The Balanced Resume

Balancing Your Resume

Resumes are like 30-second television commercials. It takes a lot of time to produce them, even though they will be seen for a very short time. Not only do you have to present the information in a way that will catch the reader's attention, you also have to present only the most important information.

All other things being equal, what you have done recently is more important than what you have done in the distant past. I have this theory that experience has a half-life of 3 years. That is, what you did 3 years ago is only half as important as what you are doing today. What you did 6 years ago is only a quarter as important as your current skills.

If we plot this "importance decay" the graph would look something like:

What this means for resume writing is: that in a totally balanced resume you should spend 50% of the resume talking about the last 3 years, 25% talking about 3-6 years ago, 12.5% talking about what you did 6-9 years ago, etc.

A resume is not a mathematical formula, so counting the actual number of words you use in each year "block" isn't of particular value other than as an academic exercise. However, the curve should give you general guidance as to how much description you should give to each job.

In any event, by the time you reach 15 years, the information is virtually irrelevant and should normally not even be mentioned.

The later is an important part in combating age discrimination. Don't make it easy for them to figure out that you have been working for 30 or more years.

This is not the same as "dummying down" a resume. Any recruiter who tells you to dummy down your resume is a recruiter you don't want representing you. This is the same kind of person that would sell your Lexus for you for $1000 to make a quick sale rather than get its full market worth.

The important thing about resumes is that you need to tell the truth, but you do not have to tell the whole truth. Every resume should be tailored for the specific job for which you apply. Tell them exactly how you are qualified for the job and no more. If your life's greatest achievement is not relevant to the job, then don't mention it no matter how proud of it you are.

The Unbalanced Resume

If experience has a half-life, then why would you ever want to put emphasis on older information in preference to new information?

The answer is that all experience is not equal. Let's put this into our hypothetical framework. Suppose that your current work has a "relevance factor" of 1 while the work you did three years ago is three times as applicable to the job as your current position. So we would give it a "relevance factor" of 3.

Now, it's aged, so it lost some of its relevance (about half of it) so it's still "worth" 1.5, meaning that you should spend about 50% more talking about it than your current postion.

My own resume reflects this imbalance. The position I held on my last job is less important for the positions for which I am applying than those I held on my previous two jobs. Therefore the past jobs get undue prominence. Attention paid to jobs before that drops off rapidly.

Obviously this is not an exact science. The presumption that experience has a half-life of 3 years is founded on nothing more than a hunch. Assigning "relevance factors" to your experiences is a totally subjective call on your part. So you have a fuzzy figure times another fuzzy figure yielding an even fuzzier figure.

However, the concept does provide general guidance on how to balance a resume in response to a particular position. Given the imprecision of the technique, the best way to measure if you have a balanced resume is by eyeball and a "feeling" that it fits the curve.