Ask Annie

Don't overload your resume

December 17, 2010: 11:23 AM ET

A wealth of experience is a great asset, but packing your resume with too many jobs is usually a mistake.

By Anne Fisher, contributor

Dear Annie: I was heartened to read your December 8 article about the slightly brighter job market for people over 55, and my own experience lately confirms that long experience is coming back into fashion with employers: After being out of work for over a year, at age 57, I've gotten three interviews in the past month.

My question concerns my resume. In my 40-year career so far, I've had lots of different jobs that have taught me a wide variety of skills, so I've put all of them on my resume. A friend tells me that is distracting, so I should omit most of the jobs I've held and just list the ones that relate most directly to whatever position I'm currently applying for. Is that correct? Also, what should my resume say about the short periods during which I've been between jobs or (most recently) took a "survival job" just to pay the bills? --Cincinnati Sam

Dear Sam: Your friend is giving you wise counsel. "A common mistake people make when developing their resume is to pack it with too many jobs, in hopes of dazzling future employers with their wealth of experience," says Evelyn Salvador, a professional resume writer and career coach whose useful book, Step-by-Step Resumes: Build an Outstanding Resume in 10 Easy Steps, is now in its second edition.

Unfortunately, that tactic rarely works. "If you muddy up your resume with too much experience, show several jobs that were for short periods of time, or include roles that are not in sync with your target job, this is a red flag for employers," Salvador says. "It can lead them to look at you as a job hopper or one who isn't in touch with what they need for a particular role -- and your resume might be screened out."

Salvador suggests you take a fresh look at your current resume with the following three tips in mind, and see what changes you may need to make.

1. Eliminate short-term jobs. Jobs you held for less than a year, especially if they don't relate specifically to the job you're now seeking, should be cut from your resume.

"For example, say you worked at one place from 2000 to 2002, at another in 2002, and at a third from 2003 to 2009. If that short-term job in 2002 was left out, your resume wouldn't show a gap, because resumes are generally written to show years only, not months," Salvador says.

An exception to this rule: Entry-level job seekers who have had internships that lasted less than a year.

2. Emphasize relevant skills or duties. People typically include irrelevant jobs on their resumes, Salvador notes, to avoid a chronological gap. If that's your concern, try to turn that seemingly unrelated former position to your advantage by finding a connection to the job you want now.

"Are there any functions whatsoever that you performed in that position, or skills you acquired from it, that can be related somehow to the position you're targeting?" she asks. "Even if the relevant experience was just a small percentage of your work, you can mention that job and then describe just the relevant parts of it."

At first glance, most "survival jobs" may not seem related to the positions you're applying for now, but it's often possible to dig beneath the surface and strike gold.

Let's suppose, for instance, that you got laid off from a supervisory position and then worked as a waitperson in a restaurant to pay the bills. Chances are the experience taught you plenty about providing efficient customer service and mediating disputes -- two valuable skills for any manager.

3. Don't travel too far back in time. You may have loaded up your resume with too many jobs because you're including positions you held, say, 30 years ago. Don't.

"If in the past 10 years you've had enough experience to show you're qualified for the job you're seeking now, there's no need to go farther back," Salvador says.

What if your most relevant experience was longer than 10 years ago?

It's okay to go back 15 years if you must, but that, says Salvador, is the limit. To a 35-year-old hiring manager, anything that happened when he or she was in high school might as well have been during the Stone Age, so be wary of inadvertently making your skills seem out of date.

"If you want to appear younger, going back fewer years on your resume can help lend that appearance," says Salvador.

Likewise, job hunters who for whatever reason want to seem as mature and experienced as possible can do that by listing jobs that are 15 years in the past.

Either way, Salvador says, "once you get your foot in the door for an interview, you can sell yourself on your qualifications and on cultural 'fit.'" Good luck!

Talkback: Which jobs have you left off your resume, and why? If you're a hiring manager, what resume "red flags" lead you to screen out candidates? Leave a comment below.

Also from Fortune:

Over 55 and unemployed? Finally a bit of good news

Want to get promoted? Stifle your creativity

Should you reveal a disability during the job search?

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About This Author
Anne Fisher
Anne Fisher
Contributor, Fortune

Anne Fisher has been writing "Ask Annie," a column on careers, for Fortune since 1996, helping readers navigate booms, recessions, changing industries, and changing ideas about what's appropriate in the workplace (and beyond). Anne is the author of two books, Wall Street Women (Knopf, 1990) and If My Career's on the Fast Track, Where Do I Get a Road Map? (William Morrow, 2001).

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