Should a Resume be Written in Past or Present Tense?

Walter Rosenfeld

4 min read

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This article was written for Zipjob as a guest post by Walt Rosenfeld.

I’ve been writing resumes for about ten years. I’ve done them for waitresses and teachers and art professors and private equity entrepreneurs and every profession in between. And I’ve been asked some, well, fantastical questions. Why is my resume all one font? Should some text be different colors? What about highlighting?

All of that may sound more like a flyer for a band, but a more common question I’ve been asked is: Past tense? Or present tense? When every bullet point should start with a verb, the right verb tense is critical.

Past vs. present tense on a resume

While the differences are subtle, the answer is – past tense for past work experience and present tense for current job duties. (Tip: accomplishments should always be in past tense.)

Let’s look at the difference here:

  • Coordinating the cross-functional operations for dozens of products in quarterly and monthly ship events.

  • Coordinated the cross-functional operations for dozens of products in quarterly and monthly ship events.

Coordinating says you haven’t done it yet, that you are still in the process of doing it.

Coordinated says this is something you’ve done, it’s an accomplishment.

You think I’m just being a know-it-all writer, huh? Prevaricating over a small point that makes little no difference. Well, when recruiters spend all of six seconds deciding if your resume is worthy or not, there is no such thing as a small difference.

The most common reason I’ve heard for not using past tense is that someone is doing something now, in their current role, and they want to be seen as doing something. And if your resume is all tasks, well… I’m willing to admit that present vs. past tense isn’t as impactful.

But – if your resume is about accomplishments, about measurable achievements, then the use of present tense is awkward. Let’s look at a list of more than one bullet.

  • Coordinating the cross-functional operations...

  • Reducing the review period 50% ...

  • Leading meetings, including scrums with a wide-range of stakeholders, including…

  • Decreasing cycle time 60%...

  • Implementing process changes for 33% better..

Notice how throwing a number in the bullet makes the present tense look weak. Like you’re trying to decrease cycle time, buuut… ya just can’t quite git ‘er done. And here are the same bullets in the past tense:

  • Coordinated the cross-functional operations...

  • Reduced the review period 50% ...

  • Led meetings, including scrums with a wide-range of stakeholders, including…

  • Decreased cycle time 60%...

  • Implemented process changes for 33% better…

Hey, lookee there – yer a rockstar! Look at what you did. So why not put the measurable items in the past, and the others in the present tense? Let’s see what that would look like:

  • Coordinating the cross-functional operations...

  • Reduced the review period 50% ...

  • Leading meetings, including scrums with a wide-range of stakeholders, including…

  • Decreased cycle time 60%...

  • Implemented process changes for 33% better…

It reads as uneven, unbalanced. Yo-yoing to and fro. You did this, but you’re still doing that. It’s difficult and exhausting to read. And besides, even it’s an on-going activity, you have done that work, right? So give yourself credit where credit is due. It’s an interview; if you don’t do it, the busy HR person certainly isn’t going to.

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Summary

When to use past or present tense on a resume

So remember – make your resume about measurable accomplishments and that past tense gives you credit for those accomplishments.

Related posts:

This article was originally posted in 2017 by a former Zipjob blog contributor and has been updated to reflect our current editorial standards.



Written by

Walter Rosenfeld

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