If you have substantial experience in your industry — or any industry — it’s natural to want to show that off to hiring managers and recruiters. You may think that demonstrates that you’re a seasoned professional with skills, knowledge and a solid work history. However, that’s not always how your resume may be perceived.
How far back should a resume go?
Most recruiters and human resources professionals agree that 10-15 years is the maximum length of the work history you should include on your resume. We’ll delve into the why below, but essentially it boils down to relevancy: the work you did more than 15 years ago (or in some cases, even fewer) simply doesn’t apply to today’s market.
Reasons to limit the years on your resume
As we noted, the primary reason why you should limit the number of years you include your resume is that the information probably isn’t relevant to the role you’re seeking. Remember: most recruiters scan your resume in just a few seconds, and if you include too much information, they might automatically reject it. Moreover, your resume is probably long enough as it is if you have such a wealth of experience, and you don’t want to risk sending a too-lengthy document.
You also risk dating yourself if you go back too far. Unfortunately, age discrimination is very real, and you’re unnecessarily revealing something about yourself if you include dates from, say, 30 or 40 years ago. The recruiter or hiring manager will almost certainly begin to guess your age and make assumptions, even unintentionally.
And the experience simply might not be needed. If you’re at the director level now, why include the internship you had when you were fresh out of college?
When to include more years on your resume
Of course, there are plenty of gray areas when it comes to deciding what to include on your resume. Some circumstances in which it’s acceptable to go back further than 10-15 years are when:
• It’s something that still applies, such as a certification that’s valid today or an experience that provided knowledge or skills you use in your current role
• It showcases a different aspect of your skills from your more current work experiences but still remains relevant to the role you’re seeking
• You played in an instrumental role in some project or company; if, for instance, you were part of a team that uncovered groundbreaking research, you’ll want to highlight it
• It would raise eyebrows if left out — for instance, it creates a gap in your work history
• You had an experience that, while not directly related to your current role, explains an important circumstance or part of who you are — such as if you were in the military
• It otherwise adds value to your resume and candidacy for the job in question
When in doubt, if you think it’s important to include the experience on your resume, go ahead and do so. Just be aware of the potential drawbacks of going back too far.
How to explain experiences prior to your resume
Just because you shouldn’t go back more than 10-15 years on your resume doesn’t mean you can’t highlight key experience that happened before that time in other ways. In fact, you can even reference these experiences on your resume itself. Some ways to note prior work history include:
• Referencing it in your summary in your resume or on LinkedIn
• Identifying skills you gained from these prior experiences in a skills section on your resume
• Describing meaningful lessons in your cover letter as part of your general story without providing precise dates
• Referencing these experiences in your interview — for instance, when answering a question, you might tell an anecdote from when you were an assistant at X company and learned Y
Some people include a section entitled “early work experience,” “career highlights” or “prior work history” and list key roles there while omitting the dates. Be careful with this section, though: you don’t want to draw attention to the fact that you’re not offering the “when.” Make sure everything you include is relevant to the role you’re seeking and meaningful or prestigious enough that the recruiter will be able to draw connections to your more recent experiences.
What if you’ve only worked at one company for many years?
People who have had a range of positions or progressed in their roles within a single company can break up the roles to distinguish them. If, for example, you moved up from assistant to director in the same department, you should still start with 10-15 years earlier and list each position with its dates and title and the increasing levels of responsibilities you’ve had. Recruiters will notice that you’ve gained experience and skills over time.
The same applies to people who have worked in different roles at the same company for a long time. List the different positions you’ve held, but include a bit more information about each role to show the range of your knowledge and skill set.
If a role isn’t relevant at all, you can devote a shorter amount of space to it, but you shouldn’t leave it off entirely unless it goes too far back — this will create gaps in your resume
Your resume should be one to two pages unless you’re an academic, researcher or other professional who needs to use a curriculum vitae (CV) to list publications and other relevant, detailed information.
How long is too long?
Simply put, if you go beyond the two-page limit, it’s too long, unless the CV circumstances apply. The 10-15 year restriction can help you cull important information. You should also limit your descriptions for positions that are less relevant to your current role. Ultimately, the positions that carry the most weight are the ones that had the greatest hand in shaping your career, and those deserve more space.
Keep in mind that you don’t have to fill two pages. Be as concise as possible — you need to survive the recruiter or hiring manger’s quick scan, after all.
Do I need dates at all on my resume?
As described above, you can include a section listing earlier experience without dates, provided you do it in a strategic way. If you leave off dates altogether, that will appear suspicious — the hiring manager may wonder if you’ve had significant gaps.
Of course, you know better than anyone what’s most relevant and important to your career. Use your judgment when writing and editing your resume, while still bearing in mind the general guidelines.