We all know resumes are important. They’re your first impression. The highlight reel of your qualifications. The tool that you can use to land an interview (and ultimately a job).
Your past experience takes up the bulk of your resume and tells future employers what you’ve done up until now that qualifies you for your next job. So when it comes time to write about your experience on your resume, the pressure is admittedly a bit high. Determining what, exactly, belongs in there, let alone how to write about it and how to format it can be trickier than it sounds.
But fear not. As a recruiter and career coach, I can say—without exaggeration—that I’ve laid eyes on thousands (and thousands!) of resumes. So I know my way around an experience section. Allow me to answer all your questions:
- What Belongs in My Experience Section?
- OK, So How Do I Know What Experience Is Relevant?
- How Should I Format the Experience Section of My Resume?
- Is It Ever OK to Tweak My Job Titles?
- How Far Back Should My Experience Section Go?
- What If I Have a Gap in Employment?
- Can I See an Example Experience Section?
What Belongs in My Experience Section?
When you think about which experience should be included on a resume, you usually think of past jobs. And rightfully so—your full-time work history will often be the primary source of material for your resume. But your experience can encompass so much more than the traditional jobs you’ve held. Internships, volunteer work, freelance assignments, temporary gigs, and part-time jobs all count as experience, too.
What types of experiences you include on your resume will depend on where you are in your career journey. More established job seekers who aren’t looking to make a significant career change can likely fill their experience section with their most recent full-time jobs. But if you’re new (or newer) to the workforce, looking to break into a new industry, or making a career pivot, it might make sense to incorporate less traditional experience. Before you include something on your resume, ask yourself: Is this relevant experience for the jobs I’m targeting?
OK, So How Do I Know What Experience Is Relevant?
Relevant experience is simply experience that’s applicable to the type of jobs you’re pursuing. For example, if you’re a software engineer, you’ll want to include your current and previous engineering jobs and internships, but you might decide to leave off your long-ago stint as a paralegal (unless you’re applying to work as a programmer at a law firm or legal services startup!) Or if you’re applying for a senior marketing role in publishing, you might decide to trim the first marketing job you had out of college in the beauty industry in order to make more space to highlight your publishing industry experience.
Besides which roles you’re listing, think about how to describe what you did and achieved. Suppose you currently work as a server in a restaurant, and you’re applying for receptionist jobs. In this case, you’d want to include experience interacting with customers, answering incoming phone calls, and managing schedules on your resume because those skills are highly transferable to the job you want. And you might skip less relevant job duties like busing tables because you probably won’t be needing those skills in a receptionist role.
If you aren’t making a big career pivot from one type of job or industry to another, chances are, most of your work history is relevant. But every job posting is a bit different, so you’ll need to be more discerning about which of your past responsibilities are most relevant.
To tailor your resume for each specific job, spend some time reading through the posting and take note of the skills and job duties it mentions. Then make a list of the responsibilities you have experience performing. And voilà! You’ve identified your most relevant experience.
When you write about this relevant experience on your resume, make sure you’re incorporating keywords from the specific job posting. This is essential for two key reasons. First, most applications will be scanned by an applicant tracking system or ATS, which helps recruiters search resumes for relevant keywords to find which applicants are the best match for an open role. Second, a well-tailored resume will make it easy for the recruiter reviewing it to understand why you’d be a good match for their open job.
How Should I Format the Experience Section of My Resume?
Every experience section should start with a clear section heading. You might simply call it “Experience” or “Work Experience” or “Relevant Experience.” Or maybe you’d prefer to highlight your specific role or industry with a header like “Accounting Experience” or “Entertainment Industry Experience.” The key is to make it easy to spot for anyone who may be quickly scanning your resume.
In some cases, you may want to showcase experience from a previous career or otherwise include experience that’s not directly related to the job you’re applying for. To do this, you can simply create another section with a header like “Additional Experience” or “Additional Professional Experience.” You can also pull out a section such as “Volunteer Experience” if it doesn’t make sense to include volunteer roles under your main experience section or if you prefer to list them separately
For most job seekers using a chronological or combination resume format, you should list your past jobs within your experience section (or sections) in reverse chronological order. For each item you list—full-time jobs or other types of experience—include the following:
- Position details: List your job title, company name, location, and employment dates (month and year) for every position on your resume. Here’s one way it might look:
Graphic Designer | Evergreen Industries | San Francisco, CA | May 2018 – April 2020
- Job duties and achievements: Aim to include three to seven bullet points under each position describing what you did there, starting with a high-level overview of your role and common responsibilities and then drilling down into more specifics. These bullets should highlight your most applicable experiences for the role you’re applying to. You can either include your most relevant achievements for each job alongside your job duties or you can create a dedicated subsection for “Key Achievements.” Quantifying everything you can will lend context to your work history and can be a great way to wow prospective employers. Use this magic formula to craft eye-catching bullet points: Compelling verb + job duty = tangible number and/or result. So you might say: Redesigned new hire onboarding program to include welcome week, 1:1 mentoring, and interactive training, resulting in a 60% increase in 90-day retention.
