What Should You Keep on Your Resume? 10 Questions That Decide What to Cut

Resume writing can be a daunting process at any stage of your career. The challenge of encapsulating your credentials into a tight, powerful document that quickly commands the attention of hiring managers can stress even the most seasoned job hunters.

And the problem only intensifies as you progress in your career. For anybody who’s been in the workplace for more than a decade, there’s almost certainly a mountain of possibilities of what to include. Making it even more difficult is the speed and decisiveness of the recruiting process. It’s largely a process of elimination, and your resume only gets a few seconds to make the cut.

These things are true in pretty much all fields. But professionals in higher education seem to struggle with them even more than most. Career coach Susan Peppercorn knows this well. “Many of the academic administrators I work with have a hard time trying to decide what experience to eliminate from their resume,” she says. “In the case of one client, an assistant dean, she had an eight-page resume that started with her education, 25-years prior.”

Experts like Peppercorn have developed a keen eye for distilling the often lengthy parts of an academic professional’s career into a concise resume that quickly guides hiring managers to the most compelling points. It’s a hard-earned skill that comes from looking at thousands of resumes.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t apply the same rigorous methods to your own resume. Although you may not be able to master the level of insight of an experienced career coach, you can use some of the same techniques in deciding what to keep and what to cut from your resume.

Start by asking these key questions:

Is It a Highlight or History?
Many people consider their resume to be essentially just a straightforward recounting of their career – a written history. But this is only partially true. Yes, a resume has the chronology and details of history. But a resume should be far more selective in what it presents. “Resumes have moved from work history summaries to strategic marketing documents in today’s times,” says career coach and resume writer Wendi M. Weiner. “Since the average employer spends less than 10 seconds reviewing your resume, it is imperative that it captivates the reader’s attention in a short time span with a focus on results and accomplishments.”

Is It a Fact or Your Own Opinion?
Facts will always speak much more powerfully than opinions. This is especially true in higher education, where there’s generally more emphasis on objective thinking. Therefore, it’s best to leave personal assessments off your resume. “Keep in mind that your resume will be reviewed by a critical eye looking for specific details about your skills and background,” says Carol Cochran, director of people and culture for FlexJobs. “Skip the creative writing that describes your dedication, motivation, and love of learning new things. You can share those qualities in an interview.”

Is It an Accomplishment or a Responsibility?
The responsibilities of your job are probably identical to that of hundreds of other candidates. As the generic day-to-day baseline of your position, your responsibilities don’t do anything to highlight your unique advantages. In contrast, accomplishments stand out. They’re your own personal stamp on your work. “Build your resume around what you’ve accomplished instead of using language from your job description,” says career coach and resume writer Michelle L. Merritt. “Whether you are a member of the faculty or staff, the goal of your resume is to showcase what you’ve accomplished, making the reader interested in what you can accomplish for their organization.”

Do You Have Facts to Back It Up?
While you’re looking through your resume for accomplishments to highlight, keep an eye out for facts, figures, and details; they’re the key to drawing out the real power of what you’ve achieved. “Prove your value by including impressive results that you have achieved for both yourself and your past employers,” says Andrew Fennel, founder of StandOut CV and a regular careers writer for “The Guardian.” “Try to back these achievements up with figures where possible. For example – ‘Secured $200k funding for research’ or ‘Achieved 98% student pass rate.’”

How Old Is It?
The older something is, the less it matters on your resume. A good rule of thumb is that if a job or accomplishment is more than 10 years old, cut your discussion of it down to the bare minimum, even if it pertains to the job you’re applying for. It’s your current position that does most of the heavy lifting on your resume. Hiring managers assume you had the qualifications to get the job you have now. So experience that’s more than a decade old on your resume should get only a very basic mention – perhaps just the job title, institution, dates, and maybe a few strong accomplishments. Doing this frees room to say more about your most recent experience, which is what really counts.

Did the Job Posting Ask Specifically for It?
If something is listed as part of a job posting and you can legitimately say you’ve done it, it’s an easy decision – leave it in there, or you could miss out. For that reason, you should always tailor your resume by going through the job posting to find skills, experience, and accomplishments you can honestly claim. But make sure you phrase your experience in the exact language of the posting when you include it in your resume. Otherwise it could be missed or overlooked, particularly by automated screening systems.

Is It Something You’ve Had Published?
The mantra “publish or perish” is so widely regarded as fact in academic circles that higher ed professionals are often afraid to edit their list of publications or move them off the resume onto a separate document. Although obviously important, your publications can clutter up a resume and severely dilute the immediate impact it needs to be effective. “For senior administration positions, it’s more important to showcase your management and leadership experience rather than academic expertise, making the list of publications less relevant,” says Peppercorn. “These can always be included in an addendum.”

Does It Apply to Your Overall Career Goal, or Distract from It?
Look at how each particular piece of your resume fits into the overall direction you’re trying to take your career. Then carefully prune out the pieces that don’t reinforce what you’re aiming for. In some cases, that can sting a bit – you may have to leave off some accomplishments you’re proud of if they don’t fit with what you want to do in the future. “Remove anything that hurts your candidacy or is a distraction,” says Lavie Margolin author of “Winning Answers to 500 Interview Questions.” “Focus only on your most appropriate experience.”

Did You like It or Hate It?
After asking these questions of the various elements on your resume, you should by this point have eliminated a lot of the weaker parts and beefed up the stronger components. But a crucial question remains: How did you feel when you did those things? It’s important to consider, because if you include something on your resume, you may be expected to do it again. If it was an unpleasant experience, you could be faced with the difficult decision of turning down a job offer or taking a position that makes you miserable. Not a good choice.

Is It the Truth?
This last one should be an unspoken given. Did it really happen? And did it really happen like that? No matter how precisely something on your resume fits the above criteria, if you’re stretching the truth, correct it or leave it off altogether. “Applicants should remember that the world is a much smaller place these days and it is easier than ever to verify information,” says Cochran. “Resist the urge to inflate – or flat-out lie about – your experiences. Chances are good that the facts will come out. The job search process can be difficult under the best of circumstances; there’s no need to add the stigma of dishonesty to your name.”

If you rigorously ask these questions of all the experience you list on your resume, you should end up with a highly focused set of credentials that are unique, relevant, recent, and supported with details. When you reach this point of refinement in your resume, you won’t have to resort to shallow fluff such as “team player,” “dedicated,” or “committed to excellence.”

And, as the most successful job hunters have proven over and over again, well presented truth is the best way to cut through clutter and win the day.