The Professional Experience Section

The professional experience section is, essentially the “meat” of the resume for most, and for most, it presents your work history in chronological order. Even in functional resumes, certain chronological information is included. This section of the resume accomplishes several things. It lets potential employers know where you worked, when, and for how long. More importantly, however, it shows what you did, how you did it, the types of challenges you faced, how you overcame those challenges, and the outcomes of your efforts. You should present the outcomes in quantifiable terms as much as possible. And even for positions that are service based, quantifiable information can be shown through customer satisfaction, process improvements, positive performance reviews, and other, similar types of information.

The Big Picture

Details are important—but those details need to be the right ones. When telling someone about your great vacation, you focus on the main events. What you ate for breakfast is not as important or interesting as visiting a long-standing historical monument. Similarly, when crafting your resume, focus on the highlights, leaving the small details out. Show your career progression, or how you overcame an obstacle, rather than listing every daily duty. Include the impressive outcomes; each little step along the way may not be as important (although bigger steps may be). Include the end results of a months-long project, noting the challenges along the way, while avoiding daily or weekly goals (unless those really stand out). You have limited space on the resume—use it to your full advantage. How do you do this?

A standard format for presenting this information is to first, briefly explain and describe the job functions, followed by a list of outcomes. The "what you did" information can often be presented briefly, as many types of positions are similar in terms of the roles and responsibilities. Aim to include enough information to give the reader a clear sense of what you did, while also aiming to keep the information as tight as possible.

Also address challenges faced and how those were overcome. Tight deadlines, limited funds, new projects, new processes, changes in leadership, and more can all equate to difficult work situations. How you deal or dealt with those types of situations can help hiring managers see how you stand out from other applicants. How to best present this information depends on the circumstances. Sometimes it makes sense to include it with the overall responsibilities information. For example, if you were brought on specifically to address a problem, note that upfront. If part of the outcomes directly related to challenges, this can be incorporated into the list of accomplishments.

The most traditional method for presenting accomplishments is in list form, and there is nothing wrong with this presentation. Again, the writing goal is tight and concise. When creating your list, keep a few suggestions in mind:

Front-load the most impressive information. List the most impressive outcomes first, and aim to include impressive figures, statistics, etc. near the first part of the sentence, where the reader is most likely to see it. Avoid placing impressive figures toward the end of a bullet point, or toward the end of a bullet list, where it might be overlooked.

Use formatting tools, such as bullet points, to help information stand out. Again, figures, statistics, and other noteworthy outcomes can be shown in bold.

Begin each bullet point with an action verb (accomplished, realized, generated, compiled, authored, etc.), and phrase information using the active voice. In passive phrasing, the subject of the sentence is being acted upon. In active phrasing, the subject is doing the action. Here's a simple example:

Passive: The project (subject) was completed (verb) by the team.

Active: The team (subject) completed (verb) the project.

Active phrasing helps to tighten the wording. To spot passive or weaker phrasing, watch for words such as was, were, had been, was being, and so on, and replace them with stronger, more specific verbs.

Additional Tools to Show Outcomes

For complex projects, several notable outcomes may be worth noting. In this case, it can help to list a primarily bullet point noting the overall outcome, followed by several sub-points to further note specific achievements within the larger project. This helps avoid multi-line accomplishments, which again, can be difficult to follow. Aim for two- to three one-line bullet points.

Certain types of information are best presented in visual formats. This can work particularly well for sales figures, increases in revenue over time, and other quantifiable information that stands out well in a visual format. Charts and graphs allow readers to see, at a glance, what was accomplished. When these visuals are included, also note the same information in written format, to give a complete picture of what took place and what the outcomes were. When doing this, avoid simply restating the information. Each method, visual and written, should present the same information, but in a slightly different way. That way, each method provides additional opportunity for the accomplishments to stand out.

Microsoft Word has options to insert tables and graphs. These can also be created in a different program, such as Excel, copied as an image, and then pasted into the Word document. Word’s formatting features also offer options for creating professional tables, and even using spacing tools such as tabs can be used to create consistent, nice-looking information. Visual presentations can be a great way to show growth over time and in a way that readers see, at a glance, what changed and when.

What to Include

The resume needs to present your information honestly. However, the purpose of the resume is to present relevant information. Therefore, when presenting your background, focus on the information most relevant to the position you are seeking. You may have had multiple “roles” in your most recent position. This does not mean you need to or should include all that information, particularly if some aspects of the job are unrelated to your target. Go through your information to determine which information best presents your capabilities. Also, the goal is to provide useful, but succinct information. This is another reason to be selective about what you include. Highlight your best selling points. You can fill in other details during the interview process or if asked for additional information.