- Promotions: If you were promoted during your tenure with an employer, you can either separate the two roles (if your job duties were distinct enough) or group them together into one entry that shares a set of bullet points. For example:
UX Designer | Caterpillar Collective | Kansas City, MO | July 2019 – Present
Associate UX Designer | March 2018 – July 2019
- Collaborated with marketing team to create user-centric graphic designs for print and web that contributed to a 30% increase in customers over 2 years.
- Conducted 50+ IDIs and created and completed 12 surveys of 200+ users each; compiled and analyzed results to make recommendations to stakeholders.
- Led website redesign with a focus on accessibility, increasing retention rate of customers with visual impairments by 50%, per self-reported survey.
Is It Ever OK to Tweak My Job Titles?
While it’s never OK to straight-up lie about (or even embellish) your work history, there are cases when tweaking your job titles is permissible. Just remember: The key is to use your job title to clarify your role—not to mislead. Two situations where adjusting your job title is generally above board are:
- Your employer gave you a funky title. A startup might hire a “Data Guru” while an established e-commerce organization would employ a “Data Scientist” to perform the same duties. In this case, it’s probably safe to tweak that job title on your resume.
- You wear lots of different hats. If you’re in a role where you juggle lots of different responsibilities (like an office manager who also supports a marketing team), you might adjust your job title to give recruiters more context. For example, if said office manager wanted to pivot into a marketing assistant role, they might list “Office Manager - Marketing Support” as their job title.
If tweaking a title feels like a stretch, you can instead focus on crafting strong bullet points to clearly convey your responsibilities or use your summary to lend additional context to your qualifications.
How Far Back Should My Experience Section Go?
Keeping your focus on relevant experience means you probably won’t need to include all of your past jobs—and that’s a good thing. Recruiters and hiring managers are going to be most interested in your most relevant and recent experience. They also love a concise, single-page resume that’s easy to scan (they get a lot of applications and don’t have time to read through years and years of work experience). So it’s OK to keep your resume short and sweet.
As a general rule, you don’t need to include more than 10 to 15 years of experience on your resume (with some exceptions). Check out this guide for a detailed breakdown on how far back your resume should go depending on where you are in your career and any special situations.
What If I Have a Gap in Employment?
If you took time away from the workforce, know that you’re in good company. Plenty of successful people have gaps in their employment history for myriad reasons, like caring for a loved one, raising children, going back to school, or losing a job. If your employment gap is brief (less than six months or so), you probably don’t need to address it on your resume. But if it’s a bit longer (more than a year), you may want to add a bit of context in the form of an additional “experience” entry—no more than a line or two.
Here’s what it might look like:
Professional Sabbatical | June 2016 – August 2019
- Provided full-time care for a sick family member.
- Traveled throughout Southeast Asia, including Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia.
- Authored a memoir about growing up on a Christmas tree farm.
Whether or not you include an entry like this on your resume, you can use your cover letter to explain any special circumstances in more detail.
If you took time away to go back to school, listing your education (and including relevant projects or coursework) will also suffice to bridge the gap on your resume.
Can I See an Example Experience Section?
Below is an example of how a tailored, quantified experience section might look on a sample resume. This job seeker has already made a career change from accounting to writing (notice how they leveraged their transferable accounting expertise to write for financial publications, first as a volunteer and then a freelancer before landing a full-time writing job). Now, they’re hoping to find a new staff writing role covering different topics—ideally lifestyle or wellness.
The types of jobs this job seeker will be applying for require at least three years of experience pitching and producing SEO-focused articles, preferably with a lifestyle focus. Notice how this job seeker uses the “Key Achievements” subsections to highlight their most relevant project work. (They’d also include a link to their personal website on their resume so that potential employers can easily see their portfolio!)