Your work history section is the most important part of your resume. It's also the most difficult part of your resume to write. In other words, you can easily mess this up if you're not careful.
Yep, reading this part of the guide is probably warranted.
This guide will show you:
- What is a work experience section?
- Why bother writing it?
- Where to put the work experience section on your resume?
- How to write a work experience section?
- …if you’re a student or fresh graduate?
- …as an experienced professional?
- …if you’re an artist or creative?
- …if you’re changing careers?
- How to overcome an employment gap?
- How to address a maternity leave?
- Plus some final tips and tricks
Too long, don't wanna read? 60sec Video Guide
What is a work experience section?
Employment history is a detailed summary of your past work experience. It’s a detailed report of all jobs you’ve held in the past.
Depending on your background, you can include full-time positions, part-time jobs, temporary roles, internships or even volunteer work.
You should list key information such as names of companies, locations, job titles and positions held, dates of employment and responsibilities.
But more importantly, it should highlight your main achievements and provide specific examples.
It has many names. Some people call it employment history. Others refer to it it as work experience or work history.
Why bother writing it?
It’s super important. We hate to use the word “important”, but…
Your work experience section is the most important part of your resume. In fact, when you think “resume”, the work experience section is probably the first thing that comes to your mind. And you’re not alone. Based on this section employers determine whether or not you have what it takes for the job.
It provides an overview of your past experience. A well-written work experience section is a crucial element because it shows that you have the necessary qualifications.
Where to put your work experience on a resume?
The role and importance of your employment history section depends on the type of the resume you choose to write.
Depending on where you’re in your career, you can choose to write either a chronological, functional or combination resume.
- Chronological resume is built around the employment history section. Great for professionals with several years of work experience. Presents information in reverse-chronological order, with the most recent events being placed first. The most commonly used resume style. Order of sections: Contact Information > Professional Summary > Work Experience > Education > Skills > Others.
- Functional resume puts forward your your skills, accomplishments, job traits and personal characteristics. Great for fresh graduates, students, and people who are changing careers — in other words, for those who might already have the skills but lack experience. Contact Information > Professional Summary / Resume Objective > Skills / Projects > Work History / Education > Others.
- Combination resume contains elements of both the chronological and functional formats by including your relevant skills and accomplishments first and then detailing your employment history and education. Great for students, fresh graduates or career changers who don’t really fit elsewhere.
In most cases, your work experience section should come right after your contact info and professional summary.
But not always. In some situations you want to put your education section first. Do so if you’re a student, fresh graduate, professional who recently went back to school, PhD researcher, doctor or other profession where educational background is very important, or if you’re writing an academic CV.
How to write a work experience section?
Begin with your current or most recent job and continue with the previous ones. The description of each job position should include the following information: name of the company, their location, job title, dates, responsibilities and achievements, promotions, and awards.
Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? Despite that, the employment history section is probably the most difficult to write. Much of the difficulty comes from the sheer amount of information you have to include in this section.
Also, most difficulties only appear once you stop writing it. Is your work experience section too short? Is it too long? Does it look somewhat chaotic? Don’t worry. This is how you can include some of the most common mistakes:
- Don’t include the job description. Wait, what? Isn’t that the whole point? Well, no, employers usually know what the job should entail. Instead of listing what you were supposed to do, tell your potential employers what positive results you were able to bring about.
- Tailor it to a specific opening. Your accomplishments should match the employer’s needs and priorities. This is one of the quickest ways to get noticed and invited to interview. Do your research and re-arrange your bullet points to show exactly the type of experience they want.
- Keywords. Reread the job description and carefully pick the most important keywords. These are the words that best describe the position you’re applying for. Pack your resume with these keywords. Not only will it help you get past applicant tracking systems, it will also leave a lasting impression on the hiring manager.
- Show your problem-solving skills. In the end, hiring managers want to know how effective are you going to be in solving real problems. There’s no better way to prove your problem-solving ability than to briefly describe how you solved difficult problems in the past. Follow the PAR scheme: What was the Problem? What Action did you take? What was the Result?
