If you are sitting down to write your resume, one of the first questions that pops up into your head is “how far should a resume go back?”. Such a frustrating mental block can leave you staring at a white page for ages. So let’s get it out of the way, shall we?
How Far Back Should a Resume Go?
Your career history on a chronological resume should not go beyond 10 years if you are an experienced professional and 2-3 years if you are new to the workforce. That’s what top recruiters and official resources advise.
“The most recent experience will carry the most weight, so the descriptions for the most recent five to 10 years should take priority,” states Caroline Ceniza-Levine, co-founder of SixFigureStart in a CNBC post.
The official guide to federal resume writing also recommends going “as far back as you need to in order to make your experience applicable. In other words, make sure you highlight your accomplishments of previous jobs that are most recent and relevant to the position you are seeking”.
That being said, there’s no optimal duration for every job candidate and position. Use your best judgment to determine which bends on your career path are worth highlighting for a new position you are after.
How to Decide What To Put on Your Chronological Resume
To decide how far back should a resume go for work history consider the following:
- Your level of seniority
- The role you are applying for
- Appropriate resume length
Now let’s unpack each pointer.
Level of Seniority
Mature candidates (with 20+ years of experience) hold an average of 12 jobs during their career progression. Clearly, that’s a lot to fit in a standard one-page resume.
So be prepared to do some ruthless editing. It’s okay to skip on some of your earliest entry-level jobs, especially if they are in no way relevant to the new job offer you are after. Also, you can cut some space by cherry-picking your most relevant roles in different companies and mentioning your progression with a single employer within one consolidated entry.
Mid-level candidates (with 5-15 years of experience) should also not go beyond 10 years. It’s okay to de-emphasize and skim on some of the earlier, entry-level roles and give the most attention to your recent skills and accomplishments. Your resume writing should be focused on showcasing that you are prepared for the next big move and have everything what it takes to be successful.
Recent graduates and entry-level specialists (under 5 years of experience) typically struggle with the opposite — deciding what to put on a resume to make it more compelling. Still, some fall into the trap of overly focusing on their education section (coursework, GPAs, etc), instead of making the max out of work experience.
Even if you held unrelated jobs by this point, you can still show your “employment readiness” by highlighting transferable skills, volunteering activities, and internships.
The Role You Are After
The key to making a mark with your resume application is personalization.
We said this before, but it’s worth reiterating — always analyze the job posting and then tailor your resume to the particular employer.
Use the “Candidate Requirements” section as your guide for deciding what work experience to include or skip.
Typically the section will detail:
- Number of years of experience required: your first cue to how far your resume should go.
- Desired skills: this can help you prioritize roles where you’ve developed and applied the stated skills.
- Nice-to-have skills: Use this section to decide what other jobs or education entries to highlight on your resume.
As a rule of thumb, the ideal resume length is one page. A two-page resume or CV is acceptable for senior candidates (15+ years), as well as academic positions.
But overall, your document should never spill over the two-page limit.
So work around this constraint. Download a resume template and try to fit in all your career history in reverse chronological order. See how far can you go within one page or two pages. Not that far, right?
Well, that’s the kicker. Having a constrain forces you to be succinct and prioritize what’s important.
How to Make Your Resume Less Cluttered
If you struggle to fit your details into the given frame, here’s what to drop from your resume for brevity:
- Jobs from a decade ago
- Entry-level jobs
- Extra education details (unless these are highly relevant)
- Part-time jobs or freelance work
- Short-term positions or contract work
- Lengthy descriptions of duties
- Any entries that don’t relate to the new job
- Insignificant promotions within the same organization
Also, remember that your resume isn’t the only asset you can use to showcase your work history. There are even more ways to present your worth!
A cover letter is an excellent supplementary document to highlight some of the omitted work experiences or career details, as well as showcase your personality and soft skills. Leverage it as an extension of your resume and bring in details you haven’t mentioned earlier.
Unlike resumes, LinkedIn profiles can go as far back as you wish to. So make sure to keep it up-to-date too and choke-full of extra career details. But again, it’s best to provide the most context for your latest roles, over spelling out what you did straight after high school or college. You can also add a link to your LinkedIn profile from your resume and/or cover letter with a quick note for the recruiter to check it out and connect.
Finally, a portfolio can be more telling than a resume for some professions. So rather than trying to explain at length what you did in each role, drop a quick portfolio link in your resume. The reader will then have an opportunity to look into all the curated items and your resume will stay short and nearly organized.
Brevity is a hard skill to master, especially when it comes to resume writing. But given that most recruiters spend under 6 seconds on traditional resumes, you gotta stay on point at all times. When it comes to extensive work experience — less is actually more. Speak about your most relevant roles from the past 5-10 years. Skip mentioning the less prominent ones.