resume “tricks” that will backfire on you

When you’re putting together a resume, you might find yourself looking for ways to disguise a spotty job history, get around resume-screening software, or even avoid showing your age. And if you go looking for help, you might be encourage to employ some resume “tricks” to bypass these challenges. The problem? Hiring managers can see right through the most common resume tricks, and using them will usually backfire on you.

Here are five resume tricks that you should pass up.

1. Using a functional resume instead of a chronological resume to hide weaknesses in your work history. If you’re trying to hide gaps between jobs, disguise several short-term stays, or downplay the fact that you’ve been out of the workforce for a while, you might have been advised that you should use a functional resume instead of a chronological one. Rather than a traditional resume, which would be in reverse-chronological order, functional resumes simply list skills and abilities without tying them to specific jobs and dates.

The problem with this format? Employers know that they’re generally used to disguise limited or outdated work experience or job-hopping, and so they’re generally taken as a red flag that the candidate is trying to cover something up. Moreover, employers hate this format since it makes it hard to understand what the candidate’s career progression has been, and how recent (or old) those listed accomplishments are. If your skills are strong, a employer might contact you anyway and ask you to clarify the chronology of your work history – but when they have plenty of other good candidates to choose from, it will make them more likely to simply pass you up.

2. Shortening your resume by shrinking the margins and font instead of by cutting content. Sometimes a candidate who has heard that their resume shouldn’t be more than one or two pages tries to hit that limit by using a tiny font and narrowing page margins to cram more text in. But it’s pretty obvious to people who read a lot of resumes when you’ve done this, and you’ll come across as someone who can’t or won’t edit and who doesn’t know what’s most important. Worse, you’ll dilute your resume’s impact, because small, crowded text with no white space is hard to read and even harder to scan., which means that hiring managers’ eyes are likely to glaze over when they turn to your resume – the exact opposite of the reaction you want.

3. Leaving dates off your resume to avoid age discrimination. Older candidates are sometimes advised to leave dates of employment off their resumes altogether, so that employers don’t draw conclusions about their age and assume that they’re too old, too expensive, or too set in their ways. The problem with this advice is that dates of employment are such a standard part of a resume that leaving them off looks bizarre – like leaving the house without your pants. Moreover, it’s not just convention; dates of employment are relevant. Employers want to know if your experience managing that team that achieved such great results was recent if it was 20 years ago, as well as whether you did it for six months or three years.

However, if you’re concerned about age discrimination, one thing you can to is to remove from your resume jobs that are older than 15-20 years ago. They’re unlikely to  strengthen your candidacy at this point anyway, and your more recent accomplishments are probably more impressive.

4. Littering your resume with “keywords” to get by resume-screening software. Many job seekers have become convinced that the only way that their resumes will actually be seen by human eyes is to figure out some magical combination of keywords to make it past resume-screening software. In reality, many companies (especially smaller ones) don’t use resume-screening software at all, and those that don’t do screen using obscure keywords. Any halfway competent resume-screener is going to run expansive and varied enough searches that your resume should get seen if you’re a qualified candidate. You don’t need to stumble on some esoteric combination of words to get spotted.

Plus, tailoring your resume to what you think a computer program wants to see is a good way to make it unappealing to human eyes – and it’s a human who will ultimately decide whether or not to call you in for an interview.

5. Using a fancy or unusual resume design to stand out and catch the hiring manager’s eye. When you know that you’re competing against a sea of similarly qualified candidates, it can be tempting to think that you need to find creative ways to stand out, like using an unusual resume design with graphics and colors. But often a fancy design backfires, by making it harder for employers to quickly find the information they’re looking for on your resume. In fact, fancy resume designs tend to minimize the amount of information you can include, sacrificing content for flash. That’s at odds with what hiring managers want from your resume, which is quite simple: a clean, uncluttered document that’s easy to quickly scan and which puts information in the places they expect to find it. Designs that emphasize appearance over those characteristics will make your job search harder, not easier.

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 141 comments… read them below }

  1. Arbynka*

    #5 reminded me of Arrested Development and Tobias making baggies for casting directors including glitter and note saying “I know where you live”. “The glitter queen strucked again. Note to self, never hire Tobias Funke”

    1. Beyonce Pad Thai*

      Hahaha, I love all Tobias’ job search mishaps. The fire sale. The group for blue men. The “Funke” namedropping ending up in Maeby becoming an executive.

      1. Arbynka*

        If I remember correctly the founder has put up this business for sale because he got overwhelmed by orders and could not fill them all. Became popular very fast.

  2. long time reader first time poster*

    Re: the age discrimination point — I have removed my college graduation date from my resume, because that’s a dead giveaway of my age. I have also dropped my first job I had after college and in a few years will probably drop my second one.

      1. Sharon*

        Really, you can drop the date of your college degree? I tried it a few years ago when I was job hunting and thought it looked like I was trying to hide something. Of course now I have my degree with the year I earned it, and then a gap until my first listed job… because I’ve been working for about 30 years now and have to leave of my first three or four jobs. It hasn’t seemed to be a problem but I do wonder if some people think I’m hiding something.

    1. Goldie*

      Yup. I’ve been doing this for a while.

      I wonder though – they can (and will) find me on LinkedIn anyway, and I have all my jobs and dates listed on there. This hasn’t hindered my job search so far, but should we remove old jobs and college graduation dates from LinkedIn, as well? I have a few contacts on there that are linked to me through those old jobs, and thought it would be possible for someone that went to same college I did, to find me on there using my graduation date. But is it worth the potential damage? and what IS the potential damage?

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I wouldn’t worry too much about it. Some people worry about age discrimination. I think that’s more likely to happen subconsciously with a resume, and much less of an issue with LinkedIn.

