can non-work activities count toward years of work experience?

A reader writes:

I know that you’ve said before that years of experience in a position is referring specifically to work experience, and that you can’t simply count schoolwork in a related field as such experience. But what about when a job is asking about experience using certain skills that can be relevant outside of the professional world, rather than asking about professional experience full stop?

For instance, if a job asks about my experience with Microsoft Word, I’ve been using it for school projects much longer than I have on the job. Asking about writing skills … well, it depends on the type of writing wanted, but I’ve been writing short stories (and academic reports) since grade school. Heck, what little HTML knowledge I have comes straight from Neopets! I’m sure I can’t quote decades of schoolwork when asked about experience with writing skills, but discounting all skills used in my schoolwork seems extreme as well. Does any of that count when asked for X years of Word/writing/HTML/whatever experience, or does it have to be specifically on-the-job experience? (If career level matters, I’m hovering a bit around entry-level, with a few years of spotty work history to my name.)

And a second question that might well answer the first: how do you count years of skills experience on the job, anyway? If I made one PowerPoint presentation on the job, does that mean all my time working that job suddenly counts as PowerPoint work experience? Or is there some way of prorating skills experience by how often the skills were actually used on the job?

As a general rule, when employers ask for X years of experience with something, they’re talking about work experience or something very similar.

So what does “very similar” mean? Typically it doesn’t mean schoolwork or small personal projects. It generally means a work-like context — if not work, then volunteering, running your own business venture, or sometimes a very intense hobby. Complexity also matters — if you learned five lines of HTML and used them for years on your blog, that’s not the kind of HTML experience they’re talking about. But if you taught yourself to code a full and complex website, troubleshot errors, and made frequent updates to it, that’s more like the experience they’re talking about — because that’s more like what you’d be doing in a job.

It’s not that employers are discounting skills you used for schoolwork, but school is such a different context — there isn’t the same kind of accountability, you’re not answering to multiple different stakeholders, you have more support and guidance, the stakes are generally lower, and the work is evaluated differently.

And it’s not that those skills don’t count at all. They matter; they’re your skills, you’ve used them, and you can reference them. They count when you’re talking about proficiency. They’re just not what employers mean by years of experience.

(Also, writing experience is its own thing. Writing for school and writing stories for yourself is typically a whole different kind of writing than what employers are looking for — so when they ask for X years of writing experience, they mean writing in more professional contexts.)

As for how to calculate years of experience on the job: When an employer asks for X years of experience doing Y, they’re talking about years where Y was a frequent presence in your work. It doesn’t have to be daily, but it should be at least semi-regular. Making one Powerpoint a year for three years wouldn’t count as three years of PowerPoint experience.

The other thing to know, though, that no one is using precise formulas for this. Employers put years of experience in ads mostly because they’re trying to convey the general profile of the person they’re seeking. They’re not usually calculating exact months to make sure you meet their experience requirements precisely (although government jobs can be an exception to this). You can fudge a little, but you can’t fudge a lot.

{ 192 comments… read them below }

  1. OP*

    OP here. This is pretty much what I suspected was the case, but it’s still very useful to have it down in writing from an expert source. Thanks, Alison!

    1. Agile Phalanges*

      If an employer is asking for X years of experience using Microsoft Word, then if you wrote papers for school that included inserting graphs and/or graphics, tiered bullet/numbered lists, footnotes, table of contents, etc., then that very well might count as you’ve used a lot of the common “business-y” features of Word. But if you borrowed an APA template and inserted your own writing into the body and wrote up the bibliography following the template, you haven’t really “used” Word in the way they’re asking.

      Similarly, Excel: Did volunteer work that involved Vlookups and other fancy formulas, data analysis, and/or other “business-y” functions, great; used it to make a list of your favorite Pokemon and their features because you like the grid format, likely not as relevant.

      1. OP*

        Funny, your second example isn’t far off from some of the Excel work I’ve actually done in my free time! Not lists of favorites per se, but keeping track of various Pokemon-related facts in a simple way, yes.
        Sounds like my experience with Word in school/leisure time might count, but Excel probably wouldn’t. Though then some places ask for years of “Microsoft Office” overall… definitely some guesstimating involved there, but I’m doing my best to keep in the spirit of the question and focus on only work and work-like skills.

        1. Person from the Resume*

          I think Excel is a tool where the average user doesn’t know what they don’t know and can inaccurately state their proficency because they don’t realized what a highly skilled user will do.

          I use excel for work and I’m only moderately skilled because the calculations I do are not that complex, but at least I do use it for caclulations and not just as a table with text data (which is fine but very minimal Excel skill level).

          1. Banana*

            I increasingly see job postings asking for specific types of competency in Excel (pivot tables, vlookups, writing advanced VBA scripts, working with very large data sets, etc) instead of just saying they want advanced skills or X years of experience.

            1. No Longer Gig-less Data Analyst*

              At one of the companies I worked for, we hired a guy who claimed to be at an expert level with Excel. I had to train him and he honestly had no idea how to even apply a filter a column let alone create a pivot table.

              I could not believe that when he interviewed he wasn’t asked about specifics, because his knowledge was so rudimentary he wouldn’t have been able to bluff. He had used Excel for many years, and it turned out that his experience was limited to filling out various forms that were all in Excel format. *facepalm* I was so pissed at my management for hiring him for a job he was clearly not able to do.

              1. But what to call me?*

                Ooh! Ooh! I know how to apply a filter to a column! I just recently learned it and it makes me feel very fancy and sophisticated!

                But I would never claim to be an expert in Excel. Because I know just enough to know that the number of things Excel can do dwarfs the number of things I can make Excel do.

                Did the interviewers even have any idea what someone at expert level in Excel should be able to do?

              2. Just a thought*

                Funny, that is a “test” for me. If someone says they are an expert in Excel, I ask if they can do macros or VBA and if I get a blank stare, I know they don’t know enough about Excel to know that they are no expert :)

                I use Excel a lot for lookups, pivot tables, etc. and am aware enough to know I’m only scratching the surface of what it can do!

              3. No Longer Looking*

                I have used Excel extensively for work for well over a decade, and literally have only ever used pivot tables for one project. I’ve done more pivot tables for school than I ever did for work, they just aren’t even remotely relevant to what we do – all of my work uses various sums, sumifs, and counts, both within and across various sheets and workbooks, and I create and maintain several of them. Oh, I also make the very occasional graph.

                I can’t even recall the last time I used conditional formatting or text-to-columns, but I also understand the concepts of most of the formulas (and pivot tables) well enough to use them with a quick google refresher.

                So – am I an Excel expert, or just an experienced PEBCAK?

            2. Amy Farrah Fowler*

              Yeah, I think this is a much more helpful way to write a job description. So OP and others can glean – do I have these skills? I also think that there’s a huge amount of Dunning-Krueger effect that goes along with Excel.

              For example, I am a WHIZ with sumif, countif, and other “if” functions and can do a lot of things that Pivot tables do but with the extra work of setting up tons of “if” functions in the process. I can also do vlookups and am **just** learning pivot tables. I have a colleague who thinks I’m a “wizard” because my skills are significantly higher than hers, but I know enough to know that Excel does SOOOOO much more than what I do. I’m continuing to grow and learn, but it’s all about perspective. If a job lists “we need people that can do vlookups” I would say I’m qualified, but if they’re looking for scripts/macros, nope, that is beyond me.

            3. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

              This is a much better approach. I have years of using Excel for pivot tables and large datasets because I find it a handy tool to clean datasets that are 1 mill records or less for analysis in SAS and R (yes, I am very extra about how I like my data to look before I import) so I have a high competency with that but wouldn’t know a vlookup or VBA if it bit my buttocks

          2. Weaponized Pumpkin*

            I used to say that about Photoshop (when I used Photoshop). After 10 years of near daily use I considered myself an “advanced” user — the more I knew, the more I realized just how powerful it was and how I couldn’t possibly master it. I didn’t trust any claims of “expert” use!

            1. Gnome*

              This is why I like my husband ‘s definition of “expert” in software or coding languages. For him, “expert” means somebody who helped build it or at that level. So, a person who worked at Microsoft on building Excel would be an expert, and somebody at the level Microsoft would hire to do that is also an expert. Everyone else is, at most, advanced.

