3 key takeaways
- When to use past or present tense in your resume
- Additional tips for impactful resumes
- How Teal’s AI Resume Builder helps you create a well-written resume
Resume writing is an art as much as it is a science. However, if you want to create a resume and cover letter that stands out to recruiters and hiring managers, there are a few standards you need to follow.
One of those standards is making sure it’s written in the right tense.
So, should you write in past or present tense in your resume? Below, you’ll learn whether to write your resume in the present or past tense—plus some other helpful writing tips for a well-polished resume.
What's the difference between past and present tense?
Before diving into the how, let's go over the what. You probably haven’t thought much about verb tenses since high school or college. However, most people use them every day without thinking about them.
If you’re describing something that already took place, you use past tense verbs—for example, “I went to the store,” “I saw a bear,” or “I enjoyed some dessert .”
Present tense verbs describe what’s happening now. “I am going to the store,” “I see a bear,” and “I enjoy some dessert.”
When to use past tense on your resume
Your resume largely describes your past accomplishments, work experience, and previous jobs, so most of it will be in the past tense. Here are three sections that should use the past tense:
Past work experience
This section of your resume outlines past positions and should be written entirely in the past tense.
For example, you might include a bullet point that states, “Developed and executed comprehensive marketing campaigns for Company XYZ.” Make sure you use past tense consistently throughout your resume and don't switch back and forth between past and present.
Past awards and achievements
You should always use past tense when describing awards or achievements because those achievements only happen once—you don’t continually earn them. For example, an entry in this section might read, “Awarded Salesperson of the Quarter for achieving the highest sales figures at Company XYZ in Q3 2021.”
For many people, education is a lifelong process. But any degrees or certifications you’ve already earned should be described in the past tense. “Earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from University XYZ” is one example of how you might write the entries for this section.
When to use present tense on your resume
While past tense makes sense in several sections of your resume, there are a few places where present tense is the way to go. Let’s cover a few areas where it makes sense to use present tense on your resume.
You should use past tense when describing past jobs, but you’ll need to use present tense when describing your current position and current job.
For example, say you’re a software developer describing your current responsibilities. You might say, “Analyze and optimize application performance to improve the user experience and customer satisfaction.”
Any ongoing projects that you are currently still involved in should be described using the present tense as well. For example, you could say, “Leading a cross-functional team in the design and development of a custom applicant tracking system.”
Skills and abilities
The "Skills" section of your resume describes your current hard abilities, like tools and technical aptitudes. It doesn't need to focus on a tense but rather just list the names of the tools themselves.
Soft skills (like communication and organization) should be used alongside impact in various sections of your resume so they’re best reflected in the same tense as that specific section.
Volunteer or extracurricular activities
For activities, volunteer work, or non-profit board positions you currently hold, you should use the present tense, since you’re actively engaged in those activities.
(If you’re looking for inspiration, check out these 1,300+ resume examples to guide you.)
When to use both past and present tense
There is one section of your resume where you will likely need to mix tenses: the resume professional summary.
The "Professional Summary" section of your resume describes both past work experience and your current job duties, skills, and responsibilities. This means that you’ll likely need a combination of past and present tense when writing this section.
Present tense for ongoing responsibilities
Tasks that are part of your current job description should be in the present tense. For example, you may state that you “lead a marketing team” to describe your current role and responsibilities.
Past tense for completed tasks
When you describe projects that you’ve completed, even if they’re part of your current job, you should use the past tense. For example, you might say you “boosted sales by 20% in one month” in one paragraph to describe a past accomplishment.
Supplementary writing tips for resumes
Using the correct tense is an important part of creating a professional, well-written resume—but it isn’t the only thing to keep in mind. Here are a few others to make your resume shine.
When in doubt, use past tense
When in doubt, past tense is usually the way to go. For one, past tense will be the most appropriate choice for most of the content in your resume. Even in cases where present tense is technically more appropriate, writing in past tense on a resume is still acceptable.
Use active voice
In sentences written using active voice, the subject does the action. For example, “The chef prepared a delicious meal” is written in an active voice. “A delicious meal was prepared by the chef” would be the passive-voice version.
Active voice is typically preferred in writing since it tends to be more direct, concise, and easier to understand—and this is true for resume writing as well.
Incorporate strong action verbs
Strong action verbs can make your accomplishments more eye-catching and impressive. Here are just a few great action verbs for your resume:
If you find yourself using overused verbs like “managed” or “implemented,” replace them with strong synonyms that pack a punch to make your resume more powerful and memorable.
Keep parallel structure for bullet points
All bullets in a list should follow the same grammatical format to maintain a more professional and concise parallel structure.
For example, instead of writing…
- Managed a team of developers
- Implementing new software solutions
- Meeting with clients to gather requirements
…you would want to use a parallel structure like this:
- Managed a team of developers
- Implemented new software solutions
- Conducted meetings with clients to gather requirements
Make sure that you follow the same grammatical conventions throughout your bulleted list.
Spell check and proofread
Some of the best career advice is to carefully read your resume for spelling, grammar, and formatting issues before submitting it to a potential employer or hiring manager.
While a single typo or slightly incorrect resume punctuation might not sink your chances of getting the job, a resume rife with mistakes will reflect poorly on your professionalism and attention to detail.
To help catch these mistakes, Teal has a built-in spelling and grammar tool to help you get it right every time—without having to download (or pay for!) a separate software or service.
Image: Grammar check tool
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