5 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Describe Your Job Experience Chronologically

You’ve done it.

Your resume passed the test. A recruiter wants to schedule a phone interview to learn more about you. You’re one step closer to your dream job. Hooray!

Take a moment to celebrate. But don’t break out the bubbly quite yet. Patience, young grasshopper.

There’s a lot to think about when preparing for your first conversation with a company. It can be downright overwhelming! Research the organization, identify good questions to ask, brainstorm relevant stories from your past experience, think about how you want to present yourself… Where to even begin?!

The first step you should take is to figure out your answer to the question, “walk me through your resume” because there’s a 99.9% chance you’ll get a question along those lines.

As I’ve already mentioned, when you talk a recruiter through your past experience, you’ll want to assume they’ve never seen your resume before, do something to catch their attention right away, and start with an executive summary.

But there’s something else you can do to stand out even more, to go against the grain just a little bit.

A group of goldfish swimming with one swimming the wrong way

Begin With The End In Mind: Work Backwards

I love The Sound of Music. It was a staple of my childhood. But when Julie Andrews said, “let’s start at the very beginning,” she had it all wrong.

One of the worst phone interviews I’ve ever experienced started with the candidate saying, “I graduated from Rice University where I majored in Economics and Business.”

Ok, not inherently terrible…

But then the candidate proceeded to describe every single position she had held throughout her 15 year career — in detail and in chronological order — for twelve minutes out of a 20 minute phone interview. I had specifically asked for a brief, 2-3 minute description of her background. And I had explicitly mentioned that the interview would only be 20 minutes. I lost track of the number of times she said, “and then….and then….and then.”

Snoozer city.

By minute #4, my eyes had glazed over. She was still talking about experiences from 10+ years ago.

By minute #5, it was clear she hadn’t listened to my request for a 2-3 minute description.

And by minute #7, to be brutally honest, I wasn’t paying attention anymore.

Sure, I could have cut her off, but I learned a lot about her communication style, her inability to read others, and her (lack of) listening skills by letting her continue to talk.

Yes, she went into my reject pile. Did you really have to ask?

To avoid falling into this trap, don’t describe your prior job experience chronologically. Instead, begin with the present day and work backwards from there.

Why? Here are five interrelated reasons.

1. Relevancy

Your most recent job is almost certainly what’s most relevant to the position you’re interviewing for. This is the experience that matters most to me as your hiring manager, so please start here.

And if your current role isn’t what’s most relevant, start somewhere else.

2. Catch (and keep) my attention

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog, I’m highly distractible.

The more relevant I find the first few things out of your mouth, the more likely you are to hook me. Making a positive impression quickly is the only way to catch my interest and attention. And that is critical to get to the next round of interviews.

3. Spend time on what’s most relevant

If you’re like 99% of other human beings, you’ll go into the most detail about the first position or two that you mention when you describe your experience. It’s only natural.

This is a problem when you describe your background chronologically because then you’re spending the most time on the things you did the longest ago. No bueno.

4. Stay flexible – and speed up

Starting with what’s most relevant gives you flexibility.

I don’t want more than a 3-5 minute description of your background. (Admittedly this varies between hiring managers). If I have specific questions, I’ll ask you to elaborate.

Telling me first about your most recent position makes sure you can stay within whatever time constraints a recruiter sets and still convey the important information. You then have flexibility to speed up or to go into less detail with every subsequent position you describe.

Consider checking in with your recruiter explicitly as you go. Ask questions like, “Is this too much detail?” or “Do you want me to elaborate more?” That way, you can adapt to what they want on the fly.

5. Stand out from the crowd

95% of job candidates describe their past experience chronologically.

Simply starting from the present day and working backwards will set you apart, which makes you memorable. And that is always a good thing to improve your chance of getting to the next interview.

Or, if you really want to break the mold, don’t take a job-based approach to the description of your background. Instead, talk about your experience thematically. Woah! You rule breaker, you.

The Distracted Goldfish



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