- Quantify your past results. Managers love measurable results. A single number is often worth a thousand words. Don’t say you “increased the company’s revenue by, like, a lot”. Instead, don’t be afraid to brag about “increasing the company’s revenue by 20%.”
- Use bullet points. Bullet points help you structure your sub-sections. It also take next to no effort on your part. Use them in combination with short paragraphs. First describe the scope of your responsibilities, then use bullet points to list your top contributions for each job. Add 2-4 bullet points for each job.
- Avoid buzzwords. Some phrases have been used so much in resumes they became meaningless. Avoid words such as “thinking outside the box,” “creative,” or “problem solver.” These words always sound insincere. You want to inspire confidence.
- Use action verbs. As opposed to buzzwords, there are some power words you DO want to use. These include expression such as “achieved,” “advised,” “negotiated” and others. See the pattern there? Instead of adjectives, use verbs you can support with evidence.
How to list work experience if you’re a student or fresh graduate?
Naturally, you don’t have tons of experience if you’ve just finished school. Yet, being young is no obstacle. It comes down to the perspective you take at the experience you have.
As a student or fresh graduate, you should place your work experience after the education section. It’s not like you’ve just spent years doing nothing. Sure, your work didn’t take place in a proper workplace. But studying counts for something too.
Okay, not try to think of any job-relevant experience that you could put on your resume. Any related experience at all. Have you done some volunteer work for a local charity? Attended a conference? Worked as an intern?
All of these things belong on your resume. Treat your internships and extracurricular activities as regular jobs.
These activities can showcase your soft skills and help recruiters gauge your professional aptitude. Each one of them should come with a few points that detail your responsibilities and accomplishments.
Here’s what you can include in your employment history section:
- Part-time jobs.If you’re fresh out of school (or still studying), part-time jobs are probably your primary type of experience. Even if the job isn’t super-relevant to the job you’re applying now, there are valuable transferrable skills you’ve acquired in that job. Highlight them.
- Internships. Paid and unpaid college internships are one of the best weapons against “experience required” line in a job posting.
- Volunteering.Most recruiters look at volunteer experience similarly to a paid work experience. Just because you didn’t get paid doesn’t mean you didn’t do a good job. Go ahead and list your volunteer roles as you would a full-time job. Detail the length of time you volunteered, relevant tasks you undertook and the skills you gained through the experience.
- Extracurricular activities. If you’re applying for copywriting job, for example, recruiters will be more impressed to hear that you wrote a handful of articles for your student newspaper than that you had a summer job in a local fast food restaurant.
How to list work experience if you’re an experienced professional?
If you’re an experienced professional, any hiring manager worth their salt is going to put your work experience section under scrutiny. Because of that, you want to make sure your work experience section is tight.
To help employers navigate this section, list your work history in reverse chronological order. Put the most recent — and the most relevant — items should first.
If you’re working a full-time job and freelancing at the same time, it’s only up to you to decide where do you want to draw the attention first.
Also, don’t just state where you worked at and what was your job title. Use 2–4 bullet points for each job to describe your duties and specific achievements. Here’s an example:
Work Experience Section Example
Automotive Technician, Icahn Automotive, Rotorua, New Zealand (03/2017 – 09/2019)
- Repaired various cars and trucks. Troubleshot and diagnosed vehicles. Repaired or replaced defective parts. Ensured that everything was in compliance with the company’s high standards and clients’ needs.
- Awarded Employee of the Month for increasing customer satisfaction with provided services from 87% to 95% within one year.
Executives can use more than one page on their resume to present their extensive work experience. But that doesn’t mean that you should let your resume become a 700-page long autobiography.
If something’s recent it also means it’s more relevant. That’s why you should describe more recent jobs in greater detail. Older ones will do with a brief description, allowing you to save some valuable space for more important details to put on your resume.
How far back should your employment history go?
Generally, it’s okay to include up to 15 years of experience but not more than that. Most industries change a lot in 15 years, which renders any experience that’s older than that obsolete.
If you have been working less than 8-10 years, go back to the beginning of your work history and try to tailor your resume to be relevant for the job you’re applying now.
Avoid writing about every single job you’ve held. This overwhelms employers and makes them lose interest. Instead, only use previous work experience at least a bit related to the opportunity you want.
