Nearly all employers use background checks as part of the hiring process, according to a 2020 survey by the Professional Background Screening Association. Employers use them to find and rule out any candidates who misrepresent themselves on their resume or other application materials. Background checks serve as a security precaution for employers, and as a way to avoid hiring people with dubious work ethics or qualifications.

You can worry less about a future background check if you determine what areas it’s prone to cover, then double-check your application to ensure no discrepancies. The following guide will show you how.

Background Checks 101

For each background check, employers must follow strict laws governing the amount and type of information they can look up about you. (This Federal Trade Commission page has a brief overview of background check laws and your rights in relation to them.)

A background check can include your:

  • Credit history
  • Driving record
  • Higher education degrees
  • Licenses and certifications
  • Records of criminal activity
  • Social media
  • Work history

As a preliminary part of your job search, it’s a good idea to get copies of public/official documents like your college transcript, credit report, and driving record. You can then review these documents closely to ensure the information is accurate, up to date, and in line with your resume. You can also spot anything that may scan as a “red flag” to employers, then figure out when and how you’d like to address it in your application.

For issues like a long employment gap or former incarceration, know that you don’t have to give more than the minimal details on your resume. Your resume should be a record of your experience as related to the job you’re seeking, so it doesn’t generally concern itself with these topics. Instead, consider using your cover letter to cite the issue and give any context you’re comfortable sharing with the hiring manager. Also keep in mind that many online job application forms request this type of information and give you a chance to explain or quality it, so a future background check won’t cause any unnecessary surprises.

Always Make Sure Your Resume is Accurate and Not Misleading

You already know it’s wrong to lie on your resume. But remember, it’s also possible to misrepresent yourself by accident, especially if you have a lot of different qualifications or complex work history. Always double-check your resume’s accuracy and view it from the reader’s perspective before submitting it to an open job.

To make sure your resume gives an accurate view and doesn’t cause problems during a background check, follow these tips:

1. Work history

Take your work history back at least as many years as your target job calls for in applicants. For example, if your target job requires five years of work experience, you should update your resume to 2018. If it requires ten years of work experience, you should update your resume to 2013. It is always best to view your associated work history as “required” information, regardless of the time frame requested. 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. These details are the foundation for a clear and accurate resume.

2. Employment gaps

Include months in your work history dates, and don’t try to conceal any employment gaps. Generally speaking, you shouldn’t worry about gaps that only lasted a few months. Hiring managers understand that there are plenty of instances where a person might have lost their job through no fault of their own (especially in the past couple of years). As for any long gaps, know that there are various ways to present your non-work activities in a positive (yet still accurate) light – read How to Address Employment Gaps on Your Resume and Cover Letter.

3. Overlapping jobs

Put your work history in reverse-chronological order or from newest to oldest. This rule might sound simple enough, but it can be confusing if you started or ended multiple jobs at the same time or if you held a short-term job at the same time as a long-term job that ended later. The solution: first, order all your positions from newest to oldest by their END date. Then, order any positions with the same end date from most recent to oldest by their START date.

  • Example

Head Electronics Technician | March 2019 to Present

Electronics Repair Technician | March 2019 to October 2020

Electronics Technician | May 2014 to October 2020

Technician Assistant | April 2015 to January 2018

4. Jobs at the same company

If you advanced through multiple roles at the same company, always include the sub-dates of each position. (These should usually appear in parentheses after their respective position title.) Otherwise, you may falsely indicate you held the positions simultaneously, overstating the duration of both.

  • Example

ExxonMobil Corporation, Boston, MA | October 2019 to Present 

Sales Manager (July 2020 to Present) 

Sales Associate (October 2019 to July 2020) 

NOT: Sales Manager / Sales Associate, ExxonMobil Corporation, Boston, MA | October 2019 to Present

5. Prior experience

If you include a prior experience section below your main work history, consider a section title like “Prior Experience Highlights,” “Select Prior Experience,” or “Career Note.” These titles allow you to focus the section on jobs and achievements that speak to your target role, regardless of how long ago they occurred. At the same time, they don’t mislead the employer to think you’re giving a complete early career summary.

  • Example

Prior experience includes three years as a Customer Service Representative for MLO Inc.

6. Incomplete degree

If you started but didn’t finish a college degree, put the phrase “Coursework toward:” in front of the degree name. This allows you to take credit for your education experience without overstating it.

  • Example

Coursework toward: Bachelor of Arts (BA) – English, Columbia University, New York, NY

7. Degree in progress

Similarly, if you’re currently completing a college degree or certification, put the term “Candidate:” in front of the degree or title you expect to earn. You can also add the phrase “expected [Date]” to show when you plan on graduating.

  • Example

Candidate: Bachelor’s Degree – Economics, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA | expected May 2023 

The Bottom Line About Background Checks

Honesty is the best policy. Give an accurate view of your experience, and you can be more confident you’ll pass any future background checks and find the right career opportunity.

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