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?
What are past tense and present tense?
In case you need a quick refresher:
Past tense is when you talk about things you've already done or that happened in the past, e.g. looked, sat, walked, ran, said.
Examples of past tense:
- Designed training and peer mentoring programs...
- Led the transition to a paperless practice...
Present tense is when you talk about what you're doing right now, or something that you still do, e.g. look, sit, walk, run, say.
Examples of present tense:
- Manage a team of 10 people...
- Organize annual fundraising events...
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.
When to use 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 present tense on a resume
When talking about your current position, you’re likely to have accomplishments that are still ongoing. This might include:
- General day-to-day responsibilities
- Ongoing projects that haven't wrapped up yet
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.
This means that, regardless of what you were taught in high school English, it's okay to mix tenses on your resume. Just make sure you're doing it intentionally, to clearly distinguish between your ongoing responsibilities and your past accomplishments.
Examples of using the right resume tense
Curious about what past vs present tense looks like in action? Here are some examples that you can follow.
Using past tense on a resume
Use the past tense on a resume for any accomplishments that you've already completed and all past jobs, for example:
- Launched Miami office with lead Director and recruited and managed new team of 10 employees; grew office revenue by 200% in first nine months (representing 20% of company revenue).
- Designed training and peer-mentoring programs for the incoming class of 25 analysts in 2017; reduced onboarding time for new hires by 50%.
- Led the transition to a paperless practice by implementing an electronic booking system and a faster, safer, and more accurate business system; reduced cost of labor by 30% and office overhead by 10%
- Created a unique year-round adopt-a-school recruitment program which grew market share from 5% to 10%.
- Directed agency fundraising revenue generation, daily program business operations, community outreach membership recruitment, and human resources in 30 suburbs in the city for organizations with assets of $8M.
- Served as the product sale fundraising campaign manager and directed 100 volunteer chairpersons; increased fundraising donations by 40%.
- Negotiated a settlement of a $2M lawsuit with under $5,000 of outside legal fees.
- Increased customer retention 10% and reactivated dormant consumers through weekly email campaigns.
- Took lead on the migration of the company's Microsoft SQL to MySQL project. This included updating 30 client-facing websites and one internal administration site
- Promoted within 18 months due to strong performance and organizational impact (one year ahead of schedule).
Using present tense on a resume
Use the present tense on your resume for accomplishments that are still ongoing at your current job, for example:
- Manage a cross-functional team of in 3 locations (Palo Alto, Austin, and New York), ranging from entry-level analysts to vice presidents, and collaborate with business development data analysis, operations, and marketing.
- Manage all aspects of a 10 person B2B appointment setting call center.
- Provide administrative support and guidance to the CEO in day-to-day office operations.
- Oversee a $7M budget and fifteen-member team.
- Lead team members and vendors to manage the social media advertising strategy for more than 50 social media accounts
- Train and mentor new and existing account executives and interns on solutions selling strategies, customer relationship management, and advanced product knowledge.
- Supervise a team of 15 associates in addition to overseeing a staff of 60+ associates while managing daily operations of the store.
- Service and manage 150+ target accounts consisting of medical doctors, chiropractors, acupuncturists, nurses, dieticians, and nutritionists
- Direct and coordinate a staff of 80 employees.
- Manage a team of 15 outbound sales specialists.
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.
What other grammar rules do I need to know to write a resume?
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.
Passive vs active voice
You may have heard the advice to always use active voice, but what does that mean? Active voice is when you talk about things you did, e.g. "increased sales" or "trained new staff." Passive voice is when you talk about something that was done to you, e.g. "was asked to organize an event," or "tasked with training new staff." Active voice is always better — it's more straightforward, easier to read, and keeps the focus squarely on what you actually accomplished rather than just what you were asked to do.
Perfect tense is another thing to avoid on your resume. Perfect tense is when you add "have" or "had" to indicate that you've done something, e.g. "I have increased sales" or "I had organized 10 events." Leave out empty verbs like "have" and "had," which add nothing to your resume except hard-to-read filler.
First or 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.
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.