If you’ve worked more than 10 years as an executive, consider starting your work history at the point you became a manager. Most hiring managers don’t care what your first job was. They want to see how you progressed since you started as a manager.
Of course, if a job requires 20 years of experience, then definitely should include more than 10 - 15 years of experience on your resume.
How to write a work experience section if you’re an artist?
Artists are, well, different. Because of that, it probably comes as a no surprise that their work experience is different too.
In short, as an artist you should say goodbye to wordy descriptions and focus almost entirely on your portfolio. But you already know that, don’t you?
There are several options available and it’s only up to you which one will suit you the best. Polish up your social media profiles, create your own website, make sure to upload your portfolio to Behance or Dribble.
How to list experience if you’re changing careers?
If you’re pursuing a career change, your resume shouldn’t revolve entirely around your employment history. After all, that’s all in the past now. Instead, you should highlight your transferrable skills. You need to show how you can use the skills from your previous career in the new one.
Because of that, the hybrid resume format is the way to go.
In the employment history section, briefly outline your work history. Only mention those positions where you acquired skills that are relevant to the new position. You can also mention any relevant volunteer work.
Try to find any keywords that relate to your past experience. Look closely at the qualifications in the job description and tailor the bullet points in your work history to highlight that applicable experience.
Focus less on the duties and more on your transferrable skills. These are any skills that you can transfer from one career to another.
For example, if you have a background in journalism and want to apply for a copywriting position, the obvious shared keyword here is writing.
Even though you don’t have any copywriting or marketing experience, you do have expert-level writing skill that you can use in the new field. That's a transferable skill. Try including these in your work experience section.
How to overcome an employment gap in your work history?
There are two basic criteria you need to consider when thinking about the seriousness of an employment gap on your resume: their duration and how recent they were.
- Short gaps don’t matter. Work gaps don’t generally become red flags unless they lasted for more than six months.
- Old gaps don’t matter either. Recruiters are interested in recent history and won’t investigate things that no longer have an impact on the present.
But maybe your resume employment gaps are recent and quite long. What to do then?
- Change the way you write dates. Simply exclude months and the gap might disappear. So, instead of writing (October 2017 – August 2019), (September 2014 – January 2017), you write (2017 – 2019), (2014 – 2017). Obviously, this technique works best for employment gaps that took place within a single calendar year.
- Consider changing the format of your resume. You should use the functional resume format. It shifts attention to your strengths and job-relevant skills rather than your work history.
- Make the most of your employment gap. Starting a business, freelancing, studying, volunteering, taking a purposeful sabbatical —all these count as valuable experience. List these experiences along with other positions you held in the work experience section. Describe how you expanded your skillset.
- Boost your credibility with references. Ask your former employers, ex-colleagues and other industry professionals if they’re willing to vouch for you. Include their names and contact information directly in your resume or attach an additional page to your resume.
How to address a maternity leave on your resume?
Rather than chronologically listing your previous work experience, you can use the combination resume format. It allows you to attract the employer’s attention with your skills before addressing the elephant in the room.
Once you’ve done that, briefly mention that your career gap was due to the maternity leave. You can do it like this:
Maternity leave (January 2019–present)
That's it. You don't have to go into great detail.
Make sure to put emphasis on the work you did before you took some time off. Write about it as if it were yesterday and you still remember the details about the projects you worked on.
Recall your accomplishments and the projects you are proud of from that period of your life. Time doesn’t devalue those experiences and skills you learned working on them.
Also, make sure to mention any relevant community service or voluntary work that you engaged in during your time away. Any freelancing projects or short-term gigs work as great resume enhancers.
Pablo’s final piece of resume advice
- Don’t be afraid to use bold whenever you want to highlight important bits of information within the section.
- Include key achievements subsection. Pick the biggest achievement from each job and highlight it in a subsection. You can also write it in bold. This will catch the attention of the hiring manager in an instant.
- Keep it simple and easy to read. Don’t overdo it. Pick 1-2 colors maximum, 1-2 fonts, 1-2 heading sizes.
- Remember it’s not only about you. It’s also about your future employer. Look at the job description again and determine what are his needs. Address these in your work experience section.