      2. long time reader first time poster*

        I don’t show the education dates on my LinkedIn, either. Age discrimination is absolutely a concern for me as I work in tech.

    2. Connie-Lynne*

      Heh, I never assume peoples’ age based on college graduation date because I graduated when I was 32.

      1. Zillah*

        Definitely true in that people can graduate later, but if they graduated in 1975, you can probably assume that they aren’t 25. :P

    3. penny*

      It certainly could be used to discriminate against age but the reason I like to see the graduation date is because that says to me that this person actually graduated and they’re not just stating that they attended the college at some point but never graduated. Yes, people do that.

      But some people really do not know how to edit their resumes. I don’t need to see a job that you were at for one year in 1983 on your resume, especially if it makes your resume 7 pages long! I’ve also noticed a lot of IT people with long multi page resumes even with only 2 years of work experience.

      1. long time reader first time poster*

        I list my education as ABC University, BS in Teapot Making. Showing the degree earned indicates that I’ve graduated.

    4. katamia*

      Same–I got my BA when I was 20 while most people are 21-23 where I am when they graduate, so if an interviewer did the math, they’d actually think I was older than I am.

  3. The Cosmic Avenger*

    For #4, I will say that for Federal jobs you should use the phrasing in the Requirements section of the job listing when filling out the KSAs. For example, if “3 years chocolate teapot spigot design” is required, you could be screened out if you rely on your resume saying that you worked at Wakeen’s Teapots, Ltd for 5 years, as a “Spout engineer”, and everyone in the industry knows they make chocolate and caramel teapots, even though it’s not in the name.

    This might apply to private industry, too, but I’ve been specifically told by people doing the hiring and screening for Federal jobs that if it fits at all (without it being a stretch) to just add “chocolate teapot spigot design” as one of your responsibilities for that job and in the KSA put “3 years chocolate teapot spigot design” and then an explanation.

    1. Adam*

      This is something I’ve worried about. Not “lacing your resume with ‘Keywords’ (i.e. Buzzwords)” but mirroring the language used in job description. We know that at first blush many hiring managers don’t spend much time looking at your resume during the first look through, so does mirroring the language in the job ad help draw their attention to the information they want to see or does it look too much like a copying and pasting?

      1. Michele*

        I review a lot of resumes when I hire my direct reports. A certain amount of mirroring the language can help to get my attention. If I am looking for a teapot lid polisher, and I don’t see at least one of the words teapot, lid, or polisher on there, I move on. If resumes are getting screened by HR, it is also good to have a certain amount of mirroring. HR has no idea what our department does, but they get a list of minimum qualifications and are told not to send us resumes that are completely irrelevant.
        However, resumes in which every other word is bolded make my head hurt.

        1. Sharon*

          I think in this case the teapot metaphor masks the issue. Let’s be specific, and I have a great example:

          I’m a business analyst. When a job ad calls for experience in requirements elicitation, will they realize it’s the same thing if my resume says requirements gathering? They are different ways to say exactly the same thing, but I think some companies may not get it. I’m happy to tailor my resume to fit the company’s preferred way of describing what I do, but this is one case where people go crazy with synonyms and I get impatient with it.

          1. The Cosmic Avenger*

            I don’t know anything about business analysis, so I would have no idea if requirements elicitation and requirements gathering are the same thing. To elicit and to gather are two different actions, they could be two very different parts of a process, as far as I know. But if you know business analysis, you should be able to say whether you can do requirements elicitation, and if you can, I am telling you that you should probably use that exact wording if you apply for a Federal job (subject to all of my previous caveats).

            1. Robert Columbia*

              Ok, so question for the hiring managers here. If you don’t know the difference between requirements elicitation and requirements gathering, what business do you have screening resumes for a requirements elicitation job?

    2. Elysian*

      Yes, I’ve also heard this about USAJobs specifically. I was hoping someone in the know could enlighten us.

      1. Fucshia*

        This is a thing–at least at certain agencies. When I did work for the government and was applying for a different job, my USAJobs resume was about 5 times the length of my standard resume.

          1. Felicia*

            I’ve seen a resume from someone who works for the Government of Canada who broke the no glitter rule :)

        1. De Minimis*

          It really depends, I don’t think I did anything different for my resume in USAJobs. But I’m in accounting and there’s probably only so many ways you can talk about accounting experience. I’m actually applying for other federal jobs now so I’m in the process of going over my resume again. I do tend to change the wording to make it obvious that I’ve already done a lot of the duties in the job listing, but that’s something you do any time you apply to a job.

          None of the jobs I’ve applied to really do the old KSA thing anymore, some do have a box where you have to write in a description of how what you’ve done applies to the job, but that’s as close as it’s gotten. I tried to go for an internal promotion with the post office back in the 90s and that was way more like the experience people describe.

          Honestly I’d take USAJobs any day over Taleo….

      2. The Cosmic Avenger*

        I kind of glossed over it, and I can’t speak for all agencies/divisions, but in general you do need to do that for Federal jobs. Do note that I said “in the KSA put ‘3 years chocolate teapot spigot design’ and then an explanation.” You need to explain and highlight your specific skills and their relevance, but whenever possible, you do need to copy the key parts of the requirements when applying for many Federal jobs. Many of them score applications numerically based on the requirements, and while they probably won’t take off for “chocolate flavored teapot spigots”, if they don’t know a spout from a spigot, you may not get the point score for saying “spout”. The HR person reviewing the applications often knows very little about the details and the jargon of the field, so while “spout” and “spigot” are common words, you can imagine that what might be an obvious synonym to you might not be so obvious to the person doing the scoring.

        Plus, there might be some of them that might just do it by rote, even if they know better. Federal employees have a bad rep with some people, but there are good and bad employees everywhere, including the Federal workforce.