        2. Lenora Rose*

          Another way to measure experience with common programs like office is to go look up what questions you’d get asked when you do a workplace-oriented test like “prove it!” The questions start ridiculously simple (open this document) and then move all the way to full on formulas and pivotTables in Excel and desktop publishing aspects in Word. Those will both give you a realistic idea whether you really do have the skills to use them in a workplace context, and what to study to impress a workplace.

          I, too, have written fiction and many school papers in multiple word processing programs, and used enough of its odder processes to do well on the tests like this I took right from the start of my office experience, and I NEVER cursed Word so much, or crashed it so much, as I did in my first long term office workplace. The program itself has improved since those days even more than my own skills have (That would have been around 2001. In 2022 I haven’t seen it crash in literal years), but it was still surprising how much learning I had to do.

          1. Elizabeth West*

            It certainly has. Working on those reports for Exjob really improved my Word skills. I was constantly trying to make them better and easier to use, and that got me well into the Developer tab, which wasn’t something I’d worked with before. Plus all the editing functions. (Oh, and I’ve definitely crashed it, lol, but I think that has more to do with my laptop getting older.)

            1. The Hideaway*

              This is all very easy. If you are a power user of Word or other MS-Office programs, say that. It would be silly to ask for “X years of experience” in Word, but if you’re truly a power user and the ad asks for that, then say you’ve got the experience. No nine is going tk verify that you learned cross-references back in 2002.or whatever.

              1. Sloanicota*

                Yeah to be honest the ads are misleading because sometimes they just don’t want people who don’t have basic computer skills (saving attachments, editing documents, whatever) and sometimes they really are looking for next-level experience.

              2. MCMonkeyBean*

                Yes, that’s what is really confusing me here. Is that something OP is actually seeing or just asking about in anticipation of it? For everything I’ve applied to I’ve only seen “proficiency with X software” rather than a specific amount of time.

                If people want to know about my excel experience I am definitely including what I learned in school because my master’s program included an Excel class. I got the top score in my class and then was a TA for his undergrad class. That certainly got me way more Excel knowledge then coworkers who have been using it for 20 years longer than me but still don’t know how to use PivotTables…

                1. Wintermute*

                  in technical fields it’s very, very common, in fact many application teams will require someone with X years experience who will own the application and be responsible for making decisions about implementation and arhitecture. Usually they won’t hand that job to anyone without 5 or 10 years experience using it in a professional capacity as an administrator or application developer.

                  my role requires 3 years experience with our major job scheduling software to be considered a senior, less than that and you’ll have to start as a contractor.

        3. Cate*

          I agree with Alison that it’s really just a rough guide though. They want to know that you’re confident using it at the level of someone they’d expect with X years’ experience, not that you have actually that prescribed amount. I would look at things that are easier to measure and use things like this for context, rather than facts.

      2. Snow Globe*

        Agreed, and if an employer is putting “experience with Word” in the posting, and you have used it for personal use in those ways, what you can do is put something in your cover letter with specific features that you know how to do, eg, “substantial experience with creating flow charts, use of Mail merge, creating macros”, etc. That can be much more helpful than just years of experience, because even regular users may never use those features.

        1. prof_elsie*

          Yes, that would be my recommendation. Make a list of things you know how to do in these programs. Or look at lists of features and focus on learning how to do them.

        2. Seeking Second Childhood*

          That’s a great way for OP to flip this observation and make it work for their benefit. I’m adding it to my own list of tricks too, so double thanks, Snow Globe!

        3. hbc*

          Yeah, even if the employer means “please don’t make me have to explain how to use ‘Save As’ multiple times,” it’s still impressive to see someone come back with specifics. Simply showing that you know those things exist is more proof of competency than confirming you have 3 years of experience.

      3. Laika*

        FWIW, I suspect I owe my new job in some part to admitting in the interview that I created a fully automated D&D character sheet in Excel

          1. Laika*

            Our latest campaign is a labour of love for our DM and a mishmash of different roleplaying systems, so there’s no one-stop-shop platform we could use for the game. I was getting frustrated with all the pen and paper tracking we had to do to level our characters up so I built a (fairly intensive!) Excel sheet to use instead. It took a few months, working away a few hours at a time and Googling/researching to figure out the different formulas and features I should use, but by the end it was pretty robust with different sheets feeding information into a “main” character summary, you could equip different weapons based on the inventory list and it would update stats, there were status effect toggles, an HP tracker, auto-levelling, etc… I was pretty proud of it!

            In the actual interview, one of the skills I was missing was Microsoft Project. I used the character sheet side project as an example of my ability to learn new software and how I enjoy exploring features as a way of getting comfortable with new tech. I’m sure by itself it wasn’t my main selling point but they all seemed quite impressed! (I’m just glad they were nerdy enough to know what I was even talking about haha)

            1. Kaiko*

              That is SO COOL. I level up manually on a very janky PDF file, so this sounds much more elegant.

            2. Seeking Second Childhood*

              As a casual gamer who uses Excel better than I keep up with the differences between D&D editions, I would buy a book that teaches Excel from that example.
              At least pitch it as an article to a magazine or gaming website…and come back on a Friday when it’s published so I can go get it!

            3. AsPerElaine*

              Back in 3.5 I had a pretty nifty google sheet for character sheets, but yours sounds even more impressive!

        1. Kit*

          A well-made autosheet is a thing of beauty and deserves all the praise!

          I mostly use them for Exalted and Pathfinder, personally, but I know how much work goes into it.

        2. Elizabeth West*

          Ha! That’s awesome. :)

          I DESPERATELY wish I could show employers the Infinity War-themed “Choose Your Avenger Buddy” PowerPoint quiz I made. It has buttons, music, the whole shebang. #nerd

          1. Seeking Second Childhood*

            I’d say it’s worth offering if PPT comes up. Tell them you did a project for fun to learn software features and ask if they’d like to see it.
            (First read it carefully for off-color humor, because most employers should only get a G-rated version!)

      4. Distracted Librarian*

        This. Formerly hired technology staff. I would absolutely consider tech experience from non-work contexts if it seemed relevant. Also, most tech resumes in my world list skills and degree of proficiency, not years of experience or source of experience. So you might see:

        MS Office apps, advanced
        HTML/CSS, intermediate


        1. Koalafied*

          Yeah – asking for years of experience for each of a long list of skills strikes me as one of those things you see on ATS applications where the ATS company has included a bloated set of default questions ranging from useless to redundant to internally contradictory, and most of the employers never customize their system to use their own questions. The only thing I can think of where I might care about years in one specific skill is programming languages, because new ones come out all the time and there’s a difference between “I’ve been developing in this environment for 3 years” and “I’ve just started to pick this one up in the last few months.” There are probably a few other similar things like that, but for the most part I’m much more interested in your overall work experience and can generally glean from a (well written) resume what the primary skills are that you would have needed in that job and I can see how long you were in it. There’s no need to go skill by skill.

      5. M*

        Obligatory Excel geek question: Why does anyone use VLOOKUP when INDEX-MATCH is so much better and more flexible (or XLOOKUP if you have the most recent version, but it’s not backward compatible)? Maybe that’s the breakpoint between advanced and expert on the [Excel as a relational database] axis…

        1. AsPerElaine*

          I’ve gotten some really wonky behavior with INDEX-MATCH — particularly it can go totally haywire (and not always in a way that’s immediately obvious) if the source data changes. I haven’t used VLOOKUP as much, but if it’s more robust to that copy-pasting on your second sheet, that would be a reason.

    2. Lyra Silvertongue*

      If it helps, I (and lots of other people I think) have a section labeled ‘Skills’ on my CV where I just list a bunch of stuff that I know how to do or am competent at without having to specify where I learned it. It’s useful for highlighting things that might not be obvious from my CV itself, e.g. I have basic website building skills and can speak French but these don’t come up in my day to day work.

      1. squeakrad*

        I teach business communication on the college level, and when we work on resumes, I advise students to list their proficiency with common software packages. So if I was above, you are expert on Microsoft Word or Excel, even if it’s from school I would list that. For example if you can do pivot tables in Excel as well as all the other simpler functions I would have no problem with saying “expert in Microsoft Excel.” And it’s fine to list the specific packages if you don’t know all of office. For example I am expert in Word but minimal in excel. So I would only list” expert level in Microsoft Word” if I were going to list it on my résumé.

        1. top five???*

          And for common software, you can actually find lists of features that you should be familiar with in order to call yourself “Expert”. Obviously, they’re by no means comprehensive or official, but they’re a good way of judging your own level of proficiency, since you don’t know what you don’t know. As well as a good guide to what to learn.

