A job seeker might be fresh out of college with little work history, or in the twilight of their career with decades of job experience. How far back should their resume go?
It depends on the candidate, where they are in their career journey, and what the hiring manager is looking for. At a minimum, unless the job seeker is a recent graduate, the resume should show continuity of employment and progression. This typically means going back at least two to three years. The ultimate resume should tell the employer that the applicant is the best person for the job concisely and unequivocally.
The following are some guidelines based on where you are in your career. We will tell you how far back your resume should go, how to list past jobs on a resume, and how to sell yourself in your job search by presenting your work history in the best possible way.
A resume should be short and sweet. Unlike a curriculum vitae, which can be longer and more detailed, your resume length should be just one page. That one page must showcase the highlights of your relevant work experience, education, and accomplishments.
If you are applying for your first job or are in the early stages of your career, you won’t have much experience to speak of, so it’s fine to include any significant achievements from your high school years.
Even without relevant experience, certain achievements from high school or college can emphasize your character, your work ethic, and your ability to lead or to take on responsibility. It’s key to focus on transferable skills— such as communication, leadership, collaboration, and problem-solving—and to convey to the reader situations where you demonstrated these skills. For example,
Became high school valedictorian or salutatorian.
Earned scholarships (e.g., a National Merit Scholarship).
Completed internships, which are considered work experience.
Studied abroad for a semester or more.
Served as the president or vice president of the student council.
Served as the captain or co-captain of a varsity team in high school or college.
Served as the editor-in-chief of the school newspaper or yearbook.
Completed volunteer work.
Worked summer jobs, part-time jobs, or gig work, and the skills that you learned.
Once you have three to five years of full-time professional experience, remove your part-time gigs, internships, and high school information. This will now seem like fluff to a potential employer who is more interested in your real-world experience and where your value lies.
Resume Tip: If you have just graduated or have minimal professional experience, place your job descriptions below your education section. Your education is your biggest asset at this stage in your career, and anything else is icing on the cake.
For mid-career job applicants, a ten-year career history is considered a rule of thumb. It’s critical to show how you have progressed since the entry-level stage of your career. It’s not necessary to list all of your full-time jobs, only the most recent relevant positions to your targeted profession.
To show progression within a company, list promotions or multiple positions under a subheading with the company name. List the most recent positions first. See below.
Digital Content Manager, 2008 to 2010
Content Coordinator, 2006 to 2008
Marketing Assistant, 2004 to 2006
More senior-level executives can put the first ten years of their career under the headline “Other Notable Experience” after listing their most recent positions. But there are no hard and fast rules.
Show progression in terms of responsibilities and achievements, and use quantifiable results. For example, "developed a social media marketing campaign that increased outreach by 35% and sales by 56%."
Avoid adding any jobs that you did before graduating unless they stand out and have direct relevance to the job. This might be the case if you are changing careers and some past experience from that period is now relevant. If you have military service, impressive internships, or anything else notable from college, add those items under the heading “Notable projects,” or “Notable accomplishments.
Add only two or three sentences under each one, or use bullet points, and don’t add dates if you don’t have to.
Try to frame your resume as your story, your accomplishments, and the benefits you offer to an employer. Consider any technology that you might have been exposed to that might be of particular value to an employer.
Resume Tip: Always list experience with the most recent jobs first.
Older applicants might be tempted to include older jobs that they did decades ago, but this can be a huge mistake in a job application.
Age discrimination is rife where recruitment is concerned. If you are in the latter stages of your career, chances are that the jobs you are targeting call for a considerable amount of experience and knowledge. However, what made you valuable to a company twenty years ago, is probably not what makes you valuable to a company today.
Think carefully before including a job history longer than ten years. Instead, focus on understanding what the employer is looking for and demonstrating that you have those skills. If you agree with the author Malcolm Gladwell, most industry experts have subject matter expertise at 10,000 hours – or five years. So, if you have this many years of experience in any specific type of work, that's sufficient, and there is no need to add any more.
Most hiring decisions are based on an applicant’s last three positions, so list only these in the experience section if you can show sufficient expertise.
Read the job posting—the expected years of expertise are usually mentioned there. Only go back as far as the job posting states. If the job posting does not list the required years of experience, only go back 10 to 15 years.
You can blanket older experiences that are relevant to your job around “other notable experience” if you are targeting a career change and want to include something that you did two or three decades ago. You don’t need to give the dates.
Remove undergraduate dates but include a master’s graduation date if it was earned later in life. For any certifications that you have earned, list only their expiration date, as long as the certification is still valid.
Include the most relevant keywords that are current in your industry and that appear in the job description. Resumes are screened by applicant tracking systems, so scan the job description for keywords that you should include in your resume.
Convey to the reader what makes you valuable; for example, you “have a track record in identifying problems and implementing the right solutions,” and give specific examples.
Resume Tip: If you must emphasize more than 20 years of earlier experience, then just note “20+ years” rather than say 25, 30, or more.
Academic positions are the exception to the resume rules. Some academic positions call for years of work experience, such as proven research, teaching skills, and published works. This will typically require a history of more than 10 years. Applicants in this sector should go back as far back as 15 to 20 years if the experience includes teaching, instruction, training, and other relevant educational-related information.
The gig economy is becoming part of an increasing number of people’s lives. A study by MBO partners projected that by 2023, more than half of the US workforce will either be gig economy workers or have worked independently at some point. If your gig work is relevant to the job you are applying for, include it, and explain why it makes you a better candidate. If not, it is better to exclude it.
How far back to go when resume writing depends on your job history and the needs of the employer. Job seekers need not tell the entire story of their lives, but they should go back far enough to build a solid case for their suitability for the job title. The resume writer should study the job description and think about what the employer wants to see in a candidate.
For entry-level job seekers, any work experience, gig work, voluntary work, summer internships should complement the education section on their resume. High school achievements should be removed once you have a few years of professional experience.
For all job seekers, remember that your resume is just one tool recruiters and employers will look at. Your online presence, such as your LinkedIn profile, is equally as important. Apply the guidelines in this article to your online profiles too.
For mature job seekers, consider that the guidelines are less about disguising age and more about emphasizing what you can offer the employer and why you are the best candidate. The best candidate is often the one with the most impressive recent experience!