    3. Richard*

      Supposedly, modern resume screening software is actually surprisingly smart; it’ll not only find the terms, but also use synonyms and related terms as part of the screening process. It’s improved over the years as competition in the industry has risen; if one piece of software picks out better resumes than another, it’s more likely to gain business.

  4. Interviewer*

    From the bottom of my heart, I thank you for writing these tips!

    My pet peeve are applicants who list years only on the resume, like “Teapot Packaging Analyst, 2012.” When you need to have 2-3 years of experience for a particular opening, I don’t know what to do with “2012,” and it makes me think you are hiding the fact that you didn’t make it through your first 90 days. Please give me months too, so I can clearly tell if you have the right amount of experience.

    1. Beyonce Pad Thai*

      Oh, yeah. At the temp agency where I worked, applicants used this all the time, and then when you asked them they’d worked there for two weeks. I totally see why people are tempted to do it, but it always ends up making them look bad when they have to admit they only stayed a short time! (plus, we were a temp agency, we wouldn’t judge you for short stints!)

    2. Ann O'Nemity*

      Do y’all think it’s necessary to include months if you’re talking about stints of several years? As in:

      Teapot Assembler, 2004-2008
      Teapot Packaging Analyst, 2008-2012
      Teapot Packaging Manager, 2012-present

      I removed months so that I’d have more white space, and none of my professional jobs lasted less than 3 years.

      1. Interviewer*

        I meant years only, as in “2012.” At most, maybe 2011-2012, where you’re trying to hide that it involves closer to one year of experience versus two.

        1. Lynn Whitehat*

          Technically, 2011-2012 could be a couple of weeks, if you joined in December and left in January! Or it could be 23 months. I think if you worked at a place from, like, 1987-2006, the months aren’t so important, though.

      2. The IT Manager*

        Yes, it’s necessary. Alison has explained why in previous posts about this topic and I won’t try to take the words out of her mouth.

        1. The IT Manager*

          But for example Teapot Packaging Analyst, 2008-2009 could mean a two month stint or a two year stint. It looks like you may be trying to hide something.

      3. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I wrote in the past that if all the jobs have been 4 years or longer, there’s no need to include months:

        I think it’s probably reasonable to draw the line somewhere between 3 and 4 years. And I agree with Greg below that if the jobs that were shorter were a long time ago and the more recent ones are longer stints, it’s fine to leave months off.

        Basically, the litmus test is this: Is a hiring manager looking at your resume going to be able to get a good sense of whether you have a solid track record in the last 10 years of staying at jobs for 3+ years? Or will the way you’re listing dates make it hard to tell?

        1. Richard*

          I generally include months and years; if you have even one job that’s less than 4 years, you want to include months to give a better measure, and even if it’s only one job that was <4 years, it's worth putting months on your other jobs to keep a uniform date format throughout your job history – it's just tidier, making it easier to read, and a well laid out resume counts for a lot.

    3. Greg*

      I know Alison has expressed that opinion as well, and I agree if you’ve had a bunch of recent, short-term roles it looks bad, but I think it’s OK past a certain level of experience. Does anyone really care that you started that long-ago job in March 1995 and left in October 1998?

  5. Amber Rose*

    Re: fancy resumes, this is tricky for some people I think. Someone once told me my resume was too fancy because my different headings are slightly larger font size, bold and underlined. I was taught to do that to make it easier to read.

    1. A. D. Kay*

      I would get rid of the underlined headings and just use bold. Underlining is distracting. It is actually is a carryover from the days of typewriters, when it was the only way to indicate italics. Better yet, use one typeface for your headings and a different for your body copy, but one typeface should be sans serif and the other serif. For example, Helvetica for your headings and Times Roman for your body copy. Don’t mix, for example, Times Roman and Palatino.

    2. Michele*

      If you emphasize everything, you emphasize nothing. I haven’t seen your resume, so I can’t speak to it specifically, but I see a lot of resumes where everything is in a different font size, at least a third of the words are bolded or underlined, or something else that just makes it hard to read and a mess.

      1. Amber Rose*

        Haha, yeah. Those are a mess. Everything on my resume is pretty uniform. I just have section headings a bit bigger and bold so it’s easy to see where employment history ends and education begins.

        Back in the day, I looked over a resume that was just two pages of size 14 text. No formatting, no differentiating sections, just text and a couple line breaks. It was, in some ways, harder to read than too much formatting.

  6. Artemesia*

    I just read this ‘resume trick’ on another site (by a poster). She suggested that in the white space at the bottom of the resume simply typing in all the key words from the job ad and then setting the font to the same color as the resume paper so they are not visible to the eye but would be read by resume reading software. I’d love to hear what Alison thinks of this or if anyone knows it has been done, can be done and if it helps get through that first hurdle where resumes are rejected without human review.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I’ve seen that suggested too, and it’s a very bad idea. Lots of resume software converts your text to plain text, which means that all of those words are clearly visible and you look like a crazy person trying to game the system.

      1. Artemesia*

        It did seem like a goofy idea when I read it — I would think that making sure at least some of the obvious search terms from the ad were naturally present in your resume would make more sense. I have used listing services to search for applicants and the way they are organized I had to give search terms and so would miss people who didn’t match. I had no option of just reading applicants but only got the contact information if they came up in the search. We did get some good candidates that way. (we would send the job description and invite them to apply if interested.)

    2. Greg*

      Also, employers are aware of this and can set their ATS screening software to flag it whenever it happens. I think the more relevant reason not to do it is because fooling a computer will never help you get a job.

      1. BRR*

        And in general it’s probably a bad idea if your thought process is to trick an employer into giving you an interview/job.

    3. Joey*

      In my experience if you’re anyone finds your résume using keywords you either have way bigger problems or there’s something wrong with the job.