        2. Nynaeve*

          Why are Pivot Tables the benchmark for Excel proficiency. I get that they are super useful in tons of contexts, but they are also the simplest thing to do. I feel like the hurdle there is knowing they exist and where the “Insert Pivot Table” button is in the ribbon.

          1. Nynaeve*

            Whoops, hit submit too soon.

            ETA, there are several, significantly more complex functions Excel can do like VLookup, macros, conditional formatting, etc. Why don’t we ever talk about/get asked in an interview about those?

            1. Banana*

              Pivot tables *can* be quite complex if you get into slicers, columns and rows, using dates, using averages/mins/maxes instead of summing data, needing to manipulate your data to get the info you need (by removing duplicates or using SUMIFs), etc.

          2. Lenora Rose*

            I think they’re a go to example because they’re something very few nn-workplace users use, and the first flag of whether you know the *program* or whether you have nothing but basic text lists in it.

            I also still remember how I felt when I did an Excel proficiency test relatively early in my career where I scored 95% on basic usage, and 90% on expert usage (because I had been doing formulas and even a couple of really simple macros at my last workplace) and just skimmed 50% on intermediate because my reaction to charts and pivotTables was “the what now?”

            1. Sandi*

              In my experience with Excel it’s partly useful to have current skills and most important to be able to learn quickly. I don’t know much about vlookup because I do most of my work with VBA code, but if I needed it for a project then I’d know the basics within an hour or two. I spent a lot of time debugging code by relying on google, and if I can do that then I can google vlookup.

              Agreed that pivot tables are a useful place to start because it shows a basic understanding of data and how to work with it. If someone understands them then hopefully they can learn other tools quickly.

          3. nona*

            You have to have your data set up in such a way that the Pivot table is actually useful. So it’s not just creating the Pivot Table, it’s understanding how to organize the data in a way that makes the Pivot Table useful.

            I mean, I have set up a vlookup in the past, and I still can’t get a Pivot table to work the way I want. They’re complicated.

          4. Emmy Noether*

            IME, they can be a useful litmus test. Not because they are difficult per se, but because (1) the kind of user that thinks Excel is just for making pretty tables of text won’t know they exist and (2) you have to know how to put in data cleanly or they will go horribly awry, so the kind of person that habitually does weird workarounds can’t use them.

          5. MCMonkeyBean*

            I think that’s *why* they are the benchmark–they are a very simple and useful thing that quite a lot of people still have never used or even tried to use.

    3. thisgirlhere*

      I’m a professional writer and I agree with Allyson that school doesn’t really count. The biggest difference is your college papers probably aren’t getting published or distributed anywhere. That means both the process and level of talent required are very different. Any chance you could get something published? Either your short stories, or maybe you could look into some freelancing? That will make you stand out and give you some “real world” experience with writing and editing in a work capacity.

      1. Le Petit Bistro*

        I thoroughly disagree with this. And I had college papers published. Last application season I interviewed an applicant to my alma mater who had published in the Harvard International Review as a high school student.

        1. thisgirlhere*

          Right, that’s exactly my point! Once you have a paper published, it puts you in a different category. But the average college student does not have their papers published and does not have professional writing experience.

      2. Laika*

        What about jobs like proposal writing or technical writing, where very little of the content would see the light of day outside of a very narrow audience, even if it was produced professionally? Publication isn’t the definitive finish line of “Now You’re A Real Writer”.

        1. thisgirlhere*

          Oh certainly. But the OP is asking how to get taken seriously for her work without the years of experience. Getting something published will do that.

      3. AcademiaNut*

        I found that one of the big differences between a university class paper and professional work is the re-writing. For school, I would write a paper, edit it myself, and hand it in (there might be a single pass of feedback from someone else in the process) and would get it back with a mark on it. And it stopped there.

        For professional writing, I write a draft, do a few edits to get it in decent shape, and pass it to co-authors. They provide feedback, I incorporate the feedback, make edits (sometimes significant). For a journal paper it’s passed to the journal, thoroughly reviewed by an external reviewer, I edit it again, write a response to the editor and send it back. There may be another round. Then, a final edit by the copy editor for grammar and clarity. For a grant proposal, I submit it, get it back with referee comments, and if it doesn’t get what I’ve requested (or I apply again), I incorporate the referee comments.

        The intermediate phase, in grad school, involved multiple re-writes with my supervisor, before getting to the co-author stage.

    4. Chauncy Gardener*

      Sometimes it’s not actual years of experience, it’s the level of skill. Take Microsoft excel. What can you do easily in it? Pivot tables? Or just basic functions? Macros and VBA? This kind of thing can go on your resume, IMHO.
      Great question, OP!

    5. Nina_Bee*

      you could always have a skillset component in your resume with tiers of experience. For example, in my job (design) there are lots of different software programs I need to know, so I list them with a rudimentary knowledge scale (basic, mid, expert) to give an approximation of where my skillsets lie. You could always do that and even list some of the features you know in that software (eg with HTML is it just simple CSS and basic formatting, or more advanced coding?). Or list it under a self-directed project experience.


      I think that it’s important to distinguish “years of experience” questions and “user level” questions. When giving years of experience, they typically mean the number of professional experience you have. BUT when providing your level of mastery, particularly in the context of specific programs, it doesn’t really matter how you learned to use a program. Like using the Microsoft Word example. It would not be appropriate to include the years you used it in school, BUT even if you only have 1 year of office job experience, it’s not a lie to rank your proficiency with the program as “Advanced” or “Expert” if you feel that is appropriate. If you’re not sure what your actual proficiency level is, you can find various rubrics or tests online. It’s really not unusual for people who grew up as digital natives to have advanced level skills in the basic programs and platforms they grew up with, so it wouldn’t flag anyone as weird.

  2. Casey*

    This may be my field (engineering), but usually hiring managers are using “years of experience” as shorthand for your level of proficiency. General ranges/expectations shake out thusly:

    0-2 years: you’re familiar with the fundamentals of this skill and have demonstrated it before, probably with supervision or in a low-stakes environment. You’ll need training but are in a reasonable spot to pick things up quickly.

    2-5 years: you have a demonstrated track record of proficiency on multiple projects/programs using this skill and require very little guidance to use it in a day-to-day, professional setting. You can easily answer questions relating to the skill and know more of the nuances/“back end”.

    5+ years: this skill is your bread and butter, you have demonstrated using it in a variety of contexts and can tie that directly to achievements. You’re getting into the range where you’d be expected to lead a team, if you go that route, or provide expert-level technical guidance.

    1. online millenial*

      I wish that job posts would just use the proficiency levels that you’ve described instead of years of experience! It would make the whole process a lot clearer for everyone involved.

      1. OP*

        Amen to that! This question was prompted by Indeed job postings (mostly admin-esque, but in various fields) asking years of using X skill with little to no context. Proficiency estimates would be much easier. To say nothing of oddball questions like the job which required 10 years of “Being responsible” and “Caring to others” (yes, two separate requirements. No context in the job ad, though I think it was for a position in an educational setting, which makes it slightly less weird)…

        1. Nanani*

          “Years of being responsible” is weirdly funny.
          I’d guess Person A’s list of things they’re looking for in a candidate crashed into the software limitations Person B had to work with or something like that? Still amusing.

          1. Koalafied*

            Reminds me of a Hyperbole and a Half comic where Allie is talking about how she would fall into the trap of thinking that “becoming a responsible adult” was a one-off achievement as opposed to something you have to wake up and do again every day, so she’d have these bursts of hyper productivity trying to get all her responsible adult stuff done and burn out by after 2-3 days and fall into chaos and disorganization again because she wasn’t taking on her adult responsibilities at a pace that could be sustained long term.

            The illustration is of her standing next to a mantel gesturing at a trophy on it, saying something like, “… And that one is for becoming a responsible adult. I got it when I was 25!”

      2. Liz*

        Especially as the people *least* likely to claim advanced Excel skills are the people who *do* use VLOOKUP, XLOOKUP, Power Pivot, etc., simply because they’re aware of all the features they are not using!

        1. WonderWoman*

          There was a post I saw recently where a guy was criticizing a job listing that was asking for four years of experience with a certain type of coding… since he was the one who created the code 1.5 years ago! (Ha)

          Don’t assume that the people writing the job descriptions can equate years of experience with amount of knowledge or the actual demand for it in the job — though I do fully agree with Casey’s metric above.

