What Is “Relevant Experience”? (A Job Seekers Guide)

By Mike Simpson

If you’ve ever read any job seeker advice, you’ve probably heard one thing; showcase your relevant experience. It’s at the core of most resume-writing and interview preparation recommendations… and for good reason.

The thing is, if you’re wondering, “What is relevant experience?” then you might struggle to put that advice into action. Luckily, you don’t have to wonder anymore. We’re about to take a deep dive into the world of relevant experience, including what it is, why it matters, and how to figure out what you bring to the table that qualifies.

Let’s get started.

What Is Relevant Experience?

Alright, first, let’s answer the big question; what is relevant experience, anyway? Usually, relevant experience is past work, volunteering, or educational experiences from your past that qualify you for a position.

Now, this can be jobs that were in the same field or niche, time you spent studying a major that aligns with the role, or volunteering in the exact kind of position. However, it doesn’t have to be.

Any of the activities and time spent in a position that gave you the skills, traits, and understanding necessary to take on a job count, regardless of where that experience came from. This includes jobs in completely different industries, volunteer work outside of the field, or academic pursuits that focused on another subject. What makes the experience relevant is your ability to apply what you learned to the role you want to land.

Why is Relevant Experience Important?

When a hiring manager is trying to fill a job, their goal is to find a candidate who can handle the duties and responsibilities, meet or exceed expectations, and otherwise flourish in the position. That’s what they are trying to do, period.

The thing is, that can be surprisingly tricky. After all, they can only learn some much about a job seeker before they have to make a decision. And that’s why hiring managers look for relevant experience. If they can find someone with relevant experience, the odds of them being a match go up dramatically.

But relevant experience doesn’t just help hiring managers make decisions; it can also help you land a new position. Overall, about 70 percent of professionals are either looking for a new job or thinking about launching a job search. Now, you aren’t facing off against them all, but you are going to go against some of them; and that’s why relevant experience matters.

Wait, how do those two things go together? Well, no matter what, you’re probably dealing with some competition. You aren’t the only one applying to any particular job opening. Instead, you’re one of many, and you’ll need to find a way to stand out from the crowd.

Relevant experience is one way to potentially set yourself apart. If you can show the hiring manager that what you’ve done before directly relates to the job description, you are positioning yourself as a strong match. That works in your favor.

But wouldn’t other candidates also have relevant experience? Sure, some of them will. The thing is, on average, 42 percent of resumes companies get for a specific opening don’t meet the skill requirements for a position. By spotlighting relevant experience that shows you do, you can move yourself ahead of that group of applicants. Neat, right?

How to Find Relevant Experience in Your Past

So, now you understand the importance of showing your relevant experience. But how do you figure out which of your experiences count? By using the right approach.

Here’s a step-by-step process for identifying relevant work experience in your past.

Review the Job Description for Skills and Traits

Alright, the first step has nothing to do with what you’ve done before. Instead, it’s all about learning what the hiring manager needs to find. After all, their perspective determines relevance, not yours.

Begin by bringing up the job description for the job you’re trying to land. Look at it carefully, identifying every skill and trait the hiring manager thinks is vital for a new hire’s success. Usually, you’ll find most of them in the must-haves list, though there may be some in other places, so give the whole thing a good once over.

As you find them, add the skills and traits to a running list. That way, you won’t lose track of them.

Reread the Job Description for Duties and Responsibilities

You’re probably thinking, “What? We’re not done with the job description yet?” Well, the answer is no.

Yes, the skills and traits are important. But there are still more you can learn if you keep digging.

Take a hard look at any of the duties and responsibilities in the job description. This gives you more clues about what the hiring manager is after, as well as some indications of what kind of experience they’ll consider relevant. It’s just one more resource that can help you when you update your resume, so go through the job description again.

When you find duties and responsibilities, add them to your skills and traits list. This can make them easier to track when it comes time to update your resume.

Go Through Your Resume Looking for Matches

Now that you have an idea of what the hiring manager thinks are priorities, pull up your resume, and look for matches. This can be skills or traits you have, as well as accomplishments that align with the duties and responsibilities. So, don’t neglect a single sentence or bullet point.

MIKE'S TIP: If you want an easy way to keep track of your matches, put your list of skills, traits, duties, and responsibilities from the job ad in a document on your computer. Then, bring up a copy of your master resume on your computer. Start with the first item on the list and highlight it in a specific color. Then, review your resume and, when you find a match, highlight it the same color. Go back to your list, and highlight the next item in a new color. Return to your resume, and highlight those matches in the second color. Keep going until you’ve tackled the whole list.

If there’s a skill, trait, duty, or responsibility that you can’t find a match for on your resume, don’t panic. We’re going to talk about what to do there coming up in a minute.

Spend Some Time Reflecting

After giving your resume a once over, one of two things may happen. One, you might have a matching example for every item on your list. If so, that’s great; you’re obviously a strong candidate.

However, even if you don’t have a match for everything, that doesn’t mean you’re a bad fit. Instead, it’s time to spend some time reflecting.

