For many job seekers working on their resumes, volunteer experience is a vague spot. You may feel unclear about how to include this area of your background or even whether to include it at all. Read on for answers to three common questions about listing volunteer work on your resume.

Should You Include Volunteer Experience on Your Resume?

Yes, volunteer experience can give your resume a strong boost. It helps show hiring managers your soft skills like collaboration or a service mindset. If the actual work and duties overlap with the types of responsibilities you seek in your next job, it can be a key or central part of your qualification.

Still, you may hesitate to include volunteer experience on your resume if you’ve been told you should leave it out and “keep the focus on your professional experience.” You might also wonder if it’s just somehow “wrong” to take credit for this work on your resume and try to use it to advance your career. Isn’t the whole point of volunteering to give back to your community and not expect anything in return?

It’s a fair question. The best answer comes from reminding yourself of the primary purpose of a resume: to give a hiring manager a clear and complete picture of your qualifications. If you leave it out, you won’t give the hiring manager a complete understanding of what you’d bring to the table and whether they should have you in for an interview. Do them (not just yourself) a favor by adding it.

Should You Make Your Volunteer Experience its Own Resume Section or Combine it With Your Regular Work Experience?

It depends on your overall work history. Here are some rules of thumb:

  • Combine volunteer experience with your Professional Experience if it helps fill a gap in your recent work history. For example, say you were not working from 2014 to 2016, but you were a mentor in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program during this time. Mentioning this in between your regular job descriptions gives the hiring manager a better understanding of your activities during this break in employment.
  • Also, combine the two types of experience if your number of years of professional work is lower than your target job calls for. For example, say you’re applying to a web design job that requests four years’ experience. You only have three years of related work experience, but you also have a year of part-time volunteer web design experience at a local nonprofit. In this case, you should combine the two sections. Doing so will help the hiring manager see that while your work history may be limited, your overall web design experience is more comparable to their needs.
  • If neither of the above two scenarios applies to you, have your volunteer experience be its own section appearing below your Professional Experience section (similar to the other ancillary resume sections, like Education or Certifications).

Should you choose to add volunteer experience to your Professional Experience section, remember to update the section name to a more general term like “Relevant Experience” or “Experience Highlights.” It’s still accurate and doesn’t mislead the hiring manager. And for any individual volunteer job, consider clarifying your commitment level by putting “part-time” or listing the number of hours per week next to the job title, so you are not overstating the experience.

How Much Detail Should You Give About Your Volunteer Experience on Your Resume?

It depends on how relevant the volunteer work in question is to your current job search goals.

To generate the proper amount of detail for any given volunteer job, brainstorm things from the experience you’re proud of or the valuable skills you gained. Then remove any points that don’t overlap with the types of duties or projects you expect to take on in your next job. For example, if your participation in Big Brothers Big Sisters gave you a tremendous mentoring experience, but you don’t wish to mentor others in your next job, take out any brainstorming points in that area of the work you did.

Don’t worry if this two-step exercise leaves you with just a few points about the volunteer job or none at all. All that means is the volunteer work in question happens to be unrelated to your job search. You should still give the basic details (position title, organization, location, and start and end dates) to help hiring managers to get a sense of your overall community engagement.

And on the other side of the coin, don’t worry if this exercise leaves you with a lengthy description of your volunteer experience. Remember, the whole point of a resume is to show your relevant qualifications, regardless of where you gained them or under what circumstances. As long as the volunteer details you provide all speak strongly to your job search goals, they have a rightful place in your finished document and will make it that much more likely to help you gain traction in your job search.

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