          1. Carol the happy elf*

            I remember hearing of two experts with a disagreement on a subject; one said, “Well, let’s look it up in the Encyclopedia Brittanica.” The other man read the entry, and the first man said, “Yes, that’s what I thought I wrote in there.”

            1. Seeking Second Childhood*

              Tolkien, responding to criticism that he spilled dwarves in a way the OED called archaic: I know what the OED says because I wrote the entry.
              (Not using quotation works because I might have the exact wording wrong.)

          2. Chauncy Gardener*

            I remember when Sarbanes Oxley was first passed and immediately all these companies had job openings asking for 2 to 4 years of Sarbanes Oxley compliance experience…..

    2. Office Lobster DJ*

      This makes so much more sense to me and I wish companies would come up with a rubric like this instead. I mean, I use Office every day in my job, but I’m not doing any particularly fancy with it. I did much fancier stuff in school, actually. And I won’t ever need to grow those skills in this job.

      1. ScruffyInternHerder*

        Very much so. Proficiency rubrics would make so much more sense.

        I don’t frequently use the more advanced functionality of either Word or Excel anymore, because I don’t need to. Yet I have YEARS more experience with it than my oldest child, who uses functions in both that I did not know exist for his middle school coursework. That’s outside of any technical computer class he might be taking at any given time.

        I have coworkers who’ve used Word as long as I have, yet still do not grasp how to use “Save As”. Years of experience really isn’t a good picture.

        1. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

          At one point I had been chatting online with a friend while I was at work (I know) and said “BRB, coworker needs help with Excel.”

          Forty-five minutes later:
          Me: “That took forever. She couldn’t figure out how to add a column.”
          Friend: “Well, sometimes people have a hard time wrapping their head around formulas.”
          Me: “Not add UP a column. Add a column. Like, right click, add column.”
          Friend: “Oh. Oh Jesus.”
          Me: “I will never get my 45 minutes back.”

          1. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

            I worked with an admin who thought copy/paste in Word was magical. She’d gone from typewriter to word processor to computers re-typing everything.

            1. Snoozing not schmoozing*

              Just try to imagine how freaking difficult it was to do those things ON A TYPEWRITER! I had to compile technical reports with more figures than the paper could take, so I had to hold the carriage in my right hand and manually create smaller spaces while typing with my left hand. Those tables had to be evenly spaced for what, back in the dark ages, was called “camera ready” – meaning they were going to be published as is, no room for errors in content or format. Not easy to do that on a manual typewriter. The admin you disparage probably had mad skills you can’t even imagine.

        2. Seeking Second Childhood*

          Heads up though that those same kids may forget to save documents as they go, because Google Sheets and Google Docs do it automatically.

    3. Miss Pantalones En Fuego*

      This is a good point. The professional organisation I belong to uses what they call a “competency matrix” to determine what level of membership you can qualify for, and although there is a certain degree to which time spent on the job is a factor it isn’t the only one. But you can look at the matrix and demonstrate that you have the skills in X at Y level even if you haven’t necessarily had a job role that used that skill.

      In my case, for instance, I can pretty confidently say that I meet the criteria for advanced skills in the kind of writing that would be needed for producing reports even though I haven’t had a job yet where that was one of my responsibilities. However, I have two graduate degrees and have written a lot of academic prose in the field so I’m very familiar with the necessary writing style as well as things like citations, using captions and other field codes correctly, creating a table of contents, etc. I probably wouldn’t describe it in terms of years of experience but I might put a little bullet point on my CV in a “skills” section or come up with an example of how I used those skills for an interview.

      I wouldn’t put much detail about writing fiction using a word processor in an application though I might be prepared to talk about it as an example to demonstrate that I have standard competency in using Word etc.

    4. Kaiko*

      This is so helpful. My sister ended up leaving engineering, partly because she had been in the sector for eight years, but mostly in entry-level jobs; she kept starting over with different companies, and then couldn’t understand how, eight years later, she hadn’t actually built her skills to where they needed to be. If someone had given her proficiency instead of time-based milestones, she might have understood her own gaps much better.

    5. MigraineMonth*

      I have a special place in my heart for job descriptions that want experts, so they list “4-6 years of experience” in a technology that only came out 2 years ago. Then they make answering “Yes” to the statement “I have 4+ years experience in [technology]” a requirement for submitting the resume. I always wonder how long it takes the hiring manager to realize that only liars are able to apply.

      One of my favorite examples:

    6. Keterlyn*

      Also seconding this, and particularly in engineering think that schoolwork can absolutely count towards that proficiency. As a new college grad I could run circles around my more experienced coworkers in excel, and now as a hiring manager I absolutely count “I’ve been using programing language x” or “I use analysis software y in classes a, b, and c”.

      1. Casey*

        Yeah, exactly! As an example, some of the people on my team who have the same job title, which we describe externally as “3+ years of relevant experience with a track record of achievement”:

        – Me: 4 years out of school, happened to have research experience in undergrad that was both rigorous and relevant

        – Bob: finished his PhD last year in a related field, way better at math than I am but less familiar with some of the tools/software

        – Alice: ~8 years work experience, most in a different industry, some crossover but some she’s just picking up on the job

      2. sb51*

        +1 schoolwork and hobby work absolutely counts in engineering/software. Just do answer honestly about where you got your experience in any interview.

  3. Teekanne aus Schokolade*

    From a different perspective, I have so appreciated the job posts that list examples of the tasks they especially are look for: technical writing for the cryogenic industry, or pivot tables in Excel (because most jobs only have certain functions in any program that are the most commonly used). Not only does this help folks brush up before an interview but also helps with tailoring resumes “Responsibile for training new hires in Photoshop” vs “Utilized x,y,z feature for print magazine editions”

    1. A Girl Named Fred*

      This was my thought, too! I’d much prefer a job ad give me at least a hint about what they mean by “X experience” because in a lot of cases, it can run the gamut. I’m reasonably competent at most of the listed programs, but would have to Google certain things. So I struggle to place myself on the proficiency spectrum because it depends on what you need me to do. (Although funnily enough, the last time I used a staffing agency I got an 80% on their Word proficiency test and a 90% on Excel. Not sure how since I definitely use Word more!)

      1. EuropeanAnon*

        As a hiring manager, I count “knows what to google and follows the instructions” for almost as much as just knowing the skill off the top of your head! In the end, it doesn’t actually matter that much how you get it done, so long as it gets done correctly and on time. And I figure if you know enough to google it and you use it a few times in your new role, then you’ll just know it.

        1. Teekanne aus Schokolade*

          Amen!! When I was hiring for HR this is exactly what our philosophy was, at least when it came to computers. For physical tasks, I liked to find out not only how much time has passed since certifications were received but how often the skill was actually used.

    2. Rainy Cumbria*

      I agree. Asking for X years of experience in a particular software isn’t always particularly helpful. You could use Word for 30 years and never know how to do a Mail Merge for instance. It’s much more useful to list the types of skills required, and ask for examples or test for them if required.

  4. Pony Puff*

    Neopets – what a blast from the past! There were a few kids websites that had me interested in HTML when I was young and I wish I had stuck with that kind of thing instead of giving it up when I stopped playing those games.

    1. Just Another Zebra*

      I miss Neopets. Between this letter and ads for a Lisa Frank blender, my 90’s baby heart is practically giddy.

      1. Panicked*

        My spotted Kiko is probably out there starving to this day. I should go get it some omelette.

        1. Irushka*

          My desert Aisha is probably keeping it company. (I worked SO HARD to get that desert brush!)

    2. Sylvan*

      Pet pages! I learned HTML on pet pages, GeoCities, Freewebs, and Myspace. I wish I had stuck with it, too. One of my friends actually kept coding and got good at it.

    3. philmar*

      I asked a really cool Sailor Moon guild on Neopets how they got their guild looking so cool… they gave me a 4-letter response: HTML. Genuinely think that changed my life.

  5. Firecat*

    When it comes to most software, and especially word, PowerPoint, excel, and also most programming languages, then yeah school experience absolutely counts towards this experience. There are of course differences between coding VBA for school vs work, but if the company wants you to have SCRUM and other programming teams experiences those will be listed in addition to your years of experience with the software. Lastly, for software, a lot of people ask for X years of experience and have no idea what that means. Just search for the guy who invented the programming language and was rejected from a job because the language was 4 years old and they wanted 10 years experience.

