrelevant work might cause.
To take an exaggerated example, if you're looking for work as a nurse,
and have worked as a nurse all but the last eight months of your
working life, during which time you were a cab driver, you might not
want to mention your experience as a cabbie. There's nothing wrong
with being a cab driver, but to the person reading your resume looking
for a nurse, it will likely send the wrong message no matter how you
try to present it.
For most people, a chronological ordering works well for everything
from groups one and two. If your most relevant experience isn't the
most recent, you should consider the heading "Related Experience" and
beginning with the experience that will most likely make an impression
on the reader. I've found this heading to be one of the most effective
techniques in the resume writer's toolbox.
Formatting work experience
Key points in formatting your presentation of your work experience:
- Use a job title that accurately communicates what you did, and
sounds as much as possible (without being deceitful) like what you're
looking to do next.
Sometimes there isn't much room to play with here, but in other
situations you can make quite a difference. For example, for payroll
purposes you may have been called "Administrative Assistant IV" but
your actual position might be better described as "Assistant to the
Vice President - Finance" or "Executive Assistant" or "Bookkeeper" or
something else. There's nothing deceitful or improper about choosing
an accurate title that best serves your purposes.
If you worked in a store, you could use the title "Retail Sales" or
"Customer Service" or a combination, or something else, depending on
what your objective is. You may have been called a "Sales
Representative" at your last job, but the titles "New Business
Development", "Account Executive", "Client Relations" or others may be
applicable too. Don't get too creative, but pick whatever's best for
you, within reasonable limits.
If you feel you have to go with a title that is unrelated to your
objective, consider adding a second functional title after a slash:
"Administrative Assistant / Sales Support".
- In most cases, the title you use is more important than the name
of the employer, and should therefore be placed first. If you want to
list several positions with the same employer, you'll probably have to
list the employer first, with the different job titles as subheads
- Title and employer's name are selling points. Dates aren't. Put
title and employer in bold at the left margin -- on separate lines.
Put the dates either at the end of the line or (my preference) flush
right. I like using all caps for employer's name as well, just to set
it apart clearly from your job title.
- For the dates, list the years only, unless the months are helpful.
For example, if you worked somewhere relevant from January 1995 to
December 1996, don't just put "1995 to 1996". You want to make sure
you get credit for two full years' experience.
If you worked somewhere for less than six months, consider putting the
number of months in parentheses beside the year. For example, if you
worked somewhere from December 1996 to January 1997, it may hurt your
credibility in an interview if you put 1996 to 1997 on your resume,
and it turned out you were there for two weeks at Christmas.
Content of work experience descriptions
Begin each section of your work experience with a line that gives the
reader a quick overview. Again, you want to provide the context
they'll need to interpret what follows. An overview line will contain
some mix of:
You wouldn't usually include all this information on one line, and
much of it probably won't apply to you, but you want to give the
reader a quick orientation before setting out the details.
- A very concise statement of what you did, who you reported to,
the territory you worked, how many people you supervised.
- A description of the organization, possibly what industry they're
in, who their customers are, their size in annual sales dollars.
After this overview, you get down to writing your activities and
achievements. Anything that speaks to uniqueness usually helps --
areas where you were the first, or only, or achieved the most (or
least), for example.
I think enough has been written elsewhere about the importance of
achievements, and the use of "action verbs" that I can safely assume
that you already know about these things or can find out about them
easily enough (that's why I called this "Advanced Resume
So much has been said about accomplishments that some people have been
led to believe that your work experience should be one long statement
of quantified accomplishments. Not so. The most effective description
of your work experience will be a combination of accomplishments --
quantified and nonquantified -- and activities.
Ideally, you'll describe what you did and how this had an effect on
the business. Whenever possible, relate what you did to how what you
did had an positive impact on customers or internal processes.
There is nothing inherently advantageous about quantification.
Specifics sell, and quantification is one way to communicate
specifics. It's not the only way, but a couple quantified points under
any employment section is always helpful.
If the work you're describing is very similar to what you're looking
to do next, you'll probably want to be very specific and detailed in
your description. If it's related, but not exactly the same, you
should try a more generic (but still detailed) description. As I've
said before, you want to make what you did sound as similar to what
you want to do next as possible (within reason).
For example, let's say you managed your own one-person photography
studio for the last five years. If you're now looking to manage
someone else's photography studio, you'd give yourself the title
"Photography Studio Manager" and many of the details of your
management experience that follow would be very specific to
But maybe you've had enough of photography and want to take the
management skills you developed into another business. You could then
give yourself the title "General Manager" or "Small Business Manager"
and describe your management experience and achievements in a way that
omits most references to photography.
Or, maybe you want to stay in photography, but not as a studio
manager. You could then call yourself "Photographer / Studio Manager"
or even just "Photographer" (assuming that you were still working as a
photographer, which is very likely). The points you choose to include
here would focus on your work behind the camera during this period,
rather than as a manager.
What if you want to make a bigger leap and become a sales
representative or customer service rep? Then you could use the title
"Sales & Customer Service" or something similar and concentrate on
what you achieved in that role.
You may not have this much flexibility, but I hope you get the point
-- you can put different shadings or "spins" on any work experience.
Choose the one that suits your needs, without stretching the truth
A grab-bag of tips
- If you don't want to identify your current employer -- or are
embarrassed by one of the employers on your resume -- you can use a
descriptive phrase in place of the employer's name (e.g. "A retail
electronics store" or "A national distributer of automotive parts").
If you do this, though, you will certainly cause the reader to wonder
what you're hiding. Do it only when really necessary.
- Bullet points are much easier to dip into and much more accessible
to the reader than a paragraph of text. Individual bullet points can
be up to about five lines long, if necessary.
- Within each section under work experience, you will again want to
make your most relevant points near the top. Even if what you want to
emphasize was something that you only spent 5% of your time on, put it
close to the top and put the other activities below -- in quickly
summarized form if they aren't relevant (that is, if you don't feel
comfortable about leaving them out entirely).
- The expressions "Responsible for ..." and "Duties included ..."
should almost always be avoided. It reduces your resume to a passive,
inane laundry list.
- Unless you have a list of impressive clients or some other
tangible evidence of running a thriving business, self-employment is
not likely to be taken very seriously. Even today, "self-employed" is
often equated with "unemployed" or is perceived as designating someone
who doesn't have the skills to work within an organizational
Never use the word "self-employed" on your resume. You can call
yourself a business owner if you must, but "self-employed" kills
credibility. If you're running a one-person business, you'll probably
be much better off referring to yourself as a "General Manager" rather
than "President" or "Owner".
- What if you have a employment gap where you were looking after
family matters or doing something else that you think an employer
would accept? Should you include a line to account for that period?.
ARGUMENT FOR THE AFFIRMATIVE:
If you say nothing, you will create some doubts in the employer's mind
about what you were up to. It is one of the great myths of resume
writing that unanswered questions create curiosity which leads to
interviews. There's nothing to be embarrassed about, so put in the
line and take that unneeded anxiety away from the reader.
A line like that doesn't say anything that makes you more attractive
to an employer. If anything, it draws attention to a gap when you want
the reader focused on what you have to offer their organization. Leave
I like both these arguments! Since gaps aren't such a life-and-death
issue anymore, I lean to the "leave it out" side, but I have seen
these lines used effectively in some resumes.
- If you want to go back into the vaults of time and list a position
you had a long, long time ago, you can consider leaving out the dates
entirely for that employer. If you want to show that you were there a
long time, you can say how many years it was in the body of the
description (but don't put it where you would have listed the years --
that will definitely set off alarms in the reader's mind).