Resume Myths: A Work Chronology

Manual Typewriter

ResumeSince the invention of the resume, candidates have been conditioned that this coveted document is a chronological listing of work history, education and achievements.  As students, we are given samples and guided to follow a rigid pattern.  Even the templates from popular word processing programs and resume builders still adhere to this outdated paradigm.  Sadly, this often results in not getting the job for a variety of reasons.

A resume is a candidate’s first opportunity to tell an employer why he or she is a good fit for a position.  Providing a bunch of irrelevant information is unlikely to portray a candidate in a positive light.  At best, it might build a small amount of credibility of time in industry or demonstrate seniority.  At worst, it is likely to cause the resume to be passed over in favor of others that appear to align more closely with the posted requirements.

Listing details about roles and achievements greater than 10 years prior is a risky proposition.  Most applicants can’t remember significant details that far back.  When asked to elaborate during an interview, candidates are more likely to fumble questions about older roles.  Also, they have often lost contact with former coworkers.  If asked for references (yes many companies still check references), candidates struggle to provide a name that is still employed at said company or that can accurately recall details of ten year old work, much less provide a glowing recommendation.  But most importantly, if an employer is really interested in something a candidate did 10 years ago, does the candidate really want to return to that type of work?

To avoid these common mistakes, summarize older work history.  List only the position title and company but no details or accomplishments.  List the time in position only if relevant for building credibility.  For high-level roles include months or years to demonstrate progression.  For technical positions, dates can validate a specific amount of time with a skill or technology applicable to the new opportunity.  Drop technical skills that are deprecated.  Unless the role requires working with a dead technology, listing it probably won’t impress the new employer. 

In some cases, it’s appropriate to drop work history greater than 10 years prior, especially if it’s not relevant.  For older workers, this might help to prevent age bias in the initial hiring process.  For others, it’s about relevancy.  If applying for a Python Developer role mid-career, an employer really doesn’t really care about that college internship as a business analyst.

Similarly, it’s ok to drop past roles or eliminate details that are not relevant to the new position, as long as it doesn’t create gaps in recent work history.  Employment gaps are a red flag for a potential employer and are the quickest way to get rejected with very few exceptions. As an example, if applying for a technical hands-on programming role, it might not be helpful to highlight accomplishments from that year spent as a project manager.  Instead summarize the role as a title and company to avoid an employment gap. 

So, remember, it’s OK to break the mold with the resume.  Information provided still needs to be accurate, but it doesn’t need to be a complete work history dating back to high school.  Instead, focus on what’s relevant to the role and provide the information that most strongly indicates a likelihood of success at the new employer.