    Now non-software skills like accounting, analysis, projects, writing, etc. Alison is spot on.

    1. Hats Are Great*

      I saw an ad like that a couple of months ago where they wanted 5-7 years of experience litigating a law passed two years ago. (A novel law in my state, that did not have a predecessor statute.) I assume they just dumped stuff in a template, but it was still hilarious.

      1. Nanani*

        Reminds of the infamous and perennial examples of “must have 5 years experience” in programming languages less than a year old.

        1. scurvycapn*

          I think I know the tweet you’re referring to:
          “I saw a job post the other day.
          It required 4+ years of experience in FastAPI.
          I couldn’t apply as I only have 1.5+ years of experience since I created that thing.
          Maybe it’s time to re-evaluate that “years of experience = skill level”.”

  6. workswitholdstuff*

    Echoing what alison says.

    In our sector, volunteer experience often has to do a lot of the heavy lifting to meet job specs with the caveat there’s a whole debate within the sector about this though – as it assumes people have the luxury of being able to afford to volunteer to gain those skills, and its impact of on the (lack of) diversity in the sector.

    But if you say you have ‘x’ years experience on using something, it is frequent/regular use. That’s not always a deal breaker – I’ve applied for stuff that specified use of a particular collections management software I’d not personally used. But I *could* argue that I’d seen it demo’d in the course, had successfully worked with other collections management software, (so it shouldn’t pose a problem), but I also pointed out I had 6 years worth of working in a call centre, with rapid learning of new software to handle client queries – so wasn’t phased by being expected to get used a new one quickly. (for those in the sector – I’d used Adlib, they were specifying Modes….)

  7. Esmeralda*

    In my field (academic adjacent, college level), when we say “three years experience as a Llama Whisperer,” we mean three years of actually whispering to llamas (or perhaps a similar animal) as a key component of your work. Volunteer experience and internships can count towards that three years, but it had to be pretty intensive and you have to make sure that’s clear on your resume and (if you are sharp) in your cover letter too. The title doesn’t have to match, but the amount of work experience does.

    For instance, we’ve had candidates for our first level Llama Whisperer who did an internship at a comparable institution for 6 months as a Ewe Whisperer — we’d likely count that as 1/2 year of experience, if they could show how much whispering they did on the job, and if they had other experience that got them closer to three years total, they’d be good. But someone who’d spent five years volunteering as a llama whisperer at monthly llama competitions and that’s the extent of their related experience — nope. And someone whose only experience was Llama Whispering courses (even advanced courses with a lab component) — also a no-go.

  8. Varthema*

    I feel like a lot of the skills mentioned are rarely quantified in years anyway. Especially things like Microsoft Word and Excel, usually it’s couched in “familiarity with” or “fluency in” or something like that. And also, in my experience, if the Microsoft suite is lumped together like that, school-level fluency is probably fine. But if any of them is called out individually, they’re probably looking for a more expert level of experience (e.g. advanced page formatting in Word, or pivot tables in Excel, stuff like that).

    1. Generic Name*

      I agree. I’ve probably been using PowerPoint for around 20 years at this point, but I am only a basic-level user. I can put together a reasonably polished presentation. I can’t make a whole theme or template or any of the other “power user” features. So it doesn’t matter the number of years I’ve been using it, what matters is the level of proficiency.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        I frickin loooooove PowerPoint. In fact, at OldExjob, I used to make random slideshows when I got bored, lol. I still do that, and now I can do animations, music, make videos, etc. Most jobs don’t require all that stuff, though. They just want straightforward presentations, so an intermediate level at best is usually sufficient.

    2. bamcheeks*

      Yes, job descriptions in the UK usually ask for experience in a particular industry, role or sector, a track record of achievements, or a skill at a particular level. I don’t think I’ve ever seen experience with a software package or platform expressed in years.

      So eg:
      3-5 years / substantial experience in a client-facing role in construction, project management or housing
      A track record of successfully delivering large-scale projects
      Expert user of CAD
      Familiarity with SAGE or a similar product

  9. Linda*

    I think this varies a bit depending on the skill. For example, a lot of the computer programming I did in grad school is actually more complex than I did at work. I probably wouldn’t count it as full-on YOE, but would consider it in terms of the categories that Casey put up.

    1. bamcheeks*

      I think grad school is a really interesting one because a lot of grad students straddle the line between “student” and “worker”. You could very easily have been working on broad, team-based projects with real-world (and commercial) outcomes, not just individual or group projects for academic credit.

      1. Le Petit Bistro*

        Of.course graduate work counts in fields such as statistics. If you get accepted to a top tier PhD program you are ready more advanced than most people who have not.

  10. Event Coordinator?*

    *eye twitches* government jobs and their years of experience requirements. Thankfully for my current job my employer (higher Ed) valued experience I got as a student at 1/2 time so I literally nickled and dimed my way into qualification. Keeps people from hiring their cat sitter into a director level position but… ooof.

    1. Pomegranate*

      Ha, I got advice to include actual dates for the jobs for government applications. So, not Sep 2015- Jan 2017, but Sep 3, 2015 – Jan 28, 2017. The reasoning is that when they are calculating how much work experience you have (and therefore which bracket you fall in or if you qualify at all) and it says Sep 2015-Jan 2017, they have to assume it’s Sep 30, 2015 – Jan 1, 2017. Especially early on in the career, those two months (times a few jobs?) might make a difference.

  11. Dona Florinda*

    I agree with Alison.

    Sometimes, being familiar with a software (or skill) can help you if said software/skill is useful for the job, but you can’t claim experience if you never used it in a work context.

    Like, I took an advanced Photoshop class in college and got pretty good at it, so I always reference my Photoshop skills. But, since I never actually used Photoshop at work, I don’t mention it as work experience.

    1. Le Petit Bistro*

      You are splitting hairs. Photoshop features do not magically change when you shift from editing work photos to personal ones.

      1. Anataya*

        But the professional expectation does. There’s certain knowledge and vocab required in a professional context (understanding of printer specs and terminology for example), you have to set up files in ways that are non-destructive and easy for others to jump in and continue editing, and there’s a level of detail and quality that clients expect that you may not hold yourself to or even be familiar with if your only experience is personal.

        Using a tool isn’t the same in all contexts, especially between the personal and professional. I can swing a hammer and hang a picture well enough, but don’t ask me to build you a house just ’cause I can use the tools.

  12. Kiwiii*

    My current job is a weird overlap between a few different industries. Most of the time we shoot for someone who has a background in A and seems (through interviewing) could handle stuff related to B, and could learn the basic xml/html coding we do.

    The last 3 folks we hired were all hired in part because they met where we were thinking for A and B and had done basic html stuff on Tumblr/MySpace/Ao3. Just one less thing we had to teach them from scratch.

  13. KHB*

    I’ve heard writing instructors argue that writing for school assignments doesn’t “count” as writing at all. Writing for school assignments means writing for your teachers, who read what you write precisely (and only) because they’re paid to. It’s like handing someone a short story paper-clipped to a $100 bill and saying “Here, read this.” With any kind of real-world writing, on the other hand, your writing needs to deliver its own value to entice the reader to keep reading.

    (This doesn’t have so much to do with what you are or aren’t “allowed” to claim as experience on your resume – it’s more to do with your own self-assessment of whether you think you “know how to write” or not. If I asked a job candidate for a writing sample, and they gave me something they’d written for school, I’d totally still read it. But writing for non-school audiences is indeed a completely different animal.)

    1. Miss Pantalones En Fuego*

      This seems overly cynical and wrong headed to me. Yes, you’re paying instructors to read your work in a roundabout way, but what you’re really paying for is to have a competent person instruct you, then critically examine your writing and provide feedback. It’s not a purely financial transaction in the way that giving someone $100 to read your story without an expectation of getting serious constructive criticism would be. I don’t think it’s true at all that teachers only read what their students write because they are getting paid for it. That really devalues teachers as professionals.

      Obviously getting a grade in a class is not quite the same as getting a piece published and going through the editorial process but that doesn’t make the work you do as a student entirely worthless.

      1. Kaiko*

        I agree with this. For professional writing, I think the benchmark is whether or not it’s been published (not self-published!), because then it’s been through an editorial process. School writing for classrooms don’t hit that benchmark, but proficiency in “writing skills” isn’t always tied to proficiency in “getting published,” which usually comes with a whole other skillset (networking, pitching, etc) to make it an actual getting-paid-for-it job.

