How much historical detail should I include on my resume?

Here’s a question that comes up every time I work on a resume for someone who’s got a good amount of work experience under their belt:

How much detail should I include on my resume?

This is a great question, and the answer is, it depends.

My general suggestion is to provide more detail for the most recent 10(ish) years of work, and less detail for work experience that’s older than that. More than 20 years, it’s OK to list the employer, dates, and ending title, but anything more than that is extraneous.

Here are three reasons why.

Your resume should be a broad overview of your professional offering.

Ideally, your resume will paint a picture of your total body of work. It should portray all of your work experience, and any volunteer work or avocational activities, into a readable package that tells a compelling story about the uniqueness of you. Your resume should not be an itemized receipt of every job responsibility you’ve ever had.

Example: I helped facilitate an acquisition for my employer about 20 years ago. It was a really big deal then, but holds comparatively little weight now, especially if I’m targeting a job that doesn’t need that specific experience. (See “caveats” below.) 

Obsolete technology makes you look old.

I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but I wouldn’t give you advice that I wouldn’t heed myself: Obsolete technology makes you look, well, old. I was a WordPerfect and Lotus whiz back in the day, but it matters not one lick now because anyone who knows what Lotus was knows that everyone stopped using it decades ago. Can I use Word and Excel today? I can! That’s what matters. Review your technology skills list every so often to make sure it’s fresh, and remove anything obsolete.

(Side note: If your technical skills actually are obsolete, leave them off your resume altogether until you update them with some training.)

Example: I’m so old, I learned word processing on a Wang machine that required floppy disks the size of a dinner plate. (All the kids say, floppy what, now?)

Kids, ask your parents.

This nugget is good for a laugh, but if anyone knows anything about Wang, they know I was old enough to have a job in the 1980s, which telegraphs my age (as does use of the word “telegraph”, come to think of it), all of which could trigger unconscious bias. You kids, get off my lawn.

Curate your bullet points (less is more).

A recruiter is going to scan your resume for maaaaybe 10 seconds, formulating a first impression and looking for keywords that jump out. If you’ve ever looked at two pages of densely-packed text, you know that it’s easy to lose interest fast. Bullet points are easier to read, and when skillfully crafted can pack a more potent punch than paragraph after paragraph of complete, complex sentences.

How do we do this? By featuring accomplishments you made and the impact you had. This results in a more compelling story than a bland list of responsibilities that reads like a job description. Keep the full detail in a document for your own reference – it’s good material you can talk about in interviews. But only the most important, fresh, and relevant details belong on your resume.

Any caveats?

You bet! Resume writing is, as I have observed before, more art than science. There are a bunch of best practices but very few hard-and-fast rules. 

I wrote above about that time I helped with a corporate acquisition, 20+ years ago. If I were applying for a job where acquisitions were happening, I would want to highlight that experience! But I might do it in my professional summary, or in my cover letter, or both, so that it’s prominent. And I wouldn’t necessarily call attention to the fact that it was ages ago. This is especially true when keywording is important.

Having trouble deciding what to cut and what to keep? I can help. Drop me a note and let’s talk about it.

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