Relevant Experience: What Does It Mean On A Resume?

By Abby McCain and Experts
Aug. 16, 2022

Chances are, at some point in your job search you’ve come across a posting that mentions a required amount of “relevant experience.”

What does this mean and why do employers seem to always want you to have 2-4 years of this experience in order to be considered for an entry-level job?

Before you use this requirement as a reason not to apply for a job that you’re otherwise perfect for, you should make sure that you really understand what they mean by “relevant experience.” You may just have more than you think you do.

Key Takeaways:

  • Relevant experience is any professional experience related to the job you apply to and can include former jobs, volunteer experience, and internships.

  • Highlight your skills and experience on your resume while providing relevant specifics.

  • When listing years of relevant experience, consider how experience transfers between jobs.

  • A portfolio of work can help show your skills if you do not have relevant experience.

  • Relevant experience usually pertains to hard skills related to the job.

Relevant Experience: What Does It Mean On A Resume?

What Is Relevant Experience?

Relevant experience refers to your past work history, specifically jobs that are related to the job you’re applying for. It’s what employers are most concerned about when they read your resume and job application.

While some of your relevant experience may come from working in roles similar to the one you’re applying for, it doesn’t have to. It could also come from a totally unrelated job, a class, or some volunteer work you did.

If you worked at a soup kitchen for the summer, for example, you probably learned just as much about customer service, event planning, and inventory management as someone who worked in an office job for the same amount of time.

If you look at a job posting and think, “Yes, I could definitely do that,” there’s usually a reason for this. You just need to convince the hiring managers that you can as well.

Read on to find out how to do this effectively.

What Qualifies as Relevant Experience?

  • Former jobs. This is probably the first thing that comes to mind when most people consider relevant experience. Paid employment is often the most valuable form of relevant experience.

  • Contract work. Even if you weren’t an employee of a company, working as a contractor or freelancer certainly counts as relevant experience (as long as the contract work relates to the job you’re applying for). In fact, working with a wide range of clients may give you a broader range of relevant experience to draw upon.

  • Internships. Regardless of whether you got paid or not, internships show that you’ve worked in a real-world setting. The skills you pick up during an internship are invaluable and will be worth more to a hiring manager or recruiter than your GPA. As you get later in your career, you can start dropping internships from your resume.

  • Volunteer experience. Volunteering does more than show your compassion and ability to dedicate yourself to a larger cause free of charge. Depending on the volunteer position, it can also show that you have relevant background experience.

  • Coursework/tutoring. By coursework we mean big projects, theses, and other impressive work that goes beyond the normal university experience. Things like this show a deep knowledge of the field and a precociousness in being able to apply that knowledge somehow.

    Tutoring also shows subject matter expertise, while also demonstrating that you have the patience and communication skills to transmit that information to students.

How to Share Your Relevant Work Experience

When hiring managers create a job posting, they put everything they would love to have from an employee on it, even though they know they probably won’t be able to have it all. This means that even if you don’t check every box, you can still apply for the job.

This is especially true if the only box you’re missing is the length of your experience.

If you know you would be a good fit for the position, you need to sell yourself to the hiring manager through your resume, cover letter, and interview. It’s even more important to put some extra effort into putting your best foot forward if you don’t have traditionally related job experience.

Here are some ways to go about doing this:

  1. Comb through the job description. Start by going line by line through the required skills on the job posting and writing down which ones you have experience in and which ones you don’t. If you don’t have experience in a large number of them and don’t think that you could handle the position, that may be a sign that it’s time to move on to a different posting.

  2. If you have experience in most of them, though, determine where you got it. Was it at your last job when you were covering for your coworker for a month? Or was it during that volunteer work you did last summer? Write this down so that you know what you’ll need to include on your resume.

  3. Highlight relevant skills on your resume. The required skills on a job posting are what hiring managers really want to see in applicants’ resumes. This means that you should focus on including the skills and experiences that are listed on the posting.

    You can and should include your other major responsibilities and accomplishments from past jobs as well, but prioritize the ones they’re looking for by putting them first and keeping them when you need to cut out items to save space.

    This is especially important if some of your experience comes from jobs that are unrelated to the one you’re applying for, because the hiring manager probably doesn’t care what else you did there if it won’t help you with this new position.

    Make sure you provide as many specific numbers, statistics, and examples that highlight your accomplishments as possible. Hiring managers don’t really care about the day-to-day duties you performed; they want to know what impact you had on the company’s success, and the more context you can give them, the better.

  4. Match the specifics on the job description. Tailor your resume so that it matches the wording on the job description so that hiring managers can easily find what they’re looking for. This will also help you get your resume through automatic screening programs that are designed to scan for keywords.

    Go through the list of desired qualifications and make sure that you hit every one that you can and that you used the same wording they did. Even if this means you list eight jobs with two bullet points apiece, if you can show that you meet all of the requirements on the job posting you’ll give yourself a much better chance of landing an interview.