      There are way more effective ways to find qualified candidates than searching for keywords. Keywords is my last resort, sort of hoping for the needle in the haystack. Id rather search through a pile of needles.

      1. Artemesia*

        I get that but where hundreds of resumes get processed through HR by people who don’t really know the job well, you don’t want to get screened out. And as in my other example, when I am trying to identify potential hires at a listing site, I have to use keywords to even see the resumes. After I gathered them up, of course I read them and evaluated whether they would be worth pursuing, but until I had them I couldn’t do that.

        Tricks that get you past the initial hurdle are not cheating; they are smart if they work. The question here is what works and in what situations.

      2. Jazzy Red*

        In my former company, keywords were manadatory! Your resume HAD to match the job ad, word for word. One of the women who had been laid off was applying for an open receptionist position. She had done the receptionist job along with another job, so she knew it inside out. And she was good at it.

        However, they say in the ad that you have to list every job requirement with your qualifications. She forgot to put in multi-phone line experience, and so she was not considered for the job. HR knew she had the experience (at our company!), but said “rules are rules” and refused to consider her. (They were fools of the first order. The company has less than half the number of employees, and is in big financial trouble. They brought it all on themselves.)

  7. BRR*

    #2 For some industries, I feel people worry way too much about leaving something out. I don’t think one bullet point is going to be the make or break most times as to whether somebody gets an interview. I also think the longer something is the less likely they are to read it. Last interview committee I sat on somebody great had a two page resume. By the time I was reading her job from 15 years ago, the position was interesting but I couldn’t care less about what she did there. Once again not applicable to everybody.

    #4 You will see people tell you to put these words in the header or the footer in a small font in white. I feel like this would rub employers the wrong way and may hurt your chances.

  8. hayling*

    Almost without exception, I find that the “fancy” and “designed” resumes are just trying to disguise that there is little to no actual content.

  9. Katie the Fed*

    I posted about this in the open thread, but one of my employees completely misrepresented what he does in his current job. He put down the job expectations, not what he actually does (which is very little). And when I called him out on it he claimed he thought he was supposed to put down a job description. Righhhhht….

    1. Cube Diva*

      This is similar to what I’m doing on LinkedIn… but NEVER on a resume!

      I just received a title promotion, and added responsibilities. So, instead of having a blank section on LinkedIn, I’m putting in the descriptions of the new responsibilities, then filling them in later with numbers to back up what I actually accomplish.

    2. BRR*

      I remember reading that and having a big facepalm. But I also have lost faith in humanity so I can see somebody believing this.

      1. Katie the Fed*

        If I didn’t know better, it would have been easy to miss! This is why interviews are so crucial – you can tell within 2 minutes if the resume was a good portrait of the person or not.

        1. BRR*

          I can’t remember if you interviewed him or not but I think even a phone screen would catch this. The more you know.

            1. De Minimis*

              Wow, that really sucks….I think here we would wait to do anything until the hiring official had returned.

    3. Ann O'Nemity*

      That’s one reason why I like it when those bullet points also demonstrate some sort of performance or accomplishment.

      Not this: Produced teapots
      This: Increased teapot production by 75%

    4. HR Manager*

      I read that comment and your employee is nuts. I wouldn’t advocate doing this on LinkedIn either, since many tech savvy companies allow folks to apply directly with their LinkdedIn profile. Those who do that are essentially misrepresenting their experience.

  10. Russ*

    Re #2: What is generally considered to be appropriate margins? I’ve got mine set a .5″ all around; is that too thin?

    1. A. D. Kay*

      Depends on the typeface and point size. It might be OK as long as there was enough white space between bullets.

        1. Another Anon*

          I have a question about this since print layout design / desktop publishing / template design are a huge part of my employment history. I have my own well developed aesthetic when it comes to how pages are laid out and my choice of font sizes. I have designed the layouts for more than my fair share of magazines, newsletter, etc. From my perspective, I’m not making these decisions based on trying to cram in the most information, rather I develop my layout in an attempt to make my resume easier to read and visually navigate. It’s really hard for me to let this part of me go when setting up a resume. Am I really shooting myself in the foot by doing this? I almost feel that, in my profession, if I sent in a document that looks like your samples that I wouldn’t be taken seriously as a designer. I don’t include anything frivolous like images, icons, or crazy fonts. Anyway… I’d appreciate your thoughts.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            How similar is your design to a traditional resume? If it’s quite similar and you’re just talking about using more care with fonts and so forth, great. But if you’re mucking around with what info goes where, you’ll start losing some hiring managers, who want to find things where we expect to find them in a quick scan.

            1. Another Anon*

              I keep the basic architecture the same. So yes, everything should be in about the same place and I keep all headings as basically the same. I have definitely taken that piece of your advice to heart and consider it when designing for ease of use. That makes me feel better!

    2. Meg Murry*

      Are you handing people paper copies or sending electronic in word or PDF format? Some printers screetch at you if you don have their margin minimums (I think mine is something totally random like 0.79″). If I receive your resume and it doesn’t have these bare minimum margins, one of a few things will happen:
      – I will be mildly annoyed/irked at having to fuss with it
      -I’ll chose ignore and a few of your words might get chopped off
      -I’ll chose fix and your formatting might get screwy
      -I’ll choose shrink to fit (if PDF) and your font will get smaller and (possibly) harder to read

      1 inch margins all around would be much safer. Plus, it is handy for interviewers to have a little room to make notes in the margins.

