How to Approach the “Work Experience” Section of Your Resume

by Sharon Elber

Work Experience Resume Writing

Demonstrating that you have a work history that has prepared you for the job you are applying for is perhaps the most critical section of your resume. It is in this section that the hiring manager is likely to spend the most time, particularly once your resume has made it past the first round of cuts to the initial applicant pool.

Here are some tips to help you make the most of it:

Work History Section in Different Resume Formats

Before we dive into the work experience section itself, it is important to understand that different resume formats will place a different emphasis on this section. For example, the functional format, often used by people who are either changing careers or who have a long gap in their employment, offers candidates a chance to put emphasis on specific skills. In such cases, the work history section may be drastically reduced in size and scope.

However, the vast majority of people generally opt for the most traditional style of resume: The reverse chronological format. Although this format often includes other sections such as Education, Certifications, or Publications, the star of the show is a detailed work history. It is for this type of resume that this guide is most applicable to since the emphasis on prior work experiences are the highlight of your case for why you are the best candidate for the job.

Focus on Fit

The most important aspect of your entire resume, and your work experience section in particular, is to focus on your fit for the position you are applying for. Yes, this means you will probably need to tweak your resume many times during the job search. However, the investment of time will pay off in the end.

When deciding on which aspects of past jobs to highlight in your work history section, it is critical to select those that are most relevant to the job you are applying for. While it may be tempting to assume that “more is better,” in fact, including a lot of irrelevant information can make you look less qualified than you actually are.

Skip the Job Description

While it used to be standard to include a brief job description for each past job before listing your specific responsibilities, the common wisdom these days is to skip this in most cases. It is probably fairly obvious from your job title what your basic responsibilities were, particularly if you are applying for jobs in the same sector where you have previously worked. So, this is mostly just a waste of valuable real estate.

The exception to this rule is when you think that it may not be clear from your job titles exactly what kind of work that you did. For example, if you are making a career change to a new field, providing a few sentences to give context to a previous job that may be unfamiliar to hiring mangers could offer some benefits. Just be sure to keep it brief and focused on those responsibilities that transfer explicitly to your new line of work.

Leverage Quantifiable Results

It is one thing to say you had this or that responsibility, but it is another to show that you excelled in the role with real results, preferably represented with numbers. For example, if you managed outside sales, leverage metrics that show your value to the bottom line such as annual revenue gains, the number of leads generated, and client or customer retention.

Consider using the PAR method to showcase your problem solving skills using clear examples of times where you were up to bat and you hit a home run. That is, name the problem, the action you took, and the results. Here is an example:

  • Implemented a targeted marketing plan to address lagging customer loyalty after a change in company leadership that boosted online brand engagement by 237% leading to a $2.3M gain in online sales over the previous quarter.

Use Keywords

It is likely that if you are applying to a large employer that the first round of resumes will be reviewed by computer algorithms looking for keywords to assess for relevancy prior to human review. These keywords are usually selected by the same people who wrote the job ad itself, so they usually reflect the priorities that are represented in the job ad.

Start by carefully reviewing the job ad to look for the kinds of language that are used, and mirror that where possible in your work experience (as long as it is accurate). For example, if the job lists “Proficient with MS Word” as a required qualification, then you want to be sure to use MS Word versus Microsoft Word when including this skill on your resume.

In addition, you can do some research on the internet to learn more about the specific keywords most often used for your sector, and in many cases, the exact job title you are applying for.

In addition, order matters when it comes to automated applicant tracking systems. So, when possible, make sure that your work history bullet points reflect the same priority of order as the ad. This means making sure you touch on required qualifications, then preferred qualifications, then additional qualifications that you think are still highly relevant to the position which may not have been explicitly listed in the ad.

Action Verbs

Strong action verbs, in the past tense, are the standard way to start each line of your work history section. Examples include:

  • Managed
  • Organized
  • Coordinated
  • Prepared
  • Engaged

Using action verbs adds impact to your work history section, while also avoiding extraneous words in more passive types of language. Rather than saying “I was in charge of….” you should say “Managed….”

Design Your Work Experience Section So It Is Easy to Skim

Each job that you include should start with a header, typically in bolded font, which includes your job title, the name of the company, and dates worked (generally by the month is enough detail). This makes it easy to see where each work experience starts and ends, as well as making it easy to quickly skim read through your past responsibilities and achievements.

Use bullet points for listing 4-5 responsibilities and/or achievements while you worked in each role. Adjust margins so that there is enough negative space that the text does not look cluttered.

Putting It All Together: Strong Examples of Resume Work Experience

Sometimes it can be helpful to look at some examples of what well written bullet points in a work history section look like. Take a look at these two examples and decide which is more compelling:

#1: I was working with vendors for event planning, primarily tradeshows.
#2: Coordinated with vendors, keynote speakers, and venue staff for 15 tradeshows in 2019, with a combined attendance of over 45,000 contractors and retailers.

Clearly, the second statement is much more impressive than the first. The second uses a strong action verb, “coordinated,” which probably appeared in the job ad. It also contains enough specifics to help the reader visualize this employee doing the work. Finally, it also includes relevant quantifiable and results oriented figures that help the reader see that this employee can manage deadlines, work with diverse groups of people, and handle a fast-paced working environment – all while getting results that matter.

#1: I helped customers learn more about our products.
#2: Provided excellent customer service with outstanding product knowledge and strategic upselling to boost cosmetic counter sales by 15% over the next highest performing sales associate.

The second example showcases again that leading with an action verb provides more impact than the more passive “I helped…”. The second example also uses likely keywords for retail sales, including: customer service, upselling, sales, and sales associates. Further, the second example provides strong detail and results oriented data that proves this sales associate has the skills need to improve the bottom line and be a valued member of the team.

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