Similarly, if you have more than one recent position and it works to leave less-relevant information off the resume, then that might be an option. Avoid creating gaps, but also avoid using valuable space to present less-relevant information. Basically, think of “trimming the fat.” Present your best attributes and get rid of any excess.

While there are no hard and fast rules, aim for short paragraphs (a few lines) and a short list of bullet points (if you like numbers, try to keep them to fewer than five or six, although there are exceptions). If extra bullet space is needed, see if the information can be combined, or use a primary bullet point for the main idea or project, with sub-bullets to provide additional information. Too much information is difficult to read, and the goal is to include relevant information that stands out, and that is easy for the reader to find.

Selling Your Strengths

Many people are uncomfortable with the idea of “selling” themselves, because it feels like bragging. While this may be the case, to some extent, remember that it’s a necessary part of the process. To stand out from your competition, you need to show how you are different. Also, if you focus on the facts (a necessity when writing a resume), you won’t be bragging; rather, you are reporting, showing the outcomes of your efforts.

It can also be hard, however, for some people to figure out what they have done that is impressive. Not everyone has clear-cut outcomes of their efforts. Your contributions to the job may show up in other, less quantifiable areas. When determining how to present information that does not have a definite figure attached, you can use other approaches to show positive outcomes. Many qualities are admirable, such as attention to detail, treating others well, providing quality service, etc. These can be shown by how you went about the work. Someone in health care may not know the exact number of satisfied patients, if that information is not polled. However, you do know that you give 100 percent of your own effort to ensure a positive patient experience, that you go the extra step to provide comfort to family members, or that you ensure accurate, detailed data entry when recording patient information. If you see a number of repeat customers, that can be noted as well, even if the exact figure or percentage is unknown. If you know you have created processes that save time, money, or frustration, all of that can be noted without including a figure.

When reviewing your experience, focus on any and all accomplishments that can be included, even if they seem (at first) to be irrelevant. Showing your “soft skills” (those that help you get along with others) can be useful as well, as those are sought-after skills in many types of positions. Again, be as specific as possible. If you look through a pile of resumes, it seems everyone has “strong communication skills.” Those who communicate on a regular basis with senior management, challenging customers, or can run a 20-member board meeting while staying on task show specific skills and outcomes without sounding like every other candidate.

Make lists of all quantifiable outcomes, and also other areas where you know you have done well. If you have performance reviews available, go through those to see what others (managers in particular) have said about you and what you do well. Ask co-workers what your strengths are and how you have contributed to the organization. Again, others often see our strengths more clearly than we do, and this is valuable information. Then, consider all areas where you have made contributions, such as special projects or assignments, new processes, suggestions for change, providing an extra “helping hand” without being asked, staying late or working extra to meet a deadline, determining priorities, helping coworkers, providing leadership, heading committees, etc. Once you get thinking about all that you do and have done, the ideas start flowing. Make notes of all these areas; you can cut information later if needed.

Once you have a list, reorder it, prioritizing the most impressive information first. That is the type of information you will include in the resume, and it also gives an idea of how you will present the information—with the most stand-out information, or the information best suited for the target position—listed first.

How Much History?

You will hear various “rules” regarding how far back your resume should go in terms of work history. As with other aspects of resume writing, the answer is, “It depends.” As a general rule, 1 to 15 years of work history is typical for most. However, what if you are returning to a position or target that you have experience in, but it was many years ago? In that case, you will likely want to include that information. (You can include a section in the top third of the resume that presents accomplishments from your earlier work history, which highlights that information while still allowing you to present your work history in chronological format.)

Another scenario might be someone who has held the same position, or has been with the same company, for many years. Here again, it may be appropriate to include a longer work history to accommodate that position, and/or to show related information prior to the most recent position.

Managers and those in senior management often have longer work histories, and again, some of those impressive accomplishments are often seen throughout the entire work history, or perhaps a particularly challenging situation took place earlier in that history. Use your best judgment; if it looks like the information will work to your advantage, aim to include it.

And…Action!

You have heard that action verbs are the way to show your information, and that is true. However, some words, while appropriate, are used often, so try to avoid those as much as possible. Rather than saying you are “responsible for” a certain role, show it instead—determine, oversee, champion, direct, etc. “Manage” is another word that is often used; however, if you do in fact manage a product, process, or people, this can be used. Avoid repeating the same action verb, however, aiming for a variety that provide the required ideas without being redundant.