      1. Meg Murry*

        Note – to make up for lost space from increasing the margins, you can:

        -Make bullet points start closer to the edge of the paper. I think the default bullet points (in my version of word) are 0.25 inches from the margin, and then another 0.25 to the text – 0.125 (1/8 inch) from margin and another 0.125 to text is still plenty re-able and you’ll get back almost all the space you lost to pulling in the margins
        -Instead of a full line break between jobs or sections, use make it a half line (4 pt to 6 pt, as long as its consistent). Still a break, but not so much of one.
        -Despite what some templates give you, your name does not need to be in a giant font at the top. It’s going to stand out, without needing to be huge.
        -Removing any throw-away sections like “Objective” or “References available on request”

        Also, if you’ve been updating the same document forever (in my case, dating back to whatever word processing program came with Windows 95), there is often a lot of screwy formatting that has been picked up along the way – strange tab stops, etc. Starting over with a blank document and re-typing (or copying the old into a plain text editor like notepad and then pasting the plain text into your document) can help remove some of the screwing formatting, and sometimes re-typing allows you to see typos or awkward sentence structure you’ve been carrying around for 10+ years.

        1. Burlington*

          For the record, I always tell people that their names should be the biggest thing on their resume. It doesn’t need to be 26 pt font or anything, but having it in a larger font (usually) makes the entire page seem less cramped, gives you some nice white space, etc.

  11. C Average*

    What if you’re not trying to be tricky, but your experience doesn’t really form a coherent narrative? In my case, my chronological experience looks like this:

    Part-time retail jobs (4 years)
    College / part-time retail jobs (4 years)
    Impressive-sounding tech editing gig (9-month contract)
    Sporadic freelance writing projects (20 years, tear sheets and links available)
    Various survival jobs, mostly retail (3 years)
    Respectable office job (one year, downsized after 2001 economic downturn)
    Retail management (3 years, business now closed, manager deceased)
    Retail survival job (3 years)
    Full-time corporate writing job (8 years)

    How do you NOT look like a hot mess on paper when, in fact, your professional life has been an actual hot mess?

    (By the way, I’m not looking for detailed feedback on the list above, Alison! I’m eagerly awaiting your next resume review offer so I can pay for your professional advice. I’m just offering myself up as an example of someone who’d be sorely tempted to try some kind of functional resume approach because the chronological listing is bonkers.)

    1. Elysian*

      I would assume you don’t need to go so far back – it sounds like you’ve been out of school long enough that no one is going to care about your part-time retail jobs pre-college. I would focus more on tailoring to the job you’re applying to and focusing on your recent experience. Although it might depend on what you’re applying for, I can’t imagine you really need to back much further than “Respectable Office Job” – that’s your last 15 years of work. You might want to include selected freelance projects based on how recent they are and how they relate to your position. I don’t think you need a coherent narrative of your whole life – just your most recent and/or relevant professional life.

      1. puddin*

        Yep – I go back about 12 years on my resume. The timing happens to coincide with a career switch, but even if it did not, I mos def would end at 15 years or maybe 20 if the open position/relevant work experience matched.

    2. NP*

      I’m no expert on this subject, but I would think you can simply remove the first two in this list. They were 30+ years ago and nobody cares about the retail jobs you worked in college or before college. For the freelance writing, I would just say “Freelance writer, 1990-2010” and list in the bullets the types of work you did and/or some impressive clients. If the freelance writing overlaps with some of the other survival jobs, just don’t include the other survival jobs (unless they’re highly relevant to what you’re looking for now). Retail management requires a lot of skills, so I would keep that on (it doesn’t matter that the business closed or the manager passed away; you still worked there). Hopefully this removes a couple line items and simplifies it.

      1. AnotherTeacher*

        I use a functional/chronological format, because I have experience in education (teaching and admin) and non-profits. I’ve gone back and forth, which is not uncommon, but it can be confusing.

        1. Taffy*

          I do the same.

          Until April of last year, I worked in international community development, which for me has been a fairly broad category. Some of it is in public health, some in democracy and governance and some in education. I’ve worked in 10 countries with various organizations for one to two years at a time.

          When I moved back to the US after 10 years of working in the international field, I couldn’t get an interview. State health departments just didn’t know what they were looking at. They would see HIV, but then see South Africa and not look at what I actually did there. I didn’t have a community health educator certificate, so I was a no-go. Despite the fact that I have more than 10 years of experience in community health education.

          Once I started using the functional/chronological mix, I started getting callbacks and got a job.

    3. SilverRadicand*

      +1 to what the last readers have said. Also, a “Relevant Experience” section along with an “Other Experience” section (with just one or two lines per job in the other experience section) can draw the resume reader’s focus to the pertinent experience, while showing what you were doing during the other times.

    4. Zillah*

      I think that a good way to balance this sort of situation is having two sections on your resume – “Relevant Experience” and “Other Experience” (or similar titles). You can list the stuff that isn’t quite applicable but that you want to include to avoid a large gap under “Other Experience,” with only a couple bullets (or even none at all). Then, you can list all of the jobs more directly related to what you’re applying for under “Relevant Experience.”

      I’d also leave off stuff that you weren’t at for a super long time or that you left more than 10-15 years ago unless you have a really good reason to keep it.

    5. CAA*

      I know you didn’t ask for detailed feedback, but assuming the next job you want is writing, I’d list them in this order:

      Full-time corporate writing job (8 years)
      Retail survival job (3 years)
      Retail management (3 years, business now closed, manager deceased)

      Other Experience [leave the dates off for these]
      Sporadic freelance writing projects (20 years, tear sheets and links available)
      Impressive-sounding tech editing gig (9-month contract)

      This keeps the chronological listing for the most recent 14 years, which is plenty. After that, it’s helpful to know you have other relevant work in the field. The caveat here is that I don’t hire writers except for the occasional tech writer.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I might leave the retail out altogether, assuming it’s not strengthening your candidacy for the jobs you want now. You could do it like this:

        Full-time corporate writing job (8 years)
        Freelancer writing (dates)
        Tech editing gig (9-month contract)

  12. Swarley*

    Stellar article as always. I’d like to comment on item #4 and say that I’ve worked with a multitude of applicant tracking systems, and I’ve never heard of ATS software that automatically screens out candidates based on keywords. Maybe there are some terrible HR people out there who screen for keywords only, but other than that… Most modern ATS programs will have the capability to screen out applicants based on position requirements, however. Meaning that the job will ask for X number of years of experience doing Y. You’ll be asked if you have this experience, and if you say no your application could be kicked out.

