‘Career History’, ‘Work Experience’, or ‘Professional Experience’ … whatever you call it, the section that gives me an overview of your work experience is hands-down the most critical part of your resume. It’s where I’m going to spend the most time reading, and it’s likely going to be the single most important factor in determining whether you get a chance to interview or not. Below, I’ll share what I’m looking for when I’m reading this section, so that you can look at yours through the same lens. A better ‘Experience’ section will translate to more interviews.
First, a word about structure. The three pieces of information I’m looking for first are: 1) the companies where you worked, 2) what you did there, and 3) when you did it. If you make me work too hard to find this information, you risk frustrating me to the point that I set your resume aside. Here’s what I prefer: dates (start year – end year) at the left margin, always starting with the current or most recent and working backwards. Company names at the next tab with your job titles right underneath (or justified to the right margin), and the description of that job aligned below. This makes it easy for me to scan this section and – in seconds – develop a mental snapshot of your entire career. Then, and only then, I’ll start to read into the details of each of the jobs you’ve done.
Quick sidebar: take some time to make sure that whatever structure you’ve chosen, it’s consistent throughout. It’s hard on the eyes and the brain to trace your chronological work history if the dates are at different places across the page. This is one of the reasons I strongly recommend sending your documents in PDF format. With other formats, you can’t be certain that your formatting will carry through to my device. With a PDF, what I see on my screen is what you saw on yours.
On to content. Most importantly, when describing your jobs, don’t just list tasks. Your work experience shouldn’t read like a job description. Sum the job up in a few concise sentences: how would you describe your job if you met someone in an elevator? Avoid buzzwords. I’ve read resumes with language straight out of a Dilbert cartoon or a ‘boardroom bingo’ card (“Synergies … Bingo!”). Use plain, professional language appropriate to your job or industry. And finally, be concise. The more text you make me read, the less likely I’m going to read it all (and therefore, the more likely it is that I’ll miss something you really want me to read).
Now, add a couple of bullet points underneath. Use these to draw the reader’s eyes to your accomplishments, your ‘brag book’. This is your chance – on paper, before an interview – for you to tell me how great you really are. Just as importantly, accomplishments speak to the value you create as an employee. This makes you a much more compelling candidate at this screening stage, and makes me want to learn more in an interview. If you had responsibilities that were significant or unique in some way, you can also highlight those here to grab attention.
One final note, on length. In most circumstances, you don’t need to go into depth on every job you’ve held, and you don’t need to continue including jobs that are many years back in your working life and aren’t relevant to your current career. A resume is a marketing document, not a legal one. Use your discretion about how much detail you include as you go further back in your career, aiming to – in most circumstances – keep your resume to a total of two pages.
Take a look at this section in the last resume you put together. How does it stack up? Would I invite you in for an interview? Maybe I have … when I wasn’t undercover.