Wondering how far back in time you should take your resume’s Experience section? Here’s a good rule of thumb: Document as many years as your target job calls for in applicants. So, if your target job calls for five years’ work experience, take your resume back to 2017; if ten years, take it back to 2012. Whatever the called-for time span is, view your associated work history as “required” information on your resume. Provide the basic details of each job you’ve held during that time (position title, company name, location, start/end dates) regardless of how relevant the job is to your goals.
Frame Your Work History
The next time you spot a job posting that interests you, check if it requires applicants to have a certain number or range of work years (in most cases, it will). You can then frame your Experience section accordingly. For example, if the posting calls for “six to eight years of professional experience,” that’s your cue to take your resume back about seven years to 2015. Based on this first job posting, jot down a note of your apparent “required” work years to cover on your resume. Then, as your job search progresses, you can update that number and your resume if you find the majority of postings require more or fewer years.
Often your earliest job within the required time span will have started a year prior. For instance, say your target job requires six years of experience. That would mean taking your resume back to 2016, but what if you held your earliest position from 2014 to 2018? In cases like this, you should extend your Experience section back to that prior start year (or 2014).
Address Any Employment Gaps
Your “required” work years may include one or more jobs that aren’t relevant to your target job. For these jobs, you can briefly describe your duties and overall success in the role. This brevity gives you space to flesh out descriptions of your relevant jobs more fully, keeping the hiring manager’s attention on work details that will matter to them.
Your required work years might also include employment gaps – maybe you took time off to get an advanced degree, start a family, or for other personal reasons. Your best option here is to provide a simple one- or two-line explanation in brackets wherever the gap appears in your Experience section. Two examples:
[2017 to 2019: Completed MBA degree from Stanford University.]
[2016 to 2020: Full time mother focused on starting a family.]
Brackets are helpful in this context because they indicate the details are outside the general work experience category, without calling undue attention to them.
Capture Your Early Experience
Any time your required work years include employment gaps or irrelevant jobs, you’ll need to document relevant work experience from earlier on, so your resume shows you still meet the job requirements. The simplest way is to take your resume’s work history back further until it encompasses enough earlier relevant experience. This option is best if you gained that relevant expertise right or soon before your more recent work history. Note, it’s generally recommended that you not take your work history back further than 10-15 years, to avoid age discrimination.
The other primary way to capture your early experience is in a “Career Note” section right below your main Experience section. This option works best if you gained the additional relevant experience a long time ago, because you can omit work dates and therefore avoid having to outline all your jobs in the intervening years. (Omitting work dates also lets you avoid age discrimination.)
For example, say you’re going after a direct sales role at a large corporation. The job calls for six years’ experience, which you have. Three of your sales years occurred from 2018 to 2021, so they fall in the average six-year span (2016 to Present) you’re already outlining on your resume. But your other three years as a sales rep were from 2007 to 2010. Granted, this was a while ago, but you gained significant experience and are confident discussing it in an interview. You can frame the experience like this:
Prior experience includes three years as a Sales Associate for an industry-leading manufacturer. Highlights:
– [Key duty or highlight.]
You can flesh out the description to include your relevant duties or sales achievements. Don’t be shy about having an extensive Prior Experience section. If the older work you’re describing is truly valuable (and something you’d draw on to excel in your future job), it deserves a prominent place on your resume, regardless of when it occurred.