A decade ago, if you looked at my resume, it would just look like I’d thrown random job titles on a page. I’d done so many different things that it read more “can’t commit to a career” than “seasoned professional.” I’d worked in retail, tended bar for private parties, managed a clerical office, and planned kids’ parties at a fitness center. I figured this eclectic mix of experiences was fine because I was still a student, and everything would sort itself out when it came time to settle into a career.
Fast-forward five years and halfway through a PhD program, and my experience hasn’t magically gotten any more cohesive. In fact, it’s actually gotten more extensive and disjointed; I’ve added teacher, tutor, library assistant, and sales manager to my resume. Trying to turn my random positions into a fulfilling career, I felt stuck by the fact that my jobs didn’t seem to make that much sense on paper.
If you’re anything like I was a few years ago, and you’ve built a lot of wonderful skills at positions that don’t look all that connected, I feel your pain. But before you panic about being condemned to job limbo for the rest of your life, keep in mind that titles and companies don’t always have to explicitly convey what you’ve really accomplished.
Now there are a lot of ways to say this, but employers are basically looking for three key things: that you can do you the job, that you want to do the job, and that you want to do the job for them. It’s up to you to take your current resume and tell a story that meets these basic needs.
1. Reformat Your Resume
You know the top of your resume, where people keep telling you not to add an “objective” section? Well, that’s typically true, but you can put a “qualifications” section that highlights the specific skills you have that match with the job you want. This way, you own your story, and you demonstrate to the hiring manager that you’ve thought about the way your various experiences align with the position. (This is sometimes called a hybrid or combination resume.)
Another option is a skills-based resume rather than a chronological one. Is this the right option for you? It’s hard to say because many employers have different preferences. The best you can do at the end of the day is remember the purpose of this document: to get your foot in the door.
So make sure that whatever format you choose, you’re emphasizing why you’re the best fit. And you can do this by keeping your bullet points concise, quantified, and tailored to the job description.
2. Emphasize the Continuities
Most job experiences have some common threads. I remember when I was in college, every semester taking a wide variety of classes. And every term those classes magically starting to connect to one another, and I was always surprised by how much continuity there was in what I thought were completely disconnected things. Our brains are wired to want to make connections. It may seem like there is no connection between being a lifeguard, a salesperson, a social media intern, and a psychology major, but those are all things that emphasize paying close attention to what people think, how they behave, and how best to serve them. Spend time thinking broadly about your jobs. Have they all involved customer service? Critical thinking and analysis? Using new technologies or creative problem solving?
If nothing comes to mind, ask a friend to give it a look. Sometimes, especially when you’ve been belaboring over a resume for a long time, it can be difficult to see the connections among all of your varied work experiences. Bringing in an objective reader to give it a close read and locate relationships between your roles will give you a new perspective and hopefully will enable you to see the ties that clearly exist.
3. Leave Off the Irrelevant
Not everything you’ve ever done has to go on your resume. For most people, all of your experience just won’t fit, but there’s definitely a strategy involved. If you’re applying for a client-facing position, highlight your time in retail, as a server in a restaurant, and leave off that part-time summer job where all you did was file paperwork. And if you’re going after a number-crunching marketing role, make sure to include your work assisting the psych stats professor, but maybe don’t bother with your brief stint as a copywriter.
Worried about long gaps that’ll surface on your resume if you go with this technique? Fair enough. But keep in mind that just a month or two doesn’t constitute a recognizable gap. A job gap of a year or longer may need to be explained, so if your experience is eclectic and you prefer to leave certain roles off your resume, and you can’t claim “being a student” to cover the empty period, focus on finding those continuities in the skills you’ve learned, and pull your work history together that way.
As Muse writer Elizabeth Alterman says in her piece “How to Explain the Gap in Your Resume with Ease,” “Whether you managed a household, co-chaired an event that raised much-needed funds for charity, or trekked across the globe, chances are you picked up some important skills along the way—think communicating persuasively, becoming a master organizer, or adapting to unknown situations.” Find a way to turn whatever you did in your gap period into a skill that you can use now.
4. Practice Telling Your Story
Knowing how your experiences connect to each other, and how they’ve made you grow as a professional is often the biggest hurdle. But you still have to tell a compelling story about where you’ve been and where you’re going.
Maybe your jobs are wide-ranging because you were trying to find where you fit, and you’re grateful for each of those gigs because of the skills you gained, even though they weren’t right for you. So you need to be able to convey why this position right here and now is the right one for you rather than simply the next one in a series of assorted titles.
How did all of those past experiences lead you here? How and why do you plan to build upon what you’ve done so far? Your goal is to not give a hiring manager a chance to question whether or not you’ll stick around for any period of time. It’s important with any interview not to sound negative about your past jobs, so try to relay their value while emphasizing that you’ve figured out the path you’re meant to be on.
If you can strategically explain your past experiences and how they add up to where you currently are, applying for this job in front of you, they’ll only add value to your story. Skills are skills, no matter where or how you obtained them. Once I was able to think reflectively about what I did and didn’t like about my past experiences, how they fit together, and how they showed me what path to take, my options opened up tremendously. I learned from each job I’d held that I needed to help people, be intellectually challenged, and feel like my work was making an impact in the world. Which is exactly how I feel now. I may be biased, but my winding career story sounds pretty good these days.
Photo of woman in a job interview courtesy of PeopleImages/Getty Images.