Should A Resume Tense Be Past Or Present?

By Chris Kolmar - Mar. 5, 2021

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Figuring out what to put on your resume is complicated enough without having to make sure you’re using all of the right grammatical nuances, but this attention to detail can be the difference between a polished resume and a muddy one.

One of the most common questions about resume grammar is which verb tense you should use in your resume.

The Difference Between Past Tense and Present Tense

Because it’s probably been a while since you were in an English class, here’s a quick review of the differences between past tense and present tense verbs:

  1. Past tense verbs describe events that have already happened. Generally, these words end in -ed, but some, like “sang” or “went,” don’t.

    Past tense doesn’t include the word “have,” and instead simply uses the verb on its own. So, when you’re writing in past tense on your resume, you’d say, “Coordinated,” instead of “Have coordinated.”

  2. Present tense verbs describe events that are currently happening. They can also describe events or actions that happen continually. These verbs typically don’t have any endings, but some end with -s.

    For example, you’d say, “I make,” and “she makes.” Since you should be writing your resume in the first person but without any pronouns, you’d simply say, “Make.”

Using Past Tense in Your Resume

The rule for using past tense in your resume is simple: Write in the past tense when you’re talking about something that happened in the past.

This means that you use past tense for any accomplishments that you achieved, degrees or certifications you earned, training sessions you completed, responsibilities you used to hold, and volunteer work you used to do.

Here are some examples of this:

  • Earned administrative assistant certification.

  • Exceeded sales goals by 25% in 2020.

  • Wrote and edited 25 memos each week for corporate offices.

  • Handled over 30 customer service questions and complaints each day.

  • Received recognition for excellence in innovation from CEO.

Since the majority of the actions on your resume happened in the past, you should write the majority of your resume in the past tense.

What are tips for listing experience on a resume?

Lexi N. Albrecht
JohnLeonard Employment Services

Three quick tips:

  1. Your resume should never be written in third person. Use first person, but leave out the pronouns “I”, “Me”, and “My”
  2. Organize your responsibilities in a bulleted list
  3. At the beginning of each bullet point use present tense action verbs for current positions or activities and past tense action verbs for those which are completed

Using Present Tense in Your Resume

Just as you use past tense to write about events that have already happened, you use present tense to write about actions that are currently taking place.

This applies to the responsibilities you’re actively performing in your current job and any volunteer work or activities you’re still participating in.

You can see this in these examples:

  • Oversee projects for eight teams within the department.

  • Edit an average of 15 novella drafts per week.

  • Create and manage social media advertising campaigns on four platforms for three different products.

  • Volunteer with Thursday Night Lights once a week to feed the homeless.

  • Teach at a local tutoring center twice a month.

While it’s common and acceptable to use present tense on your resume, you should typically only use it in the section detailing your current position and in the section describing your activities outside of work.

Using Both Tenses in One Section of Your Resume

It is possible and sometimes necessary to use both past and present tense on your resume, even within the same section.

This happens when you’re writing about both your ongoing tasks in your current job and any achievements you’ve completed in that same job.

For example, if you were writing a resume as an elementary school teacher, your work history section for your current position might look like this:

Third Grade Teacher
Ralston Creek Elementary School
August 2018 – Present

  • Teach a class of 25 third grade students.

  • Meet with students’ parents and guardians every two months, both in group settings and in individual meetings.

  • Implemented a new writing curriculum, which resulted in a 5% increase in scores on the English portion of standardized tests.

  • Received teacher of the year award in 2019.

  • Provide feedback on lesson plans for the other three third grade teachers.

  • Started weekly meeting with other third grade instructors to identify and implement best practices, resulting in a 4% increase in student retention rates between third and fourth grade.

Another work history section on that same resume that lists the responsibilities you had in a previous job might read more like this, however:

Fourth Grade Teacher
Myers Elementary School
August 2015 – May 2018

  • Taught three classes of 30 students apiece.