    I realize that this isn’t much help to job seekers, it’s just a weird pet peeve of mine and I’d love to know where this all started.

    1. Jen*

      Well, I know the place I’m subcontracted at uses anything and everything to screen out applications due to the volume they take in. One part time job posting had 200+ applications in 3 days, and was approaching 500 by the time their 5 day posting window ended. And a coworker wouldn’t have gotten a job at a university if she hadn’t called to follow up on her application, because she didn’t check a box in the application that she has a master’s degree which was a job requirement – because she skipped from BS to PhD. Maybe certain fields use the keyword/field box screen process more than others, as most of my experience/exposure to this comes from academic and scientific fields…

      1. Lynn Whitehat*

        I think people take these fields a bit over-literally sometimes. “Oh no, it’s asking for my major in high school! What should I put?” Everyone knows high schools don’t have majors; just write “general” or “college prep” or something reasonable.

    2. BRR*

      It’s a pet peeve of mine too and I think some of the things people say, they say because they want to believe them. That it’s literally impossible a human would have passed on their resume.

  13. Jen*

    I guess I’ve encountered the keyword screening enough that while I don’t go overboard, I do make a point to make sure I use the exact same keywords that are in the job description. I’ve been ‘screened out’ of two jobs that I know of, and only found out because I knew people at both companies that asked about my application, and the hiring manager said they didn’t get it, and that was why. And my admin applied for another admin job in the same division, but for a higher level (for our directorate leader), and a few weeks after the job closed he asked her why she hadn’t applied, because she had mentioned that she planned to. She informed him that she had submitted the application, but never heard anything. They found out from HR that it hadn’t made through their keyword screening (unfortunately by the point she was asked about it, they’d already picked someone to fill the role).

    I also helped my contracting company when they were having issues with getting candidates for their job postings (they have no HR people), and after looking over what they were doing, found they had 1) poor job descriptions that attracted few/poor candidates and 2) poor keyword screening choices that was eliminating some of the good candidates they did get.

    So to me its something to pay attention to when applying. I don’t think its necessary to ‘keyword stuff’ (ie place the same 3 or 5 keywords repetitively throughout your resume/cover letter), but you should have those 3 or 5 keywords at least once in your resume/cover letter. Actually the same can be said when job searching too, be sure to include variants of key words when you’re using sites like Indeed or LinkedIn (e.g. I had a search setup for environmental scientist, but hadn’t thought to also search for environmental specialist, until I started getting ‘job recommendations’ that used that title/description).

    1. Andrea*

      I wonder if this experience might actually be about the importance of networking, as opposed to keywords, did the manager who hired you indicate that it was a computer problem?

  14. Greg*

    One more reason not to shrink font size/margins: Cutting text will likely make your resume better. It is a great exercise to go through, because it forces you to think really hard about every single word, and whether it deserves to be here.

    One of my favorite quotes is from Blaise Pascal: “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.” Editing is hard, and it takes time, but it produces better writing.

    1. Jennifer*

      Yeah, well, sometimes there is just ONE TINY BIT OF TOO MUCH OVERLAP that really can only be fixed by switching the text slightly smaller. That’s usually what I run into. I can delete a word here and there, but not most of a sentence.

  15. brightstar*

    I have friends who insist to me that a functional resume is the best resume. Nothing will convince them otherwise and we’ve nearly gotten into arguments over this. I’ve tried linking them to articles here and when I was job searching, they saw the number of interviews I got, but still try to tell me that hiring managers prefer functional resumes.

      1. brightstar*

        I don’t remember why one friend insists on it. The other has said someone like a recruiter told her it was the preferred style of resumes that hiring managers prefer.

    1. Interviewer*

      This hiring manager politely but strongly disagrees, and idly wonders to herself if they are recruiters.

      brightstart, ask them if they’ve ever spent a week with a pile of 200+ resumes, trying to find a Helpdesk Specialist that has at least 2 years of experience using a particular version of an operating system, and demonstrates both experience with both phone and deskside support.

      I am saying this sincerely – I have tried, and it cannot be done with functional resumes. From what I’ve seen, I know IT people in particular are big fans of this format, but not every IT job title is the same at every company. And I do not have time to squint and guess how a list of employers, titles & dates might translate as a fit for 2 years of this specific requirement.

      Functional format does not tell me what you did at that job, or for how long. I can find it out in a phone screen, maybe, but when my Support Manager needed someone a month ago, I need good candidates, not time-wasting phone screens that get your hopes up.

      1. brightstar*

        I love that perspective and might use it next time I discuss it with the friend who had the recruiter tell it. She is not a recruiter, by the way. She may begin job searching soon, which will be a good chance to bring it up.

    2. Lynn Whitehat*

      I have friends with decades of experience in the workforce who *swear* that it is an unbreakable law that resumes can only be one page. No matter what. They have resumes that are a solid brick of 8-point font, some of them with more stuff written sideways in the margin (which I didn’t even know Word could do.) And they show them to me proudly, “see? I got it all on one page!” Uh…

  16. Iro*

    This is sort of related and I’m curious what people think, but when should you include or exclude the dates on things like awards or bouts in political/leadership roles outside of work?

