How to Embrace the Nonlinear on Your Resume

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Your resume is an opportunity to tell a story. But if yours doesn’t read like a book with a linear narrative—due to career shifts and employment breaks—it can be difficult to find the best way to communicate your skills and experience.

If you’re unsure about how to confidently present a patchwork career history that spans sectors and positions and also contains a gap or two, here are three resume types to help you embrace the diversity of your experience while also presenting a clear story for a potential employer.

Use a functional resume to create a cohesive and relevant narrative

Instead of listing experience chronologically, consider using a functional resume format to hone in on the specific narrative that’s best suited to the position you’re pursuing.

A functional resume is organized by theme and highlights skills over tasks and responsibilities. This could be the format for you if you’re making a career switch or have employment gaps on your resume.

Here are a few basic guidelines to help you craft a functional resume:

  • Group skills and accomplishments by theme or category
  • Use key words from the job description throughout your resume
  • Highlight related projects and achievements

For example, if you’re leaving a sales role in the private sector to pursue a career in nonprofit fundraising, create sections for relevant skill categories such as lead generation, customer service, and project management.

Under each category, detail how you have used this particular skill to reach and surpass your professional objectives. Here’s what this may look like:

Professional Accomplishments

Customer service

  • Provided excellent customer service as sales representative, as evidenced by consistently positive customer reviews.
  • Improved team customer satisfaction rating by 60%.
  • Received Representative of the Month award three times in four years thanks to record of exemplary service and feedback from managers and peers.

Project management

  • Successfully managed a range of fifteen to twenty client projects at a time.
  • Supervised a team of two direct reports.
  • Ensured delivery on or before target dates, never missing a projected deadline.

Lead generation and sales

  • Expanded territory client list by an average of 10% each year.
  • Consistently met and exceeded sales quota, leading to a 12% increase in company-wide sales.
  • Established standard sales scripts and proposals for team-wide use, helping to improve overall sales target performance by 18%.

Take care to be specific by adding stats and numbers whenever possible and avoid redundancy by varying your phrasing with active verbs such as “managed,” “led,” “coordinated,” and “developed.”

After this first section of your resume, which you may want to call “Professional Accomplishments,” “Skills,” or “Expertise,” consider listing a few supporting roles in an “Experience” section. If you omit dates of employment and place this shorter section of content at the end of the document, you’ll encourage more attention on the skills and strengths that you want a recruiter or hiring manager to notice.

Use a targeted resume to de-emphasize gaps in work history

While a functional resume helps to create cohesion, a targeted resume can help you establish an even sharper and more specific view of your most relevant skills.

Rather than using a general catch-all resume, a targeted resume is customized to a specific job description. This means that you’ll want to reference the job listing on Idealist.org as you’re crafting your resume to ensure that you are incorporating key phrases and skills.

Using a targeted approach may be helpful if you’d like to take attention away from periods of unemployment and shine a light on the most pertinent experience you possess.

Your targeted resume may begin with a skills summary or list of professional qualifications specific to the role. If you’re responding to a nonprofit fundraising job posting that features phrases such as “donor research,” “campaign,” “strategy,” and “grants,” a targeted skills summary may look like this:

Qualifications

  • Proven success managing all aspects of the grants process in a timely fashion.
  • Skilled in implementing strategic plans for donor outreach, research, and stewardship.
  • Adept at campaign-building and event coordination.

After presenting this information, include your employment history based on roles that are directly relevant to the position. This is where you can bring more context to your qualifications section by providing examples of how your skills yielded results. For example:

Experience
Development Officer
ABC Organization, 2016-present

  • Manage grants through every stage, resulting in a grant- funding revenue increase of 20% in the last two years.
  • Led successful transition to a new donor management platform and grew donor base by 14%.

You could follow these with other sections such as “Related Achievements,” “Training,” or “Volunteer Experience.”

A finishing touch to any resume is a compelling cover letter, so make yours memorable and specific. Explain exactly how you can make an impact by offering some context about the most relevant bullets on your resume. So if you increased grants funding by 20% in your most recent role, talk about what you did to make that happen.

Use a combination resume to paint a full picture

If you’re interested in creating a customized resume but you also want to show the breadth of your experience, a combination resume may be your answer.

A combination resume employs a bit of both functional and chronological resume formats by highlighting relevant skills first, supported by related and chronologically ordered work history.

While you have the freedom to order the content as you please, try implementing these important key points:

  • Highlight relevant skills and qualifications: Similar to a functional resume, you may opt for placing your skills at the beginning of the document and grouping them by category to play up specific strengths. You could also forego categories and simply list individual skills in order of relevance and importance.
  • Work history: Unlike a functional resume, chronology and dates are important. Support your qualifications by listing related roles first in a section called “Relevant Experience,” and follow that with a section called “Other Experience.” By including unrelated positions in this section, you can show your full range of experience to create a more well-rounded picture of your job history.

It may take some experimentation and tweaking to find the resume format that works for your career journey, but rest assured that there’s a way to present your diverse experience and skills in a flattering and honest way.

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Have you used any of these (or other) resume formats to present a nonlinear work history, de-emphasize gaps, or make a career shift? Let us know what worked for you and what advice you have for others.

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Yoona Wagener is a freelance writer and WordPress developer who believes in the value of nonlinear career paths. She has experience in academic publishing, teaching English abroad, serving up customer support to software end users, writing online help documentation, and mission-driven nonprofit marketing and communications.
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