  • Created new parent communication system, improving parent satisfaction rates by 8%, according to the end-of-year survey.

  • Joined school event planning committee and assisted with planning and chaperoning four events each year.

  • Chose and implemented a new math curriculum.

Tips to Remember When Choosing a Tense

  1. Be consistent. The only time you should use more than one tense in a section of your resume is if you’re writing about your responsibilities in your current job or about volunteer work that you’re actively participating in.

    Other than that, though, you mustn’t mix your tenses throughout your resume, and especially not under one heading.

    If you struggle with this, make a note to check your verbs to make sure they match each other. This should be relatively easy to do since most of them will be at the beginning of each bullet point.

  2. If in doubt, use the past tense. This is always the safest way to go if you aren’t sure about which tense to write in. Using too many present tense verbs in a resume gets confusing, as hiring managers will wonder why you’re talking about three different jobs as if you’re still in them.

    Using only the past tense, even to describe an action you’re currently taking, is more common and readily understood. Plus, this shows the recruiters that you’re looking toward the future and invested in the job you’re applying for.

    If you’re confident in your ability to use both past and present tense, though, this is usually the clearest way to communicate.

  3. Don’t weaken your resume by using the present participle. The present participle is a verb with an -ing ending, usually preceded by a “to be” verb such as “is,” “am,” or “are.”

    For example, you might be tempted to write, “Am volunteering as a tutor four times a week,” or “Developing new cybersecurity program for the company.” While using this tense may be an accurate description of what you’re doing, it makes your resume sound weaker.

    Instead, use strong verbs and say, “Volunteer as a tutor four times a week,” and “Develop new cybersecurity programs for the company.” These still give accurate pictures of what you do, but they do so in a crisper way.

  4. Try to match keywords. Many companies now use automated applicant tracking systems to make sure resumes hit enough of their required keywords before they send them on to human eyes.

    Because of this, you should always look through the job description and make sure your resume uses the keywords they list in the requirements section, especially if it’s for a position at a large company.

    For example, if the job description says that you’ll need experience with data entry and database management and you have those skills, you’ll want to say something like, “Handled department data entry and database management,” instead of “Organize department databases and enter data.”

    While any human reader can see that that is also data entry and database management, ATS probably won’t pick up on that since it doesn’t match the keyword exactly.

    This becomes important when choosing a verb tense because sometimes you may need to adjust your choice to match the keywords on the job description. This is especially true if you can tell that your resume is going to go through a computer program first or if you’re applying for a position at a very large company.

    If you’re emailing your resume to an individual or are applying for a position at a smaller company, though, it’s generally a better idea to give up the exact keyword match and instead make your tenses consistent since a human reader is going to be more impressed by this than by keywords.

When to Use Future Tense

There is one more verb tense to talk about: future tense. You can recognize a future tense verb by the “will” that usually precedes it in phrases such as “will receive” or “will implement,” for example.

The only time you should use a future tense in a resume is if you’re writing goals or objective section or if you’re a student who is applying for a job or internship and you want to mention a class, activity, or position you have lined up for a future date.

For example, suppose it’s January, and you’re applying for a summer internship. In that case, you might want to let recruiters know that you will be completing a class during the spring semester that will make you even more qualified for the position. Using the future tense could help you explain this.

Other than instances like that, though, you should be able to avoid using these types of verbs. Here are some examples of how to do so:

  1. If you haven’t earned your degree yet but are planning to, say, “Expected May 2021.”

  2. If you’ve been selected for a position such as a student body president but won’t actually hold that office until the following school year, you can say something like, “Elected to serve as student body president beginning August 2021.”

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Chris Kolmar

Chris Kolmar is a co-founder of Zippia and the editor-in-chief of the Zippia career advice blog. He has hired over 50 people in his career, been hired five times, and wants to help you land your next job. His research has been featured on the New York Times, Thrillist, VOX, The Atlantic, and a host of local news. More recently, he's been quoted on USA Today, BusinessInsider, and CNBC.

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