How long should your resumé be, and how far back should it go?

How far back does your resumé go?

These are two of the most common questions I am asked.

It’s hard to know where to draw the line, but I’ve lined out some advice for prospective candidates on how to structure a resumé that will give you the best chance with a potential employer.

As with all questions concerning resumés, the most important advice is:

Imagine yourself in the position of your audience, i.e. the people who will be reading your resumé

The last thing the prospective employer wants to do is wade through a mass of irrelevant detail.  So aim to impress by relating your resumé as directly as possible to the position the employer is aiming to fill.  This means that the key points need to be on the first page.  The length is less important than the structure.   However, a one page resumé that highlights your relevant strengths is more likely to get you the job than a 20 page one!

How far back should it go?  There is conventional wisdom in the IT world that says that anything older than 5 years is no longer relevant.  For short term contract positions where you will exercise a specific up-to-date skill, this can be appropriate.  However, for permanent positions, and especially where your people and other “soft” skills are important, the employer will probably want to know how you developed these skills over time.  As a rule of thumb, therefore, I suggest:

  • plenty of detail of the last 5 years, including significant projects and achievements
  • an abbreviated version of the earlier part of your career.  For work more than 10 years ago, this might mean only one line per position.  But I prefer this to leaving it out entirely.   Gaps can create doubts.

Sometimes individuals had a prior career before going into IT, and they feel reticent about including any information on it.  For example, I recently met a very capable person who had been a chef for 13 years before changing direction and entering IT infrastructure work.  He didn’t include the chef part in his resumé, but told me about it at interview when I asked.  Actually, the experience had left him with a flexibility and an ability to handle pressure situations which he would probably never have developed otherwise, and which is certainly useful in an IT support or management role.  I encouraged him to cover it briefly in the resumé.

However much it may be dressed up with checklists, rankings and grids to give the impression of objectivity, any hiring decision has an emotional content, particularly if the person making the decision might end up being your boss.  The person may be quite stressed as they realise that their own career can be affected significantly for better or worse by the hiring decision.  So give the person every opportunity to have a rounded picture of you to help to make the decision go in your favour.

Your resumé should be just long enough, and contain just the material necessary to achieve this.

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