      2. KHB*

        It doesn’t devalue anyone as a professional to suggest that the reason they do their job is because they get paid for it. I’d say that’s the very definition of a professional, even.

        The point is that making your writing valuable to your reader is a facet of writing that’s almost completely absent from schoolwork – and it’s absolutely central to writing done in almost any other context.

        1. Koalafied*

          Yep – or along the same lines, back when I was in school far too many teachers and professors assigned papers with minimum lengths or minimum word counts. Then you graduate and before too long you get a boss ringing your desk phone to tell you they’re to busy to read the long ass email you just sent and can you please just give them the cliff’s notes?

          No idea if things have gotten any better on this front since my day but at least back then, pithy writing was never taught or asked for in school.

      3. Sylvan*

        Mm, I don’t really agree with you. I have three years of professional writing experience. It seems dishonest to inflate that number with the writing I did in school. That doesn’t mean that writing in school is worthless.

    2. Pomegranate*

      I see your point, but most of your colleagues or people from other organizations you work at, are paid to read your writing too:)

    3. Ness*

      I think that depends a lot on what type of writing you do. Most reports I write are read only by people who are being paid to read them (as in, they’re reading them for their jobs and not for fun). I would expect these skills to transfer to comparable jobs but not to, say, writing novels or social media posts.

      In general, “years of writing experience” is way too vague of a question to garner useful responses. Different types of writing require vastly different skills with little in common beyond a basic command of the English language.

    4. Lana*

      As a professional journalist and manager, when I’m looking at years of experience, I only count years of experience as a full-time or freelance professional writer.

      To an extent, this doesn’t make any sense — my college newspaper (and to a surprising degree, even my high school newspaper) were pretty professionalized publications where people had roles and responsibilities, deadlines, and at the college level, got paid.

      But when I’d actually been in the workforce for five years I cringed at my 22-year-old self using this as justification to apply for jobs requiring five years of experience. Those requirements aren’t just about specific skills but about the experience of being a working person in the field — you get the reps in by doing it day in and day out.

  14. Underrated Pear*

    To add an example to Alison’s answer… My close relative is a graphic designer, and after he’d been out of school for about a year, he felt he needed to take most of his school projects out of his portfolio, even though they were really good (one won a national award). Yes, when he was fresh out of school, showing those projects would demonstrate that he had strong design skills and great style. BUT designing something for a school assignment is nothing like designing something for a client, and continuing to show school work looks disingenuous or even clueless to a potential employer. With a school assignment, he was in charge for the most part. He didn’t need to incorporate the client’s (often bad) ideas; he wasn’t working within the constraints of a budget; he didn’t have to make changes based on the feedback of 3 different people above him; etc.

    In other words, doing something with total creative control is relatively easy. Doing something with real-world constraints is much harder, and potential employers want to know you can do that; that’s generally why they want experience *on top of* education. This can be really frustrating when you’re new and struggling to find something, and I sympathize because we’ve all been there! Your skills are a great start, but there are certain things you can only learn with experience.

    1. Dawn*

      I think there’s an argument for keeping the award-winning one in there, at least.

      You certainly shouldn’t build your portfolio around school projects, but including one or two exceptional, recognized pieces of work, with a brief note about what makes them exceptional, wouldn’t go amiss, I wouldn’t think and winning a national award is not nothing.

    2. bamcheeks*

      I once observed a job interview with a new graduate who completely didn’t get this. The question was, “you are in the middle of a fully costed project which is supposed to take six week, and the client comes back to you and says they need it two weeks earlier than expected. What do you do?” The “correct” answer was that you go back to the client and discuss what features they want to keep and what they want to junk, probably with your manager’s support. There was one candidate who kept insisting he’d “go above and beyond” and work as many hours as it took to deliver the original project because he was a perfectionist. They gave him SO many hints that this wasn’t the right answer and introduced all sorts of other constraints to try and get him to say he’d re-negotiate, and he was just fixed on this idea that delivering the original spec was “good customer service”.

      Despite having the highest score in the technical test, they nearly didn’t make him an offer because of this, but eventually they concluded that they would manage him very carefully for the first six months to make sure he didn’t keep this attitude.

      1. Ana Gram*

        I don’t love interviews that do this to people who don’t have much (or any experience). I hire in public safety and we don’t use questions like this because it’s such a specific field and, if I haven’t trained you to be a cop, you can’t think like one. We do a lot of “tell me about a time when you” style questions but I hate to ding someone for knowledge they lack when they’re at a point in life when they aren’t expected to have it, you know?

        1. bamcheeks*

          This was specifically for a graduate scheme, so everyone being interviewed was at the same level. And actually, “can we get you to understand the difference between a university project and working in a commercial environment” was something that the students who had some work experience (whether that was in the field, taking part in university enterprise or work experience projects, or part-time work alongside their studies) tended to get immediately. I don’t think it was an unfair question! Especially since they decided it was prohibitive but something he needed to be coached on very carefully in his first few months.

      2. Hiring Mgr*

        What if the client is willing to pay more for the “above and beyond” service? Your candidate may have just opened up a new revenue stream!

        1. mlem*

          I 100% would have taken the question as a prompt to assert that, yessir, I’d gettir done!!! (Maybe not now, but surely when I was younger.)

          1. Hiring Mgr*

            for sure, that wasn’t listed as an option though which made me curious… It sounds like a good question to get a baseline understanding of what the candidate knows, but also not something that requires months and months of training to learn if they didn’t know it

            1. bamcheeks*

              But the broader point is the mindset shift— your job isn’t to do the absolute best possible piece of work you can, it’s to do as much as possible in the amount of time they’re willing to pay for. Some people never make that shift or will be miserable feeling like they’re never able to do their “best” work. But that commercial mindset is absolutely fundamental to doing the job, and there is no point hiring someone if they aren’t going to be able to do it.

  15. squeakrad*

    Conversely when talk about writing skills, what Alison said is really important. Writing you do on your own time for your own purposes is very different from deadline imposed writing activities. If you wrote the monthly newsletter for a volunteer organization I certainly would list it, but a few mostly write short stories and other fictional items on your own time I wouldn’t count that is writing experience. It’s self generated and not job or volunteer generated.

    1. Generic Name*

      Yes, and writing for school is much different than writing for industry. My job is very writing heavy, but the writing we do is much different than what most of us learned in school. We basically have to re-train new hires to write reports in the way our clients want. So school writing doesn’t really count at all in my industry. Sorry.

    2. EuropeanAnon*

      Also consider what you wrote at school/as
      a hobby and what you would be writing in the job you’re applying to. I get a lot of entry-level applicants talking about their blog, school newspaper experience, or their academic coursework, which has nothing to do with what my team writes — technical and legal documentation. I don’t hold it against them, but I also can’t count it as relevant experience.

  16. Sad Desk Salad*

    I think there’s a fine line here. Using MicroSoft Word to take notes in your college classes or Excel to keep track of your assignments isn’t necessarily going to translate in the real world.

    Ex.: I’m a lawyer. I was recruited by a local nonprofit who needed a volunteer lawyer on their board to handle everyday legal stuff. That morphed into leadership and HR/employment law as well as a number of other things that I don’t typically handle in my day-to-day transactional lawyer life. I do put those on my resume because those skills translate. Say, if I were ever going to consider a role as a people or project manager, those would be skills that I’ve built that would benefit the role. However, I leave off the volunteer work I do like fostering animals or cudding kittens at the shelter. While that may be the more fun part of volunteering, and certainly more fulfilling, unfortunately, my work role doesn’t require it.

    1. Sad Desk Salad*

      Note: I DON’T add my time at the shelter as “years of experience.” Just a few extra skills I’ve picked up along the way. I haven’t been practicing law at this shelter full-time for years sufficient to add, say, five years to my work experience.

    1. Rock Prof*

      I got my start with html mainly because my bad teenage poetry so desperately needed a home on the early internet. RIP Geocities.

    2. Shhhh*

      Mine was on the Nickelodeon message boards haha.

      Sadly, though, I remembered little of it when I got to grad school and took a course in website design.

