When writing your resume, sometimes it’s the little details that matter the most — like whether to write in past or present tense. Both seem like valid choices; past tense makes sense when talking about things you’ve done in the past, while present tense makes things sound fresh and immediate. So, which one to choose?
Is it better to use past or present tense?
There actually is an easy answer to this one — resumes should be written in past tense. Why? The simple answer is, your resume should be about your accomplishments. In other words, you should be writing about things you’ve already achieved, which means using past tense.
The biggest mistake most people make on their resumes is listing job duties rather than accomplishments. Using present tense in your bullet points is usually a pretty good sign that you’re focusing on your responsibilities, which isn’t what hiring managers care about. To keep the focus where it belongs, think about what you’ve already had success with and write down what you’ve done — not what you’re currently doing or what you intend to do in the future.
Are there any exceptions?
Yes! There are a few times it’s okay to use present tense in your resume instead of past tense.
Some accomplishments may make more sense written in present tense. This doesn’t mean you should write every bullet point from your current job in present tense, but you might include the occasional accomplishment that’s still ongoing. A good example is leading a team — if you’re currently managing other staff, it’s fine to write your bullet point as “manage a team of 5” instead of “managed.” If you don’t like the idea of writing some bullet points in past tense and some in present tense, it’s also fine to write everything in past tense, even if you’re currently in the same position.
Your resume summary is another section where it’s fine to write in present tense. This also applies to a short (1-2 sentence) blurb you might include as a quick overview of your current job — overviews of past jobs should be written in past tense.
A lot of resume “rules” — like writing in past tense or not using “I” statements — don’t apply to cover letters. It’s fine to write your cover letter more conversationally than the rest of your resume, which means you can write in present tense about things you’re currently doing.
Keep it simple
Always write in simple past or present tense — analyzed, led, increased, manage. Never use the present participle form (eg. analyzing, leading, managing). Saying that you “manage a team” or “managed a team” is fine, but listing “managing a team” reads like a job description, not an accomplishment.
First vs third person: what's better on a resume?
The other thing to consider when writing your resume is point of view. Resumes are written in first person since you’re talking about yourself and your own accomplishments. This means your bullet points should sound like they were written by you. For example, if you’re talking about leading a team, you should write that you “managed” a team (or “manage,” if it’s your current position). Don’t write “manages a team” as if your resume is being written by somebody else.
You also shouldn’t use “I” statements outside of your cover letter, eg. “I manage a team.” Your resume is a formal document, so leave the “I” out of it.
Examples of using the right resume tenses
Curious about what past vs present tense looks like in action? Here are some examples to guide you.
Using past tense on a resume
In general, using past tense is always correct. This applies even to your current job. If you’re listing something that’s clearly in the past — like a completed project or an event that’s already happened — you should always use past tense. When listing accomplishments that are currently ongoing, you can still use past tense if it’s more comfortable for you.
When talking about past positions you’ve held, always use past tense. Never use present tense for a job you’re no longer at. At worst, this could cause recruiters to reject your application because it shows a lack of attention to detail — so don’t risk it when it’s an easy thing to get right.
When to use the present tense on a resume
When talking about your current position, you’re likely to have accomplishments that are still ongoing. In those cases, it’s appropriate to write in the present tense. This doesn’t apply to achievements that are clearly in the past — if you increased revenue last year by 25%, that’s an accomplishment that’s fully completed, and you should write it in the past tense. But if you’re currently mentoring interns or collaborating with other teams, for example, it's fine to write that in the present tense.
If you’re not sure what tense to use...
If you aren’t certain whether you should list something in past or present tense, always default to past tense. Even in cases where present tense may be more appropriate, past tense is never wrong and is unlikely to look strange to a hiring manager. Using present tense incorrectly, on the other hand, may raise a few red flags.