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Top Resume Question: When to use past tense or present tense?

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When do I use past tense in my resume? When should I use present tense?

Past Tense or present tense VerbsFor the non-English majors, most of the time, past  tense is when you add the “ed” to a verb. Resumes are filled with action verbs but the past tense would be words like these:

  • Engineered
  • Designed
  • Created
  • Streamlined
  • Propelled
  • Cultivated
  • Centralized
  • Diversified
  • Enhanced
  • Except for some tricky ones like “wrote”

Present tense is the verb by itself without any “ed”s added. Like this:

  • Brainstorm
  • Champion
  • Strategize
  • Pinpoint
  • Pioneer
  • Reinvent
  • Spearhead
  • Accentuate
  • Document
  • Educate
  • Eliminate
  • Write

Clients come to me perplexed because “someone” told them they are doing it wrong even when I wrote the resume for them. Here’s my rule: In a past position, the action verb is always in the past tense. You are not in the job anymore, it is in your past.

What about my current job? What tense do I use?

However, in your present job or position, you may have a mix of past and present tense verbs. Huh? You’re thinking, that’s impossible!

Here are my thoughts: in your present job, there are some things you have completed and will never do again. If you researched and wrote the new sales training manual, it is done, hence the past tense verbs: researched and wrote. If you facilitated the merger of two organizations or companies, it is done. This leads us to the next question.

Am I still doing the task or action?

In your present position, you may still enhance and solidify client relationships or analyze client expenditures and create realistic budgets. You may also consistently evaluate productivity.

I know resume writers can differ and some put everything in the past tense but in my view, if you are still doing it, it belongs in present tense. In your past jobs, you need to make sure everything is past tense. When you update your resume and add a new position, be sure to check your tenses. Once you add the new one, all of the tenses need to be changed to past.

This way when you are ready to move on, your resume will be too. If all of this sounds complicated and you have no idea how to get the writing right much less capture your best accomplishments and showcase your value, then perhaps you need to hire me, a professional resume writer, whose clients get interviews and land their dream jobs.

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10 Responses to Top Resume Question: When to use past tense or present tense?

  1. You have shared a nice guideline of using past tense and present tense. Which are more useful and effective for Non-English people. Thanks for this great post.

    • You are welcome, Callum. That’s a good point, English is hard enough for English-speaking people and harder yet for people who are not born speaking the language.

  2. I’m glad to see your commentary on this, Julie.

    I know some writers put everything in the past tense, but that felt odd to me. With my clients’ current positions, I have done the same as you — provided a mix of past and present tense verbs based on if the activity is completed or not. It just feels more accurate.

    • I know that this practice does differ with some of the best writers in the business, which is why I explained my logic. One of the sayings in the industry is that the only rule is that there are no rules. While that isn’t entirely true, the consistency in applying whatever style you pick is a way to make sure that you create a compelling document that makes sense to others. Thanks so much for stopping by, Melissa!

  3. Julie, I follow your guidelines on past/present tense because they have always made sense to me and, I hoped, to others. I’m happy to know that other resume writers agree with me. Thanks for posting,

  4. Very interesting, I read and re-read my CV/resume but there are some things I never settle on and the tense of the things I do in my current job has long since been something that bothers me.

    I do wonder though, when I spend 4-5 hours on my CV and send it off, I am told that people review them in 30 seconds or so and then either decide to call someone in for an interview or not, if they will pick up on or even take an interest in such details?

    • Carly, very late reply but though the 30 seconds or less is true, it is more true for online or emailed applications to a blind or posted position. Email the same resume to a networking connection who cares about you, and you will get different results. Also the 30 seconds is not total time… it is the time the initial look happens. Most responsible hiring managers if using a quick look to cull the numbers, will later return to give your resume a better look. Hope this helps.

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