  17. Rock Prof*

    Obviously I’m biased, but I think the type of school experience might matter too. I’ve had a lot of students (undergraduate) who did large research projects that ended in conference presentations or in professional reports. Many of the students involved in these projects have gotten jobs strongly based on these projects that wanted a couple years experience (like asking for 1-3 years, not 5-10 or something). For example, I had students working on a river monitoring project with a local conservancy group for projects in a class. On graduation, one of them got hired as a full-time naturalist for the conservancy group (replacing a woman who had held that role for 30+ years), and another one of the students got a similar position at another organization.

    1. Be kind, rewind*

      Yes, the type of experience is important. For example, with something like writing, if you’ve just done the basic essay/report writing that everyone else has to get that degree, it’s not really exceptional. But if it were a complex project like what you describe (whatever the writing equivalent of that would be?), that can be added to a resume/cover letter or explained in an interview.

    2. AsPerElaine*

      This is a good point; the writing I did in math classes translates much more closely to some of the technical writing I do in my work than, say, an essay on the color green in THE GREAT GATSBY would. Writing a proof isn’t the same as writing a technical training document, but there are a lot more overlapping skills than much of what one thinks of as “writing you do for school.”

  18. B*

    I would say years of experience is a loose enough guideline that if you’re at the point where you’re trying to decide if a semester of whatever is enough to get you over the hump from 4.5 to 5 years of experience….you are overthinking it. Can you do it at the proficiency implied? Apply for the job.

  19. StitchIsMySpiritAnimal*

    Re: writing experience. If a job generally requires a certain type of writing (briefs, memos, etc) but you don’t have tons of experience, would it be strange to write a practice piece as a writing sample and submit it with your resume?

    1. Shhhh*

      I would probably only do so if they specifically ask for it. I’ve been on a few search committees (I’m in academia) and have had candidates submit things we haven’t asked for–honestly, there’s no time to read them. Plus, if it’s not something you’ve actually written for work and that’s actually gone out to its intended audience, chances are it’s not going to carry the same weight for the same reasons that Alison and commenters have mentioned.

    2. Green Beans*

      If they want a writing sample, they’ll ask for it. And quite honestly, I ask for writing samples and I frankly don’t even look at them unless the cover letter is very good ( for writing positions, though.)

  20. Fake Old Converse Shoes (not in the US)*

    As someone in IT, if you say you have 5+ years of experience in development, is also expected that you use version control tools to a degree when you can solve the jr’s screw ups. If you admit this is the first time you hear about git, well…

    1. Keyboard Jockey*

      A couple of years ago I interviewed a seriously-impressive-on-paper graybeard who insisted he’d never needed version control yet, so why should he start now?

      Needless to say, he did not get an offer.

  21. Green great dragon*

    The more I think about it, the more useless I think years of experience is.

    I have (redacted) years’ work experience of Word and Excel, in roughly equal amounts. In Word, I’ve used styles, and I’m vaguely aware that templates and mail merge exist? Excel, now, my first 6 months of work was writing and optimising VBA macros, advanced formulas, and getting under the skin of chart options. (‘Record macros’ works, but so inefficient and limited.)

    1. bamcheeks*

      The other thing with Excel is that it’s such a powerful programme that a lot of the specialist functions used by one area don’t translate to another. I’ve got one friend who’s a senior financial officer, and another who’s a scientist who does statistical analyses of massive data sets. They’ve both spent 80% of their working time for the last 20 years in Excel, and sure, they can both bang out a pivot table in their sleep, but beyond the “competent Excel user” level their areas of specialism are so different there’s not that much crossover.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        Ah, I’ve run into this in pre-employment tests. They tend to be broad and sometimes ask about functions I never used since I only needed X, Y, Z, and B. :\

    2. Allonge*

      Yes, years of experience in Word is like kilograms of books you have read – it says something very vague about what you want to measure but it’s unlikely to be useful.

  22. Dawn*

    Are there people out there specifically asking for a certain amount of experience in specific skills?

    Maybe I’m out of touch but my general, pardon, experience of job searching is that employers look for years of experience in a field (either general or specific) and then just name the skills they would like you to be proficient with; the only line I have ever seen on a job ad regarding, say, Microsoft Word, is “Must be proficient with Microsoft Word” and your proficiency is left up to you to assess.

    1. bookworm*

      Sometimes “Must be proficient with X” means “you know how to turn on a computer and write/send an email without an IT person on speed dial” and sometimes it means “you actually need experience with some particular functions of some specific software”– the latter is more common in fields that do a lot of data analysis, graphic design, or website development/management. I think the former used to be much more relevant in the 2000s when it wasn’t guaranteed that someone with significant work experience would also have significant experience doing that work on a computer. Seems to me that it’s fading out of style as we get to a place where the vast majority of the workforce are either digital natives or have spent the last 30-40 years using computers professionally and in personal lives, but sticks around longer than necessary because lots of companies have been working from the same basic hiring/job description templates for decades.

    2. OP*

      They definitely exist. I’ve been applying for admin positions on Indeed, and it is very common for them to say “5 years experience in Microsoft Office required”, “3 years of writing skills experience required”, etc. Sometimes they’re less vague than that, but often they’re just not, and you have to decide what number to put in there, with the full knowledge that if it’s less than X they likely won’t even glance at your application.

      1. Dawn*

        Oh, heck, I don’t even answer those ones directly because I’m not putting years of experience for each one of my skills on my resume (I don’t HAVE a skills section on my resume, actually.)

        When they say things like “writing skills experience” what they’re looking for is more “Writing Position (3 years)”” although some of these sound like cases where you’re going through a Recruiting System rather than submitting a resume (which is something I’d steer away from if you can.)

        But honestly I wouldn’t put too much weight on them even there. Job ads are wish lists and no candidate is expected to have 100% of the listed qualifications (and “5 years experience in Microsoft Office” is so nebulous a requirement as to be ludicrous. Whoever is writing these is not very clever.)

  23. Dr. Hyphem*

    The exception to school not counting as experience is if you led independent research as part of your degree program (PhD programs, and some masters). Time spent using those skills on a dissertation can count as legitimate experience (though there are diminishing returns–in my experience employers are more likely to view 3-5 years experience with particular skills as they relate to a dissertation and any preliminary work, I don’t think if you were to take a decade to finish your PhD that they’d be as willing to grant you a more senior role based on those years of experience.)

  24. Anon (and on and on)*

    Depending on the nature of the work and the company’s willingness to train, jobs asking for 0-3 years experience can be considered “entry level.” The skills that you described learning in school and in hobbies are the things that differentiate you and make you much more likely to be hired. That’s what people mean when they say that even “entry level” positions still require some experience (and hence my quotes).

    My advice would be to describe your experience level as accurately as you can and let employers decide if it makes sense to consider you. For example, my husband is in IT and brought someone in for a lower-level infrastructure engineer position (creating and maintaining servers), and this person didn’t think to mention that he had created an email server for fun until my husband pointed out that he had a custom email address (! This was actually really impressive and totally something he could have bragged about, even thought he didn’t do it on the job.

    My first full-time job out of college (back in the mid-aughts) was as a legal secretary processing patent applications. It was HIGHLY TECHNICAL work, but they had a system in place to train new secretaries on it coming in. What couldn’t train, and that I brought with me when I was hired, was someone with rudimentary HTML skills to update the internal website that their new attorney had created for her clients. I had taught myself those skills in a student position while in college, and it probably rivals what the OP was doing on Neopets in complexity! Those skills plus my ability to be trained on the patent stuff is what got me hired. You really never know what’s going to be relevant!

  25. kiki*

    Years of experience with Microsoft Word and Excel is an interesting metric to me. There are a lot of jobs where someone would use Word everyday, but never really do anything complex with it. I think this is true with Excel as well, though maybe to a slightly lesser degree. I feel like if a job is looking for somebody with truly advanced knowledge of Word and Excel, it’d be best to list out the specific types of functionality to be familiar or seek out somebody with advanced certifications.

    1. bamcheeks*

      We use Excel all the time in my job, but mostly for things like making rotas, tables of information, reports where we want to record 3-4 bullet points of text against four KPIs for 6 different time periods, so the KPIs are rows and the time periods are columns. Basically all stuff you could easily do in a Word table, but Excel’s C&P function is just a bit smoother.

      I do do a bit of data analysis in it, but basically if you took my “12 years experience with Excel” and thought it translated into any kind of technical knowledge, oh boy, would we be embarrassed.

      1. kiki*

        Right! I feel like even in jobs where actually advanced Excel skills are being used, years of experience only correlates with true technical proficiency for two or three years. After that, there’s a plateau or even a decline.