Why action verbs? Because they show just that—action (and often, decisive action). Hiring managers like to know what actions you have taken and the results of those actions. They also sound better—action verbs are “power” words. They show specific types of action and present your information with a powerful statement, rather than a weak one. Use them to your advantage, and choose those that best demonstrate what you have done.

For a basic approach, aim for action verb + quantifiable outcome.

  • Ensured quality, patient-centered care for 100-bed for Alzheimer’s unit.
  • Generated 35% increase in sales by designing and implementing effective online landing page for new product launch.
  • Championed company-wide software upgrade, leading to 30% efficiency improvement in data management.

Aim for a variety of action verbs to avoid repetition. When submitting to a specific position, review the job description for additional ideas of the types of action verbs to include (but avoid repeating phrases word-for-word).

When incorporating these tools and approaches into your professional experience section, you will be well on your way to presenting your background in way that will help you stand out.

Action verbs include:

  • accelerate
  • accept
  • access
  • accommodate
  • accomplish
  • account
  • accrue
  • accumulate
  • achieve
  • achieve
  • acknowledge
  • acquire
  • act
  • activate
  • adapt
  • add
  • address
  • adjust
  • administer
  • advertise
  • advise
  • advocate
  • affect
  • aid
  • aide
  • align
  • alleviate
  • allocate
  • allow
  • alter
  • alter
  • amend
  • amplify
  • analyze
  • answer
  • anticipate
  • appear
  • apply
  • appoint
  • appraise
  • appreciate
  • approach
  • approve
  • arbitrate
  • argue
  • arise
  • arrange
  • articulate
  • ascertain
  • assemble
  • assert
  • assess
  • assign
  • assist
  • associate
  • attain
  • attend
  • attract
  • attribute
  • audit
  • augment
  • author
  • authorize
  • automate
  • award
  • balance
  • begin
  • bolster
  • boost
  • break
  • brief
  • broaden
  • budget
  • build
  • calculate
  • carry
  • cease
  • challenge
  • characterize
  • circulate
  • clarify
  • classify
  • coalesce
  • compare
  • complete
  • complicate
  • compress
  • compute
  • conceive
  • concentrate
  • conclude
  • concur
  • condense
  • conduct
  • connect
  • construct
  • continue
  • contract
  • contribute
  • control
  • convert
  • convey
  • convince
  • coordinate
  • correct
  • create
  • critique
  • crystallize
  • debate
  • debug
  • decide
  • declare
  • decode
  • decrease
  • dedicate
  • deduce
  • defend
  • define
  • delegate
  • delineate
  • deliver
  • demonstrate
  • depict
  • deploy
  • deposit
  • depreciate
  • derive
  • describe
  • design
  • designate
  • detail
  • detect
  • determine
  • develop
  • devise
  • devote
  • diagnose
  • diagram
  • differentiate
  • diffuse
  • direct
  • discharge
  • discover
  • discuss
  • dispatch
  • display
  • dissect
  • disseminate
  • distinguish
  • distribute
  • distribute
  • diverge
  • diversify
  • divide
  • document
  • dominate
  • double
  • draft
  • draw
  • drive
  • duplicate
  • earn
  • edit
  • educate
  • elaborate
  • elect
  • elicit
  • eliminate
  • emerge
  • emphasize
  • employ
  • enable
  • encapsulate
  • encompass
  • encourage
  • end
  • enforce
  • engage
  • engineer
  • enhance
  • enlighten
  • enlist
  • enrich
  • ensure
  • entail
  • enter
  • entertain
  • equip
  • establish
  • estimate
  • evaluate
  • evaporate
  • evolve
  • examine
  • exchange
  • exclude
  • execute
  • exemplify
  • exercise
  • exert
  • exhibit
  • expand
  • expect
  • expedite
  • experience
  • experiment
  • explain
  • explore
  • express
  • extend
  • extract
  • extrapolate
  • facilitate
  • familiarize
  • fashion
  • feature
  • file
  • filter
  • finalize
  • finalize
  • find
  • finish
  • fit
  • fix
  • flow
  • focus
  • follow
  • forecast
  • form
  • formulate
  • fortify
  • forward
  • foster
  • found
  • frame
  • fulfill
  • fund
  • furnish
  • further
  • gain
  • galvanize