    You may need to cut out irrelevant experience to make room for all of these.

  5. Write a compelling cover letter. One of the best places to sell yourself is in your cover letter. You can paint a picture of how your past experience has prepared you for this new role more easily here than you sometimes can in a resume.

  6. When you are preparing to write your cover letter, put together a list of anecdotes that demonstrate how you’ve learned and used the skills they’re looking for.

    For example, if the position you’re applying for requires customer service skills, tell about the time that you calmed the fears of nervous parents when they dropped off their kids at the summer camp where you worked, or talk about how you handled requests from other departments in your last job.

    Have more of these examples ready to go for your interview as well. Always include how you’re able to teach yourself these new skills too, because this shows that you can quickly grow in the areas where your experience may be lacking.

  7. Ace your interview. Resumes and cover letters are great for getting yourself in the door, but discussing your relevant experience in real-time is the ultimate test.

    Hiring managers know that you have all the time in the world to prepare your application documents. But when you have to discuss your specific background and how it’s prepared you for the role at hand, recruiters will be able to tell the difference between someone who’s truly ready for the job and someone who needs to get some more years of relevant experience under their belt.

How Many Years of Relevant Experience Do You Have?

Often job descriptions list the number of years of experience that they want their applicants to have. When you’re calculating if you fit this number or not, make sure you don’t just focus on the amount of time you worked in a similar job.

That summer you spent waiting tables taught you organization, teamwork, and customer service just as much as a formal role in customer service would have. Your time writing for the university newspaper in college is experience in communications, and the internship you did in a slightly different role than the one you’re applying for still helped you understand the basics of what you’re going to be doing.

Don’t stretch the truth, as any dishonesty will quickly become apparent with a few interview questions, but don’t sell yourself short, either. If you’re just short of the minimum amount listed on the description, don’t let this keep you from applying, especially if you truly believe that you could do the job

Remember, the job description is a wish list, not a list of laws.

At the same time, it’s important to be reasonable. Know that if the listed range is 5-10 years and you barely have two, it might not be the best fit for you. Look instead for entry-level jobs that are looking for 3-5 years instead.

What If I Don’t Have Relevant Experience?

If you’re just entering the workforce or are changing your career path, it can be difficult to meet the requirements for relevant experience, but it isn’t impossible.

Consider the following scenarios:

  • Changing careers. If you’re switching to a new career, think through what you’ve learned in your past jobs and how it will help you with this new one. You might have more relevant qualifications than a lot of the greener applicants the company is seeing, and the company may appreciate the fresh perspective that you bring to the table.

  • Recent college graduate. If you are a recent college graduate, projects you completed in your classes can also count as relevant experience. Get creative in how you highlight these opportunities. Be careful not to lie, but you can play around with the wording on your resume to make sure you get your point across.

  • Portfolio. If you’re able to share a portfolio of your past work, this can also help you sell yourself. Remember, your job is to convince the hiring manager that you are the best person for this position.

  • Gain additional experience. If you still find yourself coming up short, it might be time to be intentional about getting yourself some more relevant experience. Take a class or two at your community college, or ask if you can shadow someone in a position similar to what you want to do and offer to help them out for free.

  • Network. Find someone who has worked their way up the ladder in the industry you want to enter, and ask them what they would do in your shoes. You might be surprised by how many people are willing to help you if you demonstrate your willingness to push yourself and grow.

Hard Skills, Soft Skills, and Relevant Experience

When hiring managers express a desire for relevant experience, what they’re most concerned with is a candidate’s hard skills.

Hard skills are job or industry-specific skills that require training or learning, and they’re usually built upon in a somewhat linear fashion.

While some hard skills are relatively simple to learn, others may genuinely take thousands of hours of practice to become proficient in. Being able to honestly insert these rare and valuable hard skills in your resume’s skills section will do a lot to sell your relevant experience.

Soft skills, on the other hand, refer to your interpersonal abilities and intangible qualities that make you a good employee and teammate. Organization, communication, and problem-solving are all soft skills.

These types of skills are highly transferable. For jobs where soft skills are especially important for success (e.g., sales, customer service, etc.), putting down such skills can be just as valuable as highlighting prowess with industry-specific hard skills.

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Abby McCain

Abby is a writer who is passionate about the power of story. Whether it’s communicating complicated topics in a clear way or helping readers connect with another person or place from the comfort of their couch. Abby attended Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she earned a degree in writing with concentrations in journalism and business.


Don Pippin, MHRM, CPRW, CDCS

Don Pippin is an executive and HR leader for Fortune 50 and 500 companies and startups. In 2008, Don launched area|Talent with a focus on helping clients identify their brand. As a Certified Professional Resume Writer, Certified Digital Career Strategist, and Certified Personal Branding Strategist, Don guides clients through career transitions.

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