Choose one of the items from your list that isn’t represented in your resume. Then, spend some time thinking about your experience and accomplishments. It’s possible there’s a match that just wasn’t on your resume before, so dig deep and see if you can find one.

As you do, don’t focus solely on your work experience. Volunteering, academic, freelancing, and similar kinds of experience count, too.

If you can think of an example, jot it down. Then, move onto the next item on your list that you need to try to cover. Keep going until you’ve found as many new matches as possible.

Determine If You’re a Good Fit

Now, there’s a good chance you don’t have an example or relevant experience for everything that was on your list. And that’s okay. You don’t have to match everything to be a worthwhile candidate.

Generally, if you have about 75 percent of what the hiring manager is after, you’re in pretty good shape. You may even land an interview with 50 percent of the requirements, especially if you have hard-to-find, in-demand skills.

So, see how much of the must-haves you cover. If you’re at or above the 50 percent mark, then go ahead and apply. If not, then you may be better off finding a different opportunity.

Using the Tailoring Method to Highlight Relevant Experience

Alright, at this point, you have quite a few examples of your relevant experience. But how do you highlight them in a way that matters? After all, your goal is the catch the hiring manager’s eye, and you don’t want to leave things to chance.

Luckily, there’s a great strategy that is designed to make highlighting your relevant experience easier. Say hello to the Tailoring Method

We’ve covered the Tailoring Method in-depth before, but the gist is that the Tailoring Method is a tool for highlighting the skills, traits, and experiences that the hiring manager values most. It ensures that your interview answers and resume are as targeted to their needs and preferences as possible. And, when you use that approach, your odds of standing out go up tons.

How to Highlight Relevant Experience in Your Resume

Is it time for you to update your resume, and you aren’t entirely sure how to make your relevant experience shine? No worries. We’ve got you. Here’s a step-by-step approach for revamping your resume to make sure your relevant experience is center stage.

Update (or Add) Your Professional Summary

A professional summary sits right below your contact information on your resume. It’s a spot to highlight what you bring to the table, using just a sentence or two to showcase the best of what you have to offer.

When you update or write your professional summary, choose an achievement or highlight that matches with a top must-have from the job description. That way, you can emphasize that you’re a great fit right away.

Rework Your Skills Section

After a professional summary, many candidates have a short skills section. Review yours and make sure that any must-have skills and traits make an appearance here. When you include a skill, use the same words and phrases you see in the job ad. This increases the odds that automated screeners will see you as a match, so it’s an important step.

Also, remove any that aren’t a match to your target role, ensuring the important ones are spotlighted.

Update Your Work History

Next, it’s time to rework the bread and butter of every resume: the work history section. What you want to do is review all of your current bullet points so that you can focus on those that match the job description.

In some cases, you’ll need to add or rephrase points to emphasize that you’re a great fit. Just like with the skills section, you want to use the same words and terms you see in the job description, increasing the odds that resume screeners see you as a strong candidate.

Additionally, focus on accomplishments over tasks. When you include an achievement instead, it really shows that you can shine when you put your skills to work. It’s a much more compelling approach and, since most hiring managers are going to review dozens of resumes, that matters.

If a bullet point you used previously isn’t a match for the job you want to snag, you may want to delete it. That’s especially true if your resume is getting too long or that piece of information doesn’t provide the hiring manager with value. In the end, you’ll have a more focused resume, and that’s important.

What to Do If You’re a “Freshie”

Alright, you might be wondering, “If I haven’t worked in a similar job to what I’m trying to land, am I out of luck?” Well, the answer is, no, you aren’t out of luck.

Recent graduates who studied a relevant major may have plenty of relevant experience earned during their education. School projects and assignments can qualify, as well as internship or research experiences.

Side work, freelancing, and personal projects may also count. Volunteer experiences are another go-to source when you need to list relevant experience.

Ultimately, relevant experience can come from anywhere. You don’t have to have a past position in the same field or industry, a degree in that particular niche, or anything else for your experience to be relevant.

Why not? Because there’s such a thing as transferable skills.

Transferable skills are capabilities you picked up that can help you excel in other kinds of jobs, fields, or industries. They might be crucial traits – like leadership and attention-to-detail – as well as widely-needed capabilities.

If you don’t have a ton of matching experience, you’re still not out of luck. Enthusiasm, passion, and a willingness to learn can go a long way. Many companies are willing to train new hires who are excited about the field and have the right base skillset. So, even if you’re only a partial match for the job, that doesn’t mean you might not land it.

Putting It All Together

Ultimately, relevant experience is a bit in the eye of the beholder. However, by using the tips above, you can figure out what the hiring manager is looking for, as well as what you bring to the table that’s a great match. That way, you can showcase yourself as the exceptional candidate you are, increasing the odds that you’ll land your dream position.

Good luck!

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About The Author

Mike Simpson

Co-Founder and CEO of TheInterviewGuys.com. Mike is a job interview and career expert and the head writer at TheInterviewGuys.com. His advice and insights have been shared and featured by publications such as Forbes, Entrepreneur, CNBC and more as well as educational institutions such as the University of Michigan, Penn State, Northeastern and others. Learn more about The Interview Guys on our About Us page.