    I generally follow the five year rule on awards, but I’m struggling on a particularly prestigious award (Fulbright) which is approaching the five year mark. I want to keep it on my resume obviously, but I’m also not sure how relevant the date is. Thoughts?

    1. mweis77*

      I think something like a Fulbright never expires – I’d leave it on there. That’s not the same as a list of multiple small awards as an undergraduate in college 20 years later. Or an employee of the month from your summer job. Fulbrights are a very big deal.

    2. Zillah*

      I certainly wouldn’t cut the Fulbright after just five years – I’d honestly probably keep it on forever. Those are a huge deal – colleges brag about having five alumni ever who were Fulbright scholars. And it’s not like it takes up a ridiculous amount of room.

  17. Case of the Mondays*

    I saw a resume recently that I liked and I’m considering adopting the style should I need one in the future. It was a resume of someone, like me, who had a prior career before going to law school that wasn’t really related to what she does now, but makes for some really interesting conversation. Her resume looked like this:

    Legal Work Experience

    Job, Dates, Description



    Educational Background

    Law School – date – accolades Undergrad – date – accolades

    Other Work Experience

    Old Career – position -Dates (no description)
    Old Career 2 – position – dates (no description)

    1. bridget*

      I do something similar and have seen it on a lot of legal resumes. The only change I make is that my education section goes first, but that’s because I’m still a newish law grad so my law school accomplishments are more relevant now than they will be in the future.

      – Law School
      – Undergrad

      Legal Work Experience
      – Jobs, dates, descriptions

      Other Work Experience

      Volunteer/Community Involvement (probably the next section to go as I keep getting more experience; for now it’s relatively impressive and legal in nature, so I keep it).

    2. Lizzie*

      I’m a teacher, but I do something similar. My resume looks like:

      – Undergrad
      – Grad school

      Classroom Teaching Experience
      (various experiences)

      Related Experience
      (education-related but non-classroom positions, i.e. Peace Corps, old museum education job, etc.)

  18. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec*

    I regularly eliminate functional resumes because I just do not have time to decipher them. When I do take the time, I often find that my fears are confirmed. Also, I’d like to draw my own conclusions, to a certainly extent, about what skills you are likely to have from what job. If you tell me that you have vast experience supervising others and managing teams, but it’s from an ice cream shop, and not a nonprofit or related professional field, that makes a huge difference to me. I feel like functional resumes are often concealing these tenuous connections between the job I’m offering and the experience you’ve had, and for some reason the candidate is hoping I won’t notice that until the interview. I might not, I guess, but I am still unlikely to hire that person.

    1. HR Manager*

      Same here. I look at all resumes, but put the ones that don’t jump out at me with the right experience and work history go to the bottom of the pile and they get a second review only if I can’t find what I’m looking for with the preferred stack.

  19. A Jane*

    Has there ever been a discussion on good resume design for design-related jobs? A friend pursuing graphic design / media production jobs asked for resume advice and I was thrown off by the formatting.

    1. some1*

      From what I understand, designers format their resumes just like most job candidates in most other fields so they are clear, concise, and easy to read. They use their portfolios to show off their design chops.

      1. BRR*

        That is why I gathered as well. They might design a little but there’s this thought that designers should have a way over designed resume but as you said that’s what the portfolio is for.

    2. Felicia*

      Designers should not be showcasing their design skills in their resume, they sould do that in their portfolio. Their resume should be formatted like anyone else’s.

    3. OutOfTime(sNewRoman)*

      I’ve been hiring for a rotating series of design positions for about a year now. After viewing several hundred resumes, I’d say that a well-designed resume won’t get you further in the process, but a poorly designed resume – layout, typography, white-space – will go in the rejection pile.

  20. E.R*

    #1 I recently reviewed a functional resume for a communications position, and it felt almost useless to me. I just couldn’t get a sense of who this person was or what they had been doing. Also, the functional resume’s focus on “skills” takes away from putting the focus on “accomplishments”, which in a field like communications you really would prefer to see. Telling me you are strong writer, communicator, etc. doesn’t really convince me. This candidate came recommended to me by someone, but I couldn’t make a case to my CEO since I just didn’t have a strong enough sense of who she was.

    I considered asking her to re-write her resume in reverse-chronological order, but ultimately decided that was overstepping, especially since I could in no way promise a job of any sort even if she did that. I’m worried our mutual connection, a professor, advised the candidate to do this.

  21. JMPCO*

    Is there ever a time when a functional, skills-based resume really works? I’ve been using one for a while and it had never even occurred to me that it would be a “trick”. I just thought it was an easier way of organizing skills… shows what I know! I only had one short-term stay at the beginning of my career, so I’m not sure how it is coming off.

    I do list my experiences below like so:

    Position Company Dates Worked

    Is that still misleading? It would be great to know because I am just about ready to apply to a job with this type of resume.

      1. JMPCO*

        OK, thank you! I feel like I just dodged a bullet. Literally was about to submit my application for this awesome job when I decided to check your website. Fate, I tell you!

      2. JMPCO*

        So, one more question. Do I need an objective? I’m pretty much creating this resume for this one specific position right now.

        1. KerryOwl*

          No! No one cares about an objective. An objective states what YOU want out of a job, but a hiring manager doesn’t care about what YOU want, they care that you are going to be what THEY want. Leave the objective off.

          1. JMPCO*

            Great! I always hated writing them. I felt like they had such a tendency to backfire and rarely were so compelling that they tipped the scales in a positive way.

  22. dejavu2*

    This is very interesting to me. One thing not covered: to bullet point, or not to bullet point? My sister and I recently got into a heated argument, as her college career office told her all resumes should always have bullet points, but my college and law school career offices both recommend paragraph format unless you’re really desperate to fill space.

