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Advice / Job Search / Resumes

Your Guide to Making Unrelated Experience Look Relevant on Your Resume

Perhaps you’re a a few years into your career with just a few jobs under your belt. Maybe you’re an experienced professional looking at making a pretty major career change. Or, perhaps you entered the military right out of high school, and now you’re looking for your first civilian job.

Regardless of your specific circumstances, you’re dealing with an all-too-common problem: You know exactly which jobs you’d like to apply for, but the majority of your work experience up to this point seems completely irrelevant.

Believe me, pretty much everybody’s been there. I remember sifting through openings when I was fresh out of college—with work experience that equated to a part-time pizza waitress and someone who did all of the grunt work at a law firm—and getting frustrated by the fact that I would never be able to make myself look impressive (or relevant) enough to even get my foot in the door.

Yes, it can be somewhat discouraging. But, if up until this point you’ve reacted by either crying, cursing, or contemplating throwing your computer out the window, it’s time for a serious change.

Luckily, there are a few different tactics and strategies you can use to make even the seemingly most unrelated experience appear more applicable to the position you’re applying for. Follow these six steps, and you’ll be armed with a resume that makes you look like a no-brainer fit.

1. Study the Job Description

First, let’s start with the obvious. Before you can focus on tailoring your information to fit a particular role, you first need to have a clear idea of what exactly the company’s searching for.

This means you need to read through the job description with a fine-tooth comb. Print it out and grab a highlighter if it helps you!

I know that job descriptions can feel a little overwhelming, particularly if your brain’s just obsessing over all of the ways you’re unqualified. So, to make this easier, grab a notepad and focus on identifying just these two key elements: The major responsibilities of this position and the core skills that are required.

Once you’ve zoned in on those nuts and bolts, you’ll have a much better handle on how you can appropriately tweak and tailor your own information to be more suitable.

2. Think Outside Your Title

Now, it’s time to take a cold, hard look at your own experience. What positions have you had up to this point, and what duties were associated with those roles?

When doing this, it’s all too easy to get wrapped up in your title and only the core functions of your position. But, don’t limit yourself and narrow your lens to only the major things. Instead of thinking back on what you did day in and day out, switch your focus to identify any projects or tasks—even if they seem small—that are related to the job you’re applying for.

Jenny Foss, a long-time recruiter and career coach provides a fitting example. “Maybe you’re an office manager trying to become a marketing coordinator,” she explains, “In addition to your administrative responsibilities, you manage your company’s Twitter feed and help with trade show coordination. That’s marketing! So, be sure to highlight the marketing stuff you’re doing—or have done in other roles—even if it was not your primary job function.”

3. Focus on Problems and Results

Of course, your resume needs to share your major skills and previous experiences. But, rather than spitting out bullet points that look as if they’re copied directly from a job description, place the majority of your emphasis on the results you achieved—rather than just your responsibilities.

“Every company wants people who can problem-solve,” explains Rajiv Nathan, Muse Career Coach and Founder of RajNATION Innovation, “Don't just list your experience. Also write what problems you solved or results you obtained because of that experience.”

While your skills might not necessarily translate, success definitely does. So, make sure to adequately emphasize that you can successfully address problems and produce results—that’s impressive, regardless of industry or position.

4. Create a Special Section

Let’s face it—resumes are designed to be easy to read, which means they can also be somewhat limiting. You can often feel like you’re trying to cram a career story that deserves a novel into a one-page, bulleted document.

While many of the traditional rules still apply, don’t be afraid to play around with the structure and format to find something that suits your career history best.

In an article about telling a compelling career story, Muse author Erica Foss recommends adding a special “qualifications” section to the top of your document, which will draw attention to the specific skills that are most relevant to 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,” Foss explains in her article.

(Read more about how to write what’s sometimes called a hybrid or combination resume.)

5. Remember the “Highlight Reel Rule”

Alright, the “highlight reel rule” isn’t actually a real rule. But, I think it should be—which is why I just made it up.

So, what exactly does this mean? Well, to put it simply, your resume doesn’t need to tell your entire life story. Instead, the entire point of your document is to focus on the most important pieces that show why you’re a no-brainer fit for a particular role.

Resist the urge to list every single minor duty, project, or skill you can think of and narrow your focus to only the most impressive or the most relevant.

“Not everything you’ve ever done has to go on your resume,” Erica Foss adds in the same article about telling a career story, “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 gig where all you did was file paperwork.”

6. Share Your Success

Yes, tailoring your resume is undeniably important for making your experience seem as relevant as possible. But, don’t always rank relevancy ahead of your most impressive accomplishments. You don’t want your desire to appear like a perfect fit to limit you into only including the things that obviously and seamlessly complement the job description.

Are you confused yet? Don’t be. Instead just remember this golden rule: While you want to appear relevant, you also want to be impressive.

So, don’t skip listing that prestigious medal you received in the military or that major presentation you conducted simply because they don’t fall directly in line with the job description. Hiring managers can still recognize (and be impressed by!) your success and achievements, even if they’re a little bit out of the box.

Making your experience seem relevant to the job you’re applying for—particularly if you’re changing industries or have a sporadic career history to date—can be a challenge. But, it’s an undeniably important part of the process.

“No one is going to deduce how or why you make perfect sense for any given role. It's your job to make it super easy for recruiters and hiring managers to quickly connect the dots between 'This is what we need' and 'This is what a candidate can walk through our doors and deliver,'” concludes Jenny Foss, “The easier you make this, the better the odds that they will invite you in for an interview.”

Photo of person on laptop courtesy of svetikd/Getty Images.