When you should (and shouldn’t) include all past jobs on your resume

Everyone has a job in life that’s a spectacular failure or is irrelevant to their career. Should you include these in your resume? We're so glad you asked.

Want to hear a secret? Almost every professional eventually has a job that’s a spectacular failure or is completely irrelevant to their career.

Barack Obama scooped ice cream in High School. Pope Francis was a bar bouncer. Rod Stewart was a literal grave digger. But you can be confident none of them are going to anchor their autobiography around those episodes in their lives.

One of the questions we hear all the time is whether it’s pivotal to include all of your jobs on your resume. And our short answer is “it depends.”

But that’s not super helpful, so I’m here today to provide the longer version. The following tips should help you decide whether to include all your past jobs on your resume.

Add relevant information for the job you are applying for

The key question you should be asking about every line on your experience section is “will they care?

And the answer, obviously, needs to be yes. That’s why we recommend tailoring a custom resume for each application.

This means you may want to choose to focus only on experience that directly relate to your desired role or field. Any other roles you might have had over the years will just be distracting.

You can either leave these other positions off your resume entirely, or list them in a separate section. This way the HR manager can easily get an overview of your related experience without getting bogged down in non-essential info.

On the other hand, if you're a recent graduate or don't have much work experience, you'll want to list all of the experience that you do have. Include any work you did during high school or college, internships, volunteer work, and even summer jobs.

Your future employer will want to see proof that you've previously worked in some capacity, no matter how minor or unrelated was. Speaking of gaps…

Try to avoid big employment gaps

You should be striving to make sure every line on your resume is clearly relevant to the position you’re applying for. But that doesn’t mean you should be leaving huge gaps from years when you were doing other things.

Try to keep the resume as short as you can without leaving out anything pertinent, but this is generally easier said than done.

Focus on the most relevant information in detail. Then, you can feel free to be brief about the less important stuff or leave it off altogether.

Unless you have a good reason for it, most employers won't find it desirable to learn that you were bumming around for an extended time.

While this may mean including less relevant positions, it will also prevent a potential employer from thinking you were unemployed for several years. But if you do have large gaps…

Make your employment gaps work for you

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But don’t stress too much. No employer is going to expect you to explain every single minute of your time since you graduated from high school. They’re primarily looking for evidence that you’re career-minded and motivated.

Fortunately, hiring managers have given some good indications as to what they consider “too long” for a walkabout. The answer, it seems, is around nine months.

That time can be significantly extended if you have a good story for the time during which you weren’t employed.

Consider the example of a close friend of mine. They spent 18 months bicycling around Southeast Asia. She taught English, explored ruins, wrote, volunteered, and experienced a lot of personal growth.

She was worried, though, when they came back to the US and decided it was time to get a job. How would employers view her traveling years?

That all changed once she started interviewing. At first, they left this gap in time blank on their resume and they were inevitably asked about it.

When she explained she was traveling and teaching English, they were surprised to find the interview inevitably pivoted to a long list of questions about their travel experiences. She found that hiring managers were fascinated (and maybe a little envious) by the things she’d gotten to see and do.

So she turned her gap into an advantage. She added “World Traveler” to her experience section and emphasized the ways it had made her a better professional. And, what do you know, she had a job offer within a couple weeks!

In other words, a gap that has a purpose is not at all a serious career mistake. That said, you may want to watch out for these other three common career mistakes instead.

Don't feel obliged to list short-term roles

Not all gaps come from life-changing travel or time in the Peace Corps. If your last role didn't quite work out as well as you'd hoped, you definitely don't want to list it on your resume. That’s especially true if you were only with the company for a few months or so.

Adding it will just invite questions about why you left. You’ll be forced to either admit that you failed at something or criticize a previous workplace. Neither is an ideal scenario.

If you happen to be applying for a job that requires a security clearance, past roles will definitely come out in your background check. So don’t assume that a job you don’t add to your resume will stay a mystery.

But it's highly unlikely any HR department will have the time or resources to ever find out about all of your former jobs. Most will only go as far as calling your references and possibly phoning the HR department of some of your former employers.

If you do add a role to your resume, your new employer will want to verify that you actually worked everywhere you claimed to have. That leads us to our next point.

Limit yourself to the past 10 to 15 years

If your career has already spanned more than a decade, it's usually a good idea to limit the items you list on your resume to the past 10 to 15 years.

Of course, this rule doesn't necessarily apply when switching careers or fields. In this case, it's more important that you focus on the most relevant experience instead of the most recent.

Nonetheless, industries change quite quickly, meaning there's probably no reason to list that computer programming job you held 20 years ago. That experience won't give you much insight into today's IT environment.

Make yourself look good without lying

There's no reason you have to list all of your former employers, especially if you left on less-than-ideal terms. But that doesn't give you carte blanche to lie.

In fact, if you do lie on your resume and your employer finds out, it’s usually grounds for immediate termination.

Most employers will require you to sign a document stating that everything stated on your resume and during the interview was truthful. That means honesty is always the best policy.

Some employers may also ask you to provide a detailed list of every job you've worked for the past five or 10 years. In this case, it's necessary that you list absolutely everything accurately. It's likely that the company will check your tax records to verify this information. You could be disqualified should you decide to leave anything off.

How many is too many?

Now you may be sitting there thinking to yourself “Well I’m lucky. I’ve had a string of great jobs. I’ve had so many great jobs that my experience section fills up my entire resume!”

Well, hold on there, bucko. There is absolutely such a thing as an experience section that’s too long. It’s difficult to read and crowds out other important sections, like skills and education.

So how to strike the right balance?

As a rule of thumb, your experience section should take up a little more than half your resume. And don’t cheat by going over a single page. Great resumes fit on one page, end of story.

To make it all fit, the easiest way to trim is just to cut experiences from the beginning of your career until they fit.

If you simply must include all the positions you have listed, you can consider these space-saving strategies:

    1. Consolidate multiple positions at the same company. There’s no reason to use multiple lines for your roles as an accountant and senior accountant at Hypothetical Company X. Fit those into one line with a title like “Accountant & Senior Accountant.”)

      Note: If you’re having trouble filling out a sparse experience section, you can use the opposite of this concept to stretch it. Just make sure to explain how the different roles taught you different skills.
    2. Offer less detail on older positions. For most professionals, the most recent positions will be the most relevant to the job you’re applying for. So it makes sense to shorten the details on older jobs. This leaves room for full-throated explanations of your most important experiences and helps to avoid overcrowding.

Tell your story

Just like Rod Stewart, there’s no need for you to start off your resume with your time as a metaphorical (or literal?) grave digger.

In the same way, you have the freedom to craft your own biography with your resume. Some professionals will want to list every position they’ve had on their resume. But for most of us, the experience section is ideal for magnifying those pieces that are most important.

Tell an honest story about your passions, experiences, and ambitions. If you can do that, you’ll do just fine.

Having trouble with other areas of your application or job search? Check out our guides for writing cover letters and networking!

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