8/6/23 - How Far Back Should A Resume Go?
Your resumé - also called a CV or curriculum vitae - is a self-portrait of your career. If you’ve got a lot of experience, maybe you are wondering: how far back should your resumé go? Your resumé is your keyword-dense story, a tale that balances relevance and experience. The key to any resumé is similar to success in the job interview: it’s all in the timing. In the same way that lack of experience can be a challenge on your resumé, so can too much depth. Go back too far on your resumé, and you risk trading deep experience for current relevance. Clearly, the timing that matters most for your career depends on the opportunity you are seeking.
How Long Ago Is Too Long for a Resume?
Every employer, everywhere, is looking for one thing - and one thing only. From Denny’s to the Department of Defense, organizations need solutions providers. What’s the solution that you can provide - and how can you share evidence of your service, in the form of a resumé? History adds credibility, when it comes to your career. But experience is only part of the story. In the job search process, you have to choose the words (and the timeline) that will help you most. You want to be clear on the solution you can provide to your potential employer. But how much experience is too much? And what do you do if you have a gap or two in your timeline? What if you bounced around a little bit in your career - does that make the resumé look bad, or over-written, if you go back too far into the past? Here’s how to decide how many years make sense for you:
Consider Your Industry, Your Experience and Your Qualifications: but don’t start there. Look at what the position is requesting. Shape your resumé to the opportunity. Using authenticity, consider how to shape each of your experiences to reinforce why you are a perfect candidate for this particular role. Relevance is the key. Do you match up with the job description, on your resumé? How many years of experience makes you qualified? The answer depends, first and foremost, on what the employer is requesting. If you simply don’t have the qualifications, you’re not out of the running - but you just qualified yourself as a “non-traditional candidate”. You’re probably going to need more than just a resumé to get an interview. But that’s a subject for another post. Consider that Career Builder suggests 10 years as a benchmark for how far back your resumé can go in 2023.
Impact Over Experience: experience proves ability. But how many times do you need to prove that you have the ability to do something, in order for a potential employer to see your value? The initial answer probably lies within the job description. If you don’t have five years of experience in a role, and that’s what’s called for, you might have a tough time getting past the ATS (applicant tracking system - an acronym for automated resumé screening software). Remember, there’s something that matters more than experience, when it comes to your resumé. Speak the universal language of numbers, to reflect the size and scope of the difference that you made for your previous employer(s). Can you show that you made an impact? Does your resumé clearly state the scope of your contribution? The amount of time in the workforce, or in a job, is only part of the story!
Go Here, If You Can: most experts recommend going back no more than 10-15 years. But everyone with an iPhone (introduced exactly 16 years ago, in June of 2007) can tell you that a lot has changed in 15 years. Can you imagine showing up with an original iPhone today? If your previous years of experience are irrelevant to your current pursuits, it’s time to fall out of love with days gone by. Even if 1996 was a stellar year for you, or just the year that you were born, that date isn’t really relevant on a resumé.
When to Cut It Short: do you have a life-event that happened to you, in your career journey, causing a shift in your trajectory? Maybe it’s a circumstance that’s difficult to explain, a gap in your resume, or a choice that you made that has no bearing on what you’re trying to do next. Lots of people made tough choices during the financial crisis, for example, in the years around 2008 - maybe you are one of them? You’re a financial analyst now, but right out of school you took a job as a graphic designer to pay the bills. Does that story help or hinder your cause? How’s the screening software going to view that position?
Consider that transparency is important, but confusion must be overcome. Storytelling is always selective - and your resumé needs to tell a story. Remember that you are not the first person since God was a boy who took a gig to pay some bills. Your story of an unexpected left turn, or an unplanned gap on your resumé, could be a point of connection, where you demonstrate your resourcefulness and willingness to do what it takes. But that resourcefulness might be best discussed in the interview.
How you position your prior positions on your CV needs to be in alignment with your objective. If you have some circumstances that you’re not sure how to pitch to your employer, or a gap that’s six months or longer, it’s a good idea to get with a coach for some guidance. An expert coach can take your history and help you to write a different ending - or at least a really good next chapter.
Is Longevity a Liability? What happens if you’ve stayed at the same company, or worked in the same role, for the last 15 years...or longer? The key here, as with any story about your experience, is to focus on what matters most to your potential employer. Do they value dedication and commitment? A steady and even hand at the wheel? Longevity can be an asset, if your experience is tailored to your next opportunity. However, transitioning from a lengthy career can be another reason to hire a coach - so that you can pull relevance, not rigidity, from your prior commitments.
Including more than 15 years of experience on a resumé is rare in today’s job market. The world has changed so quickly in the last 15 years, it’s hard to imagine that employers would view experience from the early 2000’s as a compelling reason to hire someone - especially in a field like AI, software, cryptocurrency or robotics. Nevertheless, there’s no “one size fits all” when it comes to your resume. Your resumé is the first step in sharing your story; a story that explores the experience you can create for your potential employer. The past only serves to confirm what you have done for others. The real story starts with what you can do for your next company - and the experience you want to create for your new team.
Chris Westfall - I write about the changing nature of the leadership conversation, and how communication creates the connections that matter. My latest book is called "Easier" (Wiley) - a story about how job frustration can lead to transformation. I'm also the author of "Leadership Language" (Wiley), "BulletProof Branding" and "The NEW Elevator Pitch" (Marie Street Press). My clients include Fortune 500 giants and high-growth organizations, the US NAVY SEALS, media personalities, political leaders, professional athletes, inventors and top-tier universities. A coach to clients on Shark Tank, Dragons Den, and Shark Tank - Australia, I've helped raise over $100 million in new investment for entrepreneurs. I deliver group coaching programs to international organizations and help companies create cultures where engagement, performance, and collaboration become easier. Be sure to connect with me on LinkedIn and Instagram, and visit my youtube channel: @westfallonline