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Written by Paul DruryPaul Drury

How far back should a resume go?

10 min read
How far back should a resume go?
Artwork by:Lizabeth Zaft
There is a temptation to put every bit of experience in your resume, but how far back should a resume go? A line should be drawn when relevance starts to wane. Use the precious resume real estate wisely.

Relevance is the currency of a successful job search, especially the kind that hits a hiring manager right between the eyes and makes them think “wow, this is the job experience for me.” When considering how far back your resume should go, you could do much worse than bearing this in mind.

Breakthrough achievements from your first role twenty years ago may still burn bright in your memory, but in a fast-changing world most employers will dismiss them out of hand. What you did last month is so much more immediate and offers far more insight into the person you are right now.

You see, people change. Some people change a lot (hopefully for the better).

And that makes it hard to consider that an achievement from twenty years ago offers a reliable insight into the person sitting across the interview table today. 

When resume real estate is at a premium, “how far back should a resume go?” is a very real consideration. And the answer is not a simple one. We explore:

  • Why length of work history should be one of the first key decisions
  • Do you have to put all your work history on a resume?
  • What to include in a graduate, mid-career and senior-level resume
  • When is it okay to have a two-page resume?

Your resume will dictate the course of your future interviews, so the more it is bloated with old and barely relevant accomplishments, the less likely your interview is to be on point. Keep it strong, short and undeniably powerful.

Expert tip

How many years of work experience should be on a resume?

You don’t need to include every role that you have ever done, but once you have started a resume story it is generally best not to leave any gaps in your work experience (if you can help it). If there is a gap for maternity leave or a career break, a quick note and a one-line reason for the gap will be fine. You will have a chance to explain at the interview. 

How far back should your work history go?

As we explore later, the nuance in this question lies in not only the number of years of experience that you might have but also the number of relevant years. If ten years out of the past fifteen were filled with wonderful experiences but the first five were not at all relevant, then you might be justified in writing a succinct one-page resume about the last decade. 

Only include the most relevant information

These six words would sum up this blog, but you have to consider what is relevant for the hiring manager and not what seems relevant to you. Let go of your fond memories of past glories and be honest with yourself about what an employer would find truly impressive. If something from fifteen years ago seems like an average sort of achievement for anyone in your position, why would you include it?

Expert tip

What about ageism?

It is generally standard practice to give dates of college or university education, so employers may be able to tell that you have not included the early part of your career. This is standard and you are not hiding anything but be careful if you also do not include your education dates. A resume that makes you look like a hungry 30-something may not work in your favor. If you are concerned about ageism, there are other ways to conceal your seniority on a resume.

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Do you have to put all your work history on your resume?

There is no law or expectation that all of a senior professional’s work experience should be listed in detail on their resume. You might choose to simply include the title and company of some of the earlier roles, but there is no obligation to do so.

Keep things brief 

Whenever you are considering how back your resume should go, remember that you can be more concise than you think in terms of squeezing your resume into one page. Your titles and years of experience for the past 10-15 years will often be enough to create a top line interest and then if you pick the right bullet points for your accomplishments, you can seal the interview deal after a few quick scans.

What you do not want a hiring manager to do is read too much detail and give them cause to wonder whether certain aspects are really relevant. Impress them as quickly as possible and leave them wanting to find out more at the interview.

How far back should a graduate resume go?

How far back a resume should go is a relevant question even for graduates. Their academic grades at school, college and university should feature prominently, alongside any major projects and societies that they were involved in (but only if these activities are relevant for the role in question).

It is important to center your resume around the transferable skills that you have acquired in your work experience and in the earliest years of your career. Your future employer won’t expect a long list of achievements, but they will want to sense that your previous journey has been leading to this moment of career choice. In some cases, you could even consider adding in your GPA. For recent graduates lacking work experience, it may give hiring managers an idea of how well they'll perform.

How far back should a mid-career resume with 5-15 years of experience go?

The mid-career resume can often still be restricted to one page and if you minimize the details about your education, there is often plenty of space to talk about your last 3-4 roles for the past fifteen years. If you have worked for a significant number of employers over this period, it may be worth doing each role justice and increasing the resume size to two pages. Just make sure that it is all relevant.

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How far back should a senior professional’s resume (15+ years) go?

When you get over the 15-year mark in your career, things tend to get tricky when it comes to writing a resume and talking about your experience at an interview. Your older experiences do tend to lose their shine amidst the mists of time.

While you might choose to simply list a couple of previous roles if they are in the target industry and suitable function, the simple fact that you were a sales director fifteen years ago (for example) means that you must have had a pretty solid junior sales career beforehand. That is safely assumed by most employers.

Don’t be tempted to waste resume space on work experience that is over the fifteen year mark. We are sure that you have achieved a lot in the more recent past.

When is it okay to have a two-page resume?

It is perfectly acceptable to have a five-page resume (if you are an academic with a ton of research papers that are relevant to include in the application).

That is the key. Academics need that amount of space to do their application justice. If you feel that you need to increase the text font to fill the space on a two-page resume and that you are scratching around for barely relevant bullet points, stick with one page and go with only the most powerful statements about your career story.

Key Takeaways

  • Perspective is everything in a job search – looking at your application through the hiring manager’s eyes will highlight your strengths and uncover your weaker points.
  • If a job title is more than 15 years old, consider not including the work experience at all.
  • A multi-page resume is expected for an academic, but most job seekers should aim for the one-page mark.
  • Your resume should go as far back as it is compellingly relevant for the role.
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