When it comes to writing a resume, many struggle with deciding how far back to go, what to include, and what not to include as part of your career history.
I am an advocate of devoting the majority of the “real estate” on your resume to what happened in the past 15 years.
In this article, I’ll present the case for and against this stance, discuss some workarounds that might work for everyone, and throw in my two cents on what to include on LinkedIn.
Why you might only go back 15 years on a resume
In my experience, when readers (recruiters or hiring managers) start learning about roles that happened more than 15 years ago, and they see the dates associated with them, their brains unwittingly go down a rabbit hole.
The rabbit hole is filled with questions like “I wonder how old this person is?” or “I wonder how old their kids are?” In my view, the rabbit hole is more of a “human nature” idiosyncrasy than an intentional age discrimination issue.
Furthermore, whether we like it or not, age discrimination does exist. Limiting your resume to your last 15 years can help mitigate this barrier to hiring, demonstrate that your most relevant experience is recent and that you’ve kept up with current workplace trends.
If your experience is older than 15 years but isn’t vital or relevant to the role you’re targeting, consider cutting it. (Whether or not you want to work for a company that doesn’t value your years of experience is a topic for another conversation.)
As an executive resume writer I strive to create a document that is timeless so that the reader does not know at first glance if my client is 35 or 75.
How to show more than 15 years experience on a resume
For many the idea of not including earlier experience, particularly when they perceive it as critical to who they are today, is a tough pill to swallow.
In addition, there are times when earlier roles lend additional credibility to a candidate’s skills or showcase some additional skill diversity that otherwise wouldn’t have been known.
I am a huge proponent of including an “Earlier Experience” category when the experience from prior to 15 years enhances the narrative or story I have crafted.
Here are 3 examples of this:
1) My client is a military vet and the armed forces experience will resonate with the reader.
2) The job titles associated with my client’s earlier experience show that they learned an industry from the ground up, indicating to the reader that they understand its quirks or nuances.
3) When my client is trying to show their skills are transferable across industries, there is value in “name dropping,” as many times company names are enough to indicate a particular industry.
How an earlier experience section works
The process I follow when creating an earlier experience section that includes roles from 15+ years prior is as follows:
#1 Identify: Determine which roles, if any, advance or reinforce the story I am trying to tell.
#2 Synopsize: Sometimes I don’t include anything more than the name and job title, but if there’s a noteworthy achievement, one line is more than enough to explain the point that makes this role worth including.
#3 Remove Dates: In my experience, removing the dates helps the reader bypass the previously-discussed rabbit hole.
A caveat: When a point from this “Earlier Experience” category is particularly noteworthy, I’ll make sure to reference it in the summary section at the top of page one, a technique that informs the reader while also offering a “tease” to incent them to continue to the bottom of page two.
Addressing ATS concerns
While still searchable by many applicant tracking systems (ATS), earlier experience without dates might not get accurately parsed into a digital applicant profile.
When I want ATS to accurately parse what I’ve included in this section, I will in fact include the dates but change the text color to white – making them naked to the human eye on first glance and only unmasked when parsed into an ATS.
However when dealing with ATS as the first job search point-of-entry (versus sending your resume to a recruiter or decision maker via email), my recommendation is to remove the dates altogether — allowing the first 15 years of experience do the heavy lifting.
How far back to go on LinkedIn
People read LinkedIn differently than they do resumes. When a reader has been hooked by a headline and a summary section, they then need to go the extra mile and keep on “clicking” to read earlier experience.
Keeping this in mind, when experience older than 15 years is crucial to advancing the client’s story, I will include it along with the dates.
If the experience doesn’t add any huge value-add, I’ll eliminate it and err on the side of working to keep someone timeless and avoid the potential for age bias as much as possible.
A balancing act
Determining how far back to go on a resume and LinkedIn requires a delicate balancing act – with human nature and age bias on the one side, and stories and career points that advance the brand or narrative you are looking to promote on the other.
The workarounds I’ve shared should help to achieve some of that balance!
Virginia Franco is a 5X Certified Executive Resume + LinkedIn Writer, Coach and Storyteller whose documents are written for today’s online skim readers and get interviews. She helps clients all over the world to tell their stories and test the job search waters – often for the first time in years or after deciding to make a career change.