    Bullet points would push me onto a second page, so I’m reluctant to switch. The ’08 economic collapse occurred during my first year of law school, and even though I went to a decent school my class kind of got hung out to dry. I still have classmates stuck working minimum wage, accruing more debt to get yet another professional degree in a different field, etc., because we really got lost in the rush. As for me, I’ve worked a series of legal jobs that sound lowly based on the titles, but that I managed to turn into interesting and meaningful experiences cranking out accomplishments and achievements while skill-building. I’m eager for suggestions on how to deal with the fact the titles don’t reflect the work. For example, one document review job turned into me being the sole person of my title who got to work with the associates and partners on crafting arguments and drafting/editing court filings.

    1. BRR*

      I’m not sure if legal jobs are different but I prefer bullets. You list your employer and position then the accomplishments. The hiring manager can then scan to see what you accomplished. If I had to look through dozens if not hundreds of resumes and a huge block of text came up on the resume I would probably give a huge painful sigh. Your cover letter is where you can write paragraphs, resumes are for bullet points.

      As for your title versus accomplishments you would just list the accomplishments in your bullets. I get the frustration though. A reference had a lower sounding title and my interviewers seemed displeased but when I said it was my manager who had over 15 years experience they liked that better.

  23. Gemini*

    What about a Qualifications Summary? In where you include in a few bulleted items that you have excellent communication skills, strong attention to detail…..yada, yada & yada – Is that also dated & unnecessary?

    And what about replacing that with Core Competencies instead, if so?…..

    1. BRR*

      You’ll want to show those things through your accomplishments in your experience section. I place emphasis on show, don’t tell. I’m too tired to think of a chocolate teapot example.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Summary or profile section is good, but it should be factual stuff, not subjective self-assessment like communication skills/attention to detail. (Plus, those two in particular you should avoid because they’re overused to the point of having no meaning when a candidate says it about herself.)

      Under no circumstances can I permit you to use the words “core competencies” unless you are working with jargon-filled robots.

      1. LUCYVP*

        I see this work well when applicants highlight very factual skills, especially industry-specific skills.

  24. Lynn Whitehat*

    I work in tech, and it seems like usually resumes go through a level of filtering by someone who is not up on tech jargon and what it means before it goes to someone who does know it. Either an internal recruiter, external recruiter, HR person, or something. They really don’t know what any of the nouns in the job description mean. It makes me want to ensure my resume has *exactly* the words in the job posting, in addition to more detail for when it gets to the hiring manager. I worry that if the posting says “experience in relational databases”, and I have “SQL Server, Postsgres, and Oracle” on my resume, they’ll never realize the connection.

    1. CAA*

      I have to disagree about the filtering. I’ve hired in several tech companies and have never had a recruiter, either internal or external, who wouldn’t have been able to recognize the names of common relational databases. For uncommon skills, I always give the recruiter a list of alternate terms and companies to look for. Most job postings aren’t so generic anyway, but if you do find one that is, you can always tailor your resume for that submission to say “relational databases such as SQL Server, Postsgres, and Oracle”.

      One thing that does help me is when people don’t put a huge “Skills” section above their experience, but do put a single bullet in each one that says something like “Skills Used: C#, ASP.Net 4.0, MS SQL Server 2008, IIS 7”. Just include a one-liner, not a gigantic laundry list. I’ve adopted this in my own resume after seeing it a couple of times, and have found it to be pretty effective. It shows what’s current and which are stale. If you have something you’ve learned on the side, you can put Additional Skills somewhere.

  25. Rebeck*

    I realise that functional resumes are frowned upon here, but my personal experience has been that switching from chronological to functional led to me finally getting interviews and eventually, my last two jobs. I was in the process of a career transition at the time, and will probably change back to chronological the next time I’m job hunting, but for me using a functional résumé was a win.

  26. Tinker*

    I tried a functional-type organization of my resume… once. Idea was, I thought, to highlight the parts of my experience that were more relevant to the sort of jobs I was looking for, since I was looking to make something of a pivot, and to de-emphasize a position I had that was neither flattering nor relevant. In other words, the usual reasons. I thought that granted there were some folks who recommended against it, but there are folks out there who recommend against a lot of things and many of them cannot be trusted. How bad could it be?

    It was terrible. The one interview I did with that resume was a confused mess of explaining “No, I had a job then, it was this one. Why is it down at the bottom? Oh, well, it’s actually in this category rather than that one…” Spent most of the time un-confusing the interviewer rather than having good discussion of the position and my application thereto. Somehow managed to emphasize the position that I wanted to bury. Interview was not successful. I changed the thing back to chronological immediately afterward.

  27. little Cindy Lou who*

    I think my bullet point lists run long because I struggle to tie the career development narrative together in with the achievements in each specific role…

    Let’s say I started in traditional cocoa bean counting and budgeting for Wakeen’s Chocolate Teapots but I had a knack for creating better and automated reports that others in my team would ask me to share and help them adapt/maintain. Then let’s further say that knack lead to becoming a full-time reports and applications designer for Wakeen’s Chocolate Teapots cocoa bean counters and budgeters.

    So I have bullet points under my previous roles that will quantify the number of cocoa beans I counted and saved but I also seek to highlight how I went above and beyond in creating cocoa bean reports and learned the technology skills to make mine and my team’s jobs easier.

    Should the latter be reduced to a skills/technologies section and the bullets still focus on each primary role and how I excelled in the core of that role or do I now assume that it’ll be understood I did the cocoa bean counter and budgeting work the previous titles entail and thus should I focus the bullets on the accomplishments at each previous role that are relevant to the work I do now and that were always my niche contributions? Or is it ok to have both intermingled as I currently have? (6-10 bullets each role)

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