person at table on laptop
Zak Kendal/Getty Images

The struggle is real. After lots of thought, deliberation, and “aha” moments, you’ve decided to start looking for a new job. But before beginning this journey, you’ll have to face the job seeker’s rite of passage: writing or updating your resume.

As a career coach (and former corporate recruiter) who’s been penning resumes since college, I’m all too familiar with the career conundrums resumes cause—from what resume format to use to whether you should submit your resume as a Word doc or PDF, I’ve heard them all.

If you’ve been in the workforce for a while, you might be wondering: How far back should a resume go? Why shouldn’t you just include all of your experience? What amount of work history is enough to convince a recruiter or hiring manager you’ve got the chops for the role, but is not so much they don’t know how to make sense of it all? Well the answer to this career quandary is: It’s complicated.

Generally, your resume should go back no more than 10 to 15 years. However, every applicant is different and so is every resume, and there are a few other rules of thumb that can serve as a GPS as you decide how far back your resume should go.

Why Shouldn’t You List Your Entire Work History on a Resume?

There are a few reasons why you might not want to include every job you’ve ever had on a resume, especially as your career bypasses that 10- to 15-year mark, and you should keep these in mind as you decide what’s best for your resume. You’ll want to:

Stick to the Most Relevant Information

Why 10 to 15 years, you ask? Well, that’s the timeframe recruiters and employers perceive as most relevant. Recruiters aren’t interested in your accomplishments as an entry-level employee if you’ve been in the field for 20 years. And even if you’re early in your career, they don’t necessarily need to know about a paper route on a resume slated for a tech position.

Your resume should be a high-level summary of your relevant professional accomplishments, not a dissertation of all your jobs and responsibilities since middle school. Recruiters and hiring managers want to quickly see why you’re the right person for this job, and your experience in the past decade or so is most likely the reason. So think twice before you let non-essential information take up real estate on your resume. Instead use that space to shine a light on applicable achievements, experiences, and positions that more closely align with the jobs you’re targeting.

Keep Things Brief

If you keep your experience contained to the last 10 to 15 years, it’s also easier for recruiters to review your work history with a cursory glance over your resume. As you get further along in your career, it’s OK for your resume to stretch to two pages—but more than that will be too long for a recruiter to take in quickly, and they might even skip it entirely. So while you may feel a little shortchanged lopping off your years of sweat equity, you’ll be more likely to make it past that first look if you trim your experience timeline.

Avoid Age Discrimination

Unfortunately, age discrimination in hiring isn’t an urban legend, and having too many years of experience on your resume could fast-track it to the rejection pile. You see, it’s common for hiring managers to look at resumes with 20+ years of experience and assume the candidate is too expensive, may not feel challenged enough, or is otherwise too seasoned for consideration. So trust me when I tell you, age proofing your resume is good for your job search, and limiting your experience to only the most relevant and recent is a great place to start.

So, How Far Back Should Your Resume Go?

The answer varies depending on your situation. But there are two key factors: how long you’ve been in the employment game and how that experience aligns with your current job targets.

Recent Grads (Up to Two Years of Experience)

You can include your professional, academic, and personal experiences and achievements from both high school and college. But the key is that you’ll want to highlight your transferable skills. Demonstrate how you used leadership, collaboration, problem-solving, communication, and time management skills in related class projects, internships, volunteer work, leadership roles, sports, passion projects, or part-time jobs. Just make sure you’re being selective. Before you add something, ask yourself if participating in that car wash fundraiser would really move the needle for a copywriter position (it might if you wrote the social media messaging), then act accordingly.

Young Professionals (Two to Five Years of Experience)

At this point, you have enough work experience under your belt to leave college courses, projects, awards, and GPAs off your brag sheet. Unless you had a noteworthy long-term job or highly relevant internship with serious name drop appeal, employers are no longer interested in your college activities. Stick to your post-grad experience. But keep in mind those post-grad experiences don’t all have to come from your nine-to-five job. Enhance your resume by demonstrating your professional prowess outside of work. Use volunteer experiences, leadership roles, side hustles, and professional organizations and affiliations to add personality instead of years to your work history.

Mid-Level and Experienced Professionals (More Than Five Years of Experience)

After you’ve hit the five-year mark, you should begin focusing on pertinent roles and responsibilities that will enhance your qualifications for your next career move. This may mean de-emphasizing or even omitting early-professional and part-time positions and elevating more relevant work experiences as the primary focus, perhaps with more detail.

As you get even further into your career, that “10 to 15 years” rule will start to kick in, and you can use it as a guide when debating whether to keep a position on your resume. You should also consider if your experience warrants a two-page resume, but make sure you keep in mind how relevant each entry and bullet point you’re including actually is.

Once you have more job titles under your belt, you might consider splitting your work experience into two separate sections:

  • Related Experience: Include the roles and responsibilities closely associated with your job search targets with detailed bullets that highlight your accomplishments. The key is making relevancy and transferable skills the focal point of your resume content. If you have relevant experience that you really need to include outside of the last 10 to 15 years—if you’re making a career change, for instance—you can list it here.
  • Other Experience: Simply list unrelated positions within the last 10 to 15 years without descriptions or bullet points so there are no visible gaps on your resume.

Doing this will keep your most relevant experience front and center so a recruiter doesn’t have to go hunting for it in a more extensive career history.

People Coming Back to Work After a Large Gap

If you’ve taken a break from your career that makes most or all of your experience fall outside of this 10- to 15-year window—to raise kids, for example—you likely have to go back a little further on your resume. This is OK, but you should explain up front why your most recent work experience is so far back. You can do this in a cover letter or in a resume summary at the top of the page.

But you should still keep in mind how relevant your past experience is as you decide what to include and leave off. And if you’ve done anything in the meantime, whether that’s a part-time job or a side hustle or something else to keep you up-to-date in your field, be sure to include that as well.

So what’s the takeaway here? Well, at the end of the day, your resume should tell the story of how your related experiences and accomplishments make you a great candidate for your next position; not the number of work anniversaries you’ve celebrated. Because when it’s all said and done, that’s what’s going to get you hired.