Writing a Resume After More Than a Few Years Out of the Workforce

One question we are often asked is how do I write a resume when I haven’t worked, professionally, for years. And it’s tough because most “how to deal with a resume gap” advice is aimed at people who have been out of work for several months, not years. So here’s a high-level guide to writing a resume when you’ve been out of the workforce for a long time and are trying to restart your career.

1.  Don’t try to “fool” the reader.

Using a nontraditional resume format generally backfires. Recruiters spend very little time reviewing a resume, and one that requires them to spend too much time to figure out will get passed over quickly. We generally recommend that you follow a traditional chronological format with your experience (both paid and unpaid) at the top, in order from most recent, and then education under that.

To help you get started, here are some Recommended Resume Formats for Returners (with templates).

Note: We have specific resume advice if you are applying for a returnship.

2.  You don’t have to include everything.

Resumes are marketing documents, not legal documents. Highlight the experience you have –both paid and not – that makes you a fit for the role you are applying for. This is true for returnships and permanent positions.

Should you eliminate all experience that is more than 10 or 20 years in the past due to age discrimination? We get this question often and it’s tough because age discrimination is real. But for women who are restarting their careers it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to create a resume that eliminates “old” experience without eliminating all experience. Focus on the skills and experiences that are most relevant to the job you are applying for, eliminate what you can without diminishing your abilities, and be sure to tout what you’ve done in the last one to five years that is relevant.

What if you can’t remember all the details of your prior jobs? If you don’t remember it well, you won’t be able to speak to it well in an interview, so consider leaving it off for that reason. If there are jobs you want to include – because you worked for a great company or had a great title – include it with a short description of the overall role and any accomplishments that were particularly memorable. That way you’ll get credit for the job without having to go into too much detail.

3.  You should include any experience that fits the role you are applying for.

Don’t diminish your unpaid work or even paid work that happened outside a corporate environment. There is an art to doing this well, though.

First, be sure to put your experiences in terms that are business friendly. Talk about results and outcomes – money raised or saved, time saved, lives impacted.

Second, group projects in ways that make sense and highlight your skills and accomplishments without making it look like you are “padding” your resume. It’s better to say you worked on a 90-day assignment and here’s everything you accomplished in that time than trying to make that look like a job you had for a year with only three months worth of work to show for it.

4.  Consider custom versions.

It’s pretty normal for someone restarting their career to have a few different avenues that they are pursuing, especially if their career background had a few twists in it. To follow the advice about “not including everything” while also including relevant experience, you may need a few versions of your resume. Both versions may list all the same jobs (though they may not), but would emphasize different skills and experiences based on the job you are applying for.

The easiest way to do this is to create a master version that has all roles and all bullets and then cut out the parts that aren’t relevant for different roles. But don’t go too crazy with the customizing because…

5.  Don’t spend too much time working on your resume.

While there are likely plenty of ways to improve your resume, the truth is that the parts of your resume that recruiters focus on first are the parts you can’t change – where you worked, when you worked, what your title was. Extra time spent perfecting each bullet is less valuable than almost every other activity related to job hunting: researching companies, taking classes to update your skills, and reaching out to people who can champion you within an organization or who can connect you to others who can.

I realize it’s a cheat to tell you to spend less time on your resume in a blog post about improving your resume, but it’s really to emphasize controlling the parts of the process you can (how you spend your time, who you reach out to) vs. the parts you can’t (your prior career decisions and how others will judge them).

Tami Forman is the founding executive director of Path Forward and a frequent speaker on issues related to caregiving and workforce participation.

Originally published February 2017.