  • gather
  • gauge
  • generalize
  • generate
  • give
  • govern
  • grade
  • grant
  • greet
  • group
  • grow
  • guide
  • handle
  • head
  • help
  • highlight
  • hire
  • host
  • hypothesize
  • identify
  • illuminate
  • illustrate
  • imagine
  • impart
  • implement
  • imply
  • import
  • improve
  • improvise
  • include
  • incorporate
  • increase
  • index
  • indicate
  • individualize
  • induce
  • infer
  • influence
  • influence
  • inform
  • initialize
  • initiate
  • innovate
  • input
  • inquire
  • inspect
  • inspire
  • install
  • institute
  • instruct
  • insure
  • integrate
  • interact
  • interface
  • interpret
  • intervene
  • interview
  • introduce
  • invent
  • investigate
  • invoke
  • isolate
  • join
  • judge
  • justify
  • label
  • launch
  • lead
  • learn
  • lecture
  • license
  • lighten
  • list
  • listen
  • litigate
  • lobby
  • localize
  • locate
  • log
  • maintain
  • make
  • manage
  • manifest
  • manipulate
  • manufacture
  • map
  • market
  • master
  • maximize
  • measure
  • mechanize
  • mediate
  • meet
  • mentor
  • merge
  • methodize
  • migrate
  • minimize
  • mobilize
  • model
  • moderate
  • modernize
  • modify
  • monitor
  • motivate
  • narrate
  • navigate
  • necessitate
  • negotiate
  • note
  • notify
  • nurse
  • nurture
  • observe
  • obtain
  • offer
  • officiate
  • offset
  • omit
  • open
  • operate
  • optimize
  • orchestrate
  • order
  • organize
  • orient
  • originate
  • outline
  • overcome
  • overhaul
  • oversee
  • package
  • participate
  • perfect
  • perform
  • persist
  • persuade
  • photograph
  • pilot
  • pioneer
  • place
  • plan
  • play
  • plot
  • point out
  • possess
  • practice
  • precede
  • predict
  • prepare
  • present
  • preserve
  • preside
  • prevent
  • print
  • prioritize
  • process
  • produce
  • profit
  • program
  • project
  • promise
  • promote
  • propel
  • propose
  • prove
  • provide
  • publicize
  • publish
  • purchase
  • quadruple
  • qualify
  • quantify
  • question
  • raise
  • ran
  • rate
  • reach
  • read
  • realize
  • reason
  • recognize
  • recommend
  • reconcile
  • reconstruct
  • record
  • recreate
  • recruit
  • rectify
  • redefine
  • reduce
  • refer
  • reference
  • refine
  • reflect
  • refute
  • regard
  • register
  • regulate
  • rehabilitate
  • reinforce
  • reiterate
  • release
  • remediate
  • remodel
  • remove
  • render
  • renew
  • reorganize
  • repair
  • repeat
  • replace
  • replicate
  • report
  • represent
  • reproduce
  • require
  • research
  • resolve
  • respond
  • restore
  • restore
  • restrict
  • retain
  • retrieve
  • revamp
  • reveal
  • review
  • revise
  • revitalize
  • rotate
  • route
  • sample
  • satisfy
  • saturate
  • save
  • scan
  • schedule
  • screen
  • script
  • scrutinize
  • search
  • secure
  • seek
  • select
  • send
  • separate
  • serve
  • service
  • settle
  • shape
  • share
  • show
  • signal
  • signify
  • simplify
  • simulate
  • situate
  • solicit
  • solidify
  • solve
  • sort
  • speak
  • spearhead
  • specialize
  • specify
  • stabilize
  • stage
  • standardize
  • start
  • stimulate
  • straighten
  • strategize
  • streamline
  • strengthen
  • structure
  • study
  • subject
  • submit
  • substantiate
  • succeed
  • suggest
  • sum
  • summarize
  • superimpose
  • supervise
  • supply
  • support
  • suppress
  • surmise
  • surpass
  • survey
  • sustain
  • symbolize
  • synthesize
  • tabulate
  • tailor
  • target
  • teach
  • terminate
  • test
  • theorize
  • time
  • tour
  • trace
  • track
  • trade
  • train
  • transcribe
  • transect
  • transfer
  • transform
  • translate
  • transmit
  • transport
  • transpose
  • travel
  • treat
  • trigger
  • triple
  • troubleshot
  • tutor
  • uncover
  • underline
  • underscore
  • understand
  • understate
  • undertake
  • unify
  • unveil
  • update
  • upgrade
  • uphold
  • use
  • utilize
  • validate
  • value
  • verify
  • view
  • visit
  • visualize
  • vitalize
  • volunteer
  • weigh
  • widen
  • win
  • write
  • yield