Why Your Past Experience Isn’t Going To Get You A Job

Whenever I see an interview question about “past experience,” I’m reminded of a classic cartoon that posed the question, “Is there any other kind?” But the point of this article should be crystal clear to all job seekers: Your “experience” is not going to get you a job. Related: The 'Skills Gap' Issue For Job Seekers I know! That’s what the majority of resume advice and sample resumes show. You start your resume by entering your name, address, phone number, e-mail – then start the next section of your resume by increasing the font size, clicking on “bold,” and keying “Experience.” This is then followed by a litany of your jobs, dates, titles, and job duties. I repeat, this is not going to get you a job – at least not a job with an organization that really wants to employ people who can meet the challenges of the position. It might not matter to organizations that are willing to hire anyone based on poor screening or someone who’s just able to pass the “mirror test” just to show you’re breathing.


So, What’s Wrong With Experiences?

The first problem with experience is typically “TMI” – too much information. Many job seekers just can’t stop when they start listing their different jobs. They list 10, 15, or even 20 job duties thinking, “I’ll list everything I did for this company in the last ten years.” Frequently, it reads more like a “to-do” list or job description. The problem with this (there are actually multiple problems) is that the laundry list is not going to tell me which of these items are the important ones. Are they the first ones listed, or the last, or are the important ones buried in the middle of the 20 items? When I coach people on their resumes, I usually uncover their most important item is rarely highlighted in any way. And for what seems a strange situation, it’s rarely if ever the first or second item listed. Another problem in the “too much information” category is experiences that are horribly out-of-date. I recently saw a resume of a 50-plus professional that included “experiences” from jobs he held in college. In addition, this resume included the high school he graduated from. There isn’t complete agreement on this point, but generally speaking details going back beyond 8-10 years are not particularly relevant. It can be deleted, or in some cases, summarized with just a couple of lines broadly describing multiple different experiences. The second problem is more serious. Laundry lists of experiences almost always lack specificity. I recently reviewed a resume with only short statements for each position, including mostly examples like the following:
  • Performed upgrades to...
  • Installed…
  • Performed troubleshooting…
  • Assembled…
Let’s take a more formal look at this “experience” issue, starting with a definition: Experience: Practical contact with and observation of facts or events. Synonyms: Involvement in, participation in, contact with, acquaintance with, exposure to, observation of, awareness of, insight into. No part of this definition indicates anything substantial from a competency standpoint: From a weak “involvement in” to an even weaker “awareness of.” One thing this does illustrate extremely well is the complete weakness of a resume stating “Experience with MS-Office.” What does that mean: Observation? Contact with? Awareness of? See related: Hiring Problem: The Lack Of Specificity In The Hiring Process

The Solution Is “Accomplishments”

Fortunately, the solution not only provides a better heading or “category” for a resume, it provides the guidance for significantly improving the content of a resume. Simply: Accomplishments! Let’s take a look at the definition: Accomplishment: a) Something that has been achieved successfully, b) the successful achievement of a task, c) an activity that a person can do well, typically as a result of study or practice. Synonyms: Achievement, exploit, performance, attainment, effort, feat. Although the conceptual difference shown here is very significant, putting it into practice is the important step. And unfortunately it’s a practice that many job seekers struggle with. While it’s probably easier to just list a lot of “experiences,” and it does require some extra work, it’s relatively easy to follow this three-step formula: 1. Action verbs: What was the achievement? Strong action verbs that create a “visual” in the mind of the recruiter are the best way to start every line in the “Accomplishment” section of your resume. 2. How? Here is where your “skills” come into play. Here’s where the “specificity” of what you actually did with a software program like MS-Office can be included. Here’s where your “strengths” can be included as contributing to the achievement. 3. Result? What was the objective, measurable result of this accomplishment? And here is where any recognition you received can be included. Receiving an award is neither an “experience” nor an “accomplishment.” It’s the recognition for something you achieved – it’s the “result” of an accomplishment. Here’s one example from a national restaurant manager:
Created a drink reminder system, developing a deck of recipes/instructions, which resulted in a 15% increase in drink sales with a 10% reduction in cost. System was implemented nationally for over 200 restaurants.
It requires more thought and effort to include “accomplishments” on resume than to just list “experiences.” But the accomplishments indicate to a hiring manager what you can do – not just what experiences you’ve “had.” And if you look at just the one example above, these are the types of statements that, as an interviewer, I want to know more about that accomplishment. It sparks curiosity and follow-up questions.

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About the author

Jim Schreier is a management consultant with a focus on management, leadership, including performance-based hiring and interviewing skills. Visit his website at www.farcliffs.com.     Disclosure: This post is sponsored by a CAREEREALISM-approved expert. You can learn more about expert posts here. Photo Credit: Shutterstock

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