        1. Green great dragon*

          I blame the decline in my skills on Microsoft changing things when I’m not looking.

  26. WingedEocks*

    Sometimes, getting a (valid, credentialed, accepted) certification in a particular software application or skill can be a useful way to substitute for experience when you are looking for a way to get a career started. Something to look into when you’re trying to get your foot in the door.

  27. NeedRain47*

    I learned a little bit about a ton of stuff in my graduate program… I know a lot more than someone who’s never heard of it, but a lot less than an expert user. On my resume I put something like “familiarity with (whatever)”. In my experience they’ll ask about it in the interview if it’s an important tool for the job.

  28. kiki*

    I think how to answer this kind of depends on the context of the question. If the application has a form field where they ask you to list your years of experience with something, it’s best to stick with the amount of professional, working experience you have. If the job posting is looking for 1-2 years of experience with Excel and you have zero years of professional experience BUT used both extensively for volunteer projects and have a certification, it’s definitely worth applying and including that in your cover letter. If you’re in an interview and they ask if you have experience with photoshop, I would say, “I have zero years of professional experience, but I took several classes on it in college and use it often to make graphics for my local meet-up group. I’d be happy to share samples of my work.

    I think a lot of it comes down to sussing out what the employer would need you to do with the skill and how capable you are of doing it. And by capable, I don’t necessarily mean the gumption-y “If I put my mind to it and study, I could do this at a senior level!” I mean, “If I show up on my first day and am asked to do this, I may need to do some light Googling, but I’d have it done relatively quickly.”

  29. Elle*

    This is a great breakdown of the subject. I really appreciate how concise and comprehensive your writing is, Allison!

  30. Delta Delta*

    I wish there was a better way of marking proficiency in some skills. Great example: I worked in a law firm, and we hired a really lovely assistant whose resume was filled with office experience and noted she was proficient in Microsoft Word. Great! Except she wasn’t the least bit proficient in Word, which we discovered when she told us she didn’t know how to save a document (something which only became apparent after hiring her). She was actually a brilliant typist, and was great with writing something, hitting print, and making a photocopy. But that’s it.

    1. RosyGlasses*

      There are tests and assessments out there for this – Indeed has a few built in to their job hiring models, but when I worked at a staffing agency, we had computer tests that we would have staffers take to measure typing speed and accuracy and other proficiencies within MS Word.

  31. PsychNurse*

    I am a nurse, and many nursing jobs ask for 3 years experience. My dirty little secret is that I have never had a full-time nursing job. My husband is our breadwinner. So for a while I worked 20 hours a week. My resume shows I was a staff nurse at XYZ clinic from 2018-2021. So, three years. If an interviewer was to directly ask me about it, obviously I wouldn’t lie. But I’ve never been asked!

  32. heretoday*

    Employers assume that if you have a HS diploma, you are at least literate and have basic math competency. If you have a college diploma, you are expected to be able to read, write and interpret comprehensively and have computer skills.

  33. Whataboutit*

    What if the “school project” is for a real group of stakeholders at a real organization? This is often the case in graduate school. For instance, in grad school I had 1 semester long project with a team of 3 other colleagues for a Fortune 100 company that we handled from start to finish from meeting with the stakeholders, defining the scope of work, all the way through presenting a finished product at their headquarters. Other semesters I had similar “school projects” for government agencies or privately held companies structured the same way. I’ve unapologetically count those toward my work experience.

    1. bookworm*

      Similar to the portfolio example someone described above, this experience counts for something, particularly early in a career, but isn’t 1:1 equivalent to full-time work experience. For one thing, often the projects you’re given as a student are low pressure, low urgency, or not actually implemented. Most companies get involved in these kinds of student projects because they’re a good recruitment tactic and something of a way of “giving back,” and are hoping they’ll be pleasantly surprised by what they get out of it, but it’s kind of like hiring an intern. You’re almost certainly not being held to the standard of work expected of employees. You’re also not putting in full-time hours if it’s one of several classes you’re taking in a semester.

  34. RosyGlasses*

    I find this is really true – I considered myself a good average to intermediate user, until I realized what it all can do. Now I know that I am just a basic user, even though I’ve been using it in some form in business for over 20 years!

    1. RosyGlasses*

      Well, nesting fail again – this was supposed to be in reply to earlier threads about how the average Excel user doesn’t realize how much can be done with it.

  35. Lyngend (canada)*

    honestly, I used this thinking but only bumping my troubleshooting skills up by a couple months (I was like 2 weeks short of working for my last job for 2 years. the option was 1-2 years or 2-5. and I was like “well I’ve been doing this for years for my family, previous employers situationally, and myself. So I’m going to pad my experience by 1 month”) wouldn’t do it for longer then a couple months.

  36. Saraquill*

    I’ve been applying to writing jobs, including several in the fashion industry. It helps that I’ve spent eight years in an adjacent field. I also make sure to state I have over a dozen years’ experience sewing my own clothes, up to and including hand sewing corsets. Hence I am very familiar with things like construction, weave, cut and other ins and outs of clothing.

  37. Retired (but not really)*

    To my mind years of experience with xxx program doesn’t really tell anything about actual proficiency. I have many years experience with both Word and Excel. And I can do the specific things I did in each quite well. However there are oodles of things in each of those programs that I never had the need to learn how to use. I also had years of experience and could do extra creative things like build custom reports in programs that are no longer relevant because they were DOS based. The only relevance these skills have in today’s world are the fact that if you’ve used one program that does zxy you can fairly quickly pick up on how to do the same thing in a different program because you know what it’s supposed to end up being and there really aren’t that many totally different paths to accomplishing the particular task. It’s just the specific steps that are different, and sometimes more complicated in the newer versions!

  38. Gary Patterson’s Cat*

    I think it also depends on how entry level you are and what you’re applying for.

    I hired an undergrad intern with no work experience, but she had worked on her school newspaper (and showed samples) and knew Photoshop and InDesign. It was enough for her to be helpful for light design duties and social posts, and to learn more about marketing during her internship. But if I were looking for someone with 2-3 years experience for a permanent role, this wouldn’t have been enough because I would have expected them to do much more, more quickly.

  39. Anataya*

    FWIW, I also learned HTML and CSS from Neopets. I went on to make a lot of other websites for myself for fun, regularly updating them and learning new code (like Alison said), eventually went to university for design, and now work as a web designer professionally.

    I STILL don’t include the years when I was a teen coding websites as experience on my resume or in interviews. Even though that experience was relatively robust and led me to the career I have now, it’s not the same kind of experience as the work experience I’ve had.

    – Firstly, because it wasn’t for clients: client work requires a lot of problem solving, research, understanding of their product or market, collaboration, and communication. Learning how to deal with clients – and they’re all different – is another job in itself and can’t be separated from the creative part.
    – Secondly, because those personal sites were made alone: professionally, I work with teams of developers, other designers, copywriters, project managers, and more to bring these sites together, along with input and approval from the client.
    – And thirdly, the tools: while I used Adobe programs as a teen, there were a lot of other professional tools I didn’t use (because I didn’t have to), like connecting to various servers and VPNs, using Outlook for email, presentation tools, and so much that’s unique to each organization (like filling out timesheets).
    – On top of it all, I also had to develop presentation skills, the ability to speak to my work succinctly and effectively and sell in an idea to my team and the client, and the ability to manage my time and understand and communicate how long individual items would take and what my own needs were from others.

    There’s a lot involved! None of my personal experience applies to my professional experience, even though it was my foundation. Starting out that way made me a little more tech savvy and a little more resourceful, but there’s still a huge difference between those personal projects and my professional work in all the ways that count.

  40. teapot QA*

    One exception to years experience is certain graduate programs (you’d know if you were in one) that do work-like projects or have longer term internship placements. These should definitely be counted as experience, at least in the academic world where everything goes on your CV. The whole point is to get you familiar with working in your field, either by extremely realistic simulation or being unpaid labor while doing the role supervised.

  41. Qwerty*

    If you are trying to squint and make something fit, then it probably isn’t what the job ad is looking for. Something to keep in mind is that you aren’t just trying to get the job – you want to make sure that you can succeed in the role!

    It might help to think of your schoolwork as being standard rather than discounted. Odds are the job ads are asking for high school diploma or some level of college degree. Those are short hand for all of the work that is done during that stage, with the remaining requirements being things that are additional skills through either jobs, internships, specialized programs, etc.

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