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How far back should you go on a resume?

Today's hiring managers have stacks of applications to get through quickly, so job seekers need to make each moment count when presenting themselves to prospective employers. While every candidate wants to give a thorough picture of accomplishments and skills, is it necessary to list every single job one’s ever held on a resume?

Determining how many years of work history to include on your resume can be a tricky task and is highly dependent on the unique situation of every job seeker. While the standard rule of thumb is to include roughly your last 10 years of work experience, this may not always make sense. It’s critical that you consider how relevant and important older pieces of work experience are to the jobs that you are currently looking for. If some of your earlier jobs are able to effectively communicate the strengths and abilities that you want to emphasize to your future employer, then by all means include them on your resume. On the flip side, if some more recent positions that you've held are completely irrelevant to the jobs you are now seeking, it may be best to leave them off your resume.

Here are some scenarios to consider and tips for what to include.

Start with the most relevant experience
Reading the job description carefully helps you determine what to include – and how far back to go. Do some brainstorming to figure out what relevant experience and skills you possess. Then, create an outline of your resume. Include only those of your jobs that are relevant to the opening. If you aren't a recent graduate or senior executive baby boomer, you'll probably include no more than five positions that span a total of no more than 10-15 years.

While most entry-level jobs aren’t connected to what you’re doing now or want to do in the future, if your first job is highly relevant, you should consider including it. This is especially true if you know it might resonate with the decision makers. Maybe you worked under the hiring manager’s mentor, the job matches the employer’s values, or perhaps it just stands out as interesting or prestigious. There are some rules in resume writing, but rule No. 1 is: include whatever helps you get the interview.

Make use of the qualifications summary
If you have early work experience that doesn’t merit its own section but is still relevant, there are other ways to showcase the skills you learned during that time. One of the best ways is to use a qualifications summary as your resume introduction. As a reminder, a qualifications summary is a list of five or six bullets highlighting your strengths and biggest accomplishments. It's a great tool for anyone with an extensive amount of experience. Not only does it act as a mini-extension of your work history, but it also allows you to highlight some of your greatest achievements from earlier jobs.

Another trick, according to Kerr, is to include some of the important skills you learned at earlier jobs in your additional skills section. Or, if you want to keep the early years out of your resume altogether, you can include essential aspects of them in your cover letter.

Other ways to showcase those early years
If you choose to include the earlier years within the main experience section, you should list them by title/industry or by company. For instance, if your earlier work history included five years’ experience as a ‘Customer Service Operator’ at four different companies, but with basically the same duties and responsibilities, you can combine the positions on your resume.

An example of how to do this:

Customer Service Operator, 1998 – 2003
Company 1, Company 2, Company 3, Company 4

If your early experience was all with the same company, but in multiple positions as you worked your way up, you can combine them like this:

Company ABC

  • Customer Service Representative, 1998 – 2000
  • Customer Service Team Lead, 2000 – 2002
  • Customer Service Manager, 2002 – 2003

What matters most is that you stand out
The ultimate goal is to present yourself as the best possible candidate for the position at hand.

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