Why Did We Put Interests and Hobbies on Our Resumes In The First Place?
No one cares if you’re really into horror movies. But did they ever? A brief trip down memory lane traces the evolution of this resume advice, so you’ll understand why it worked then and why it doesn’t now.
Resume advice in the United States changes as frequently as fashion. Putting “References available upon request” in your resume is the equivalent of wearing bell bottoms and a crocheted orange halter. You’ll stand out, but not in a good way.
Putting interests and hobbies in your resume is a more recent trend that started around 2002–2006. It was usually a few lines at the end of the resume that looked like this:
- Interests: Traveling, swimming, learning new languages, swing dancing
The theory was that putting in non-professional work would make you seem more like an interesting, well-rounded human instead of just another resume. And in the social landscape of the early 2000s, that kind of made sense.
For context, in 2003…
- Facebook was still restricted to college students with a valid .edu email address
- Twitter and YouTube didn’t exist yet
- LinkedIn had only just started existing
Technology was new and exciting and had lots of potential, but the average person didn’t have an easy way to look up other random people. And from the corporate side, better Internet technology meant more job applications from more qualified candidates. So in this particular snapshot of the 00s, you had more applications with no distinguishing factors. If you had a dozen resumes with similar work histories, how would you choose the ones to interview? Or, the same question asked a different way, how would you choose which ones to throw out without granting them an interview?
Interests and hobbies were a way to set yourself apart, but not too much. You still had to aim for certain stereotypes about what was socially acceptable and what was professionally acceptable. If you were applying to a job at a childcare facility, listing death metal and horror films as your interests would certainly make you stand out, but you probably wouldn’t get the job. Likewise, gardening and painting were fairly benign interests for white-collar office positions. But if you wanted to work at a tech startup? Your passions were probably rock-climbing and traveling.
Some of this is purely stereotypical, but some of it is rooted in truth. If you wanted to work a sales job that involved lots of face-to-face time with customers, your hobbies shouldn’t imply that you were a hermit who only left the house when absolutely necessary.
Interests and hobbies served as stand-ins for personality traits, which was great for people who were ready, willing, and able to have cool hobbies. Not so much for the rest of us. The existence of hobbies implies a certain underlying luxury. Rock-climbing means that you can afford memberships to rock-climbing places and that you have the physical ability to climb rocks in the first place. You can have a big interest in traveling, but that doesn’t always translate into actual travel.
So interests and hobbies, like every other part of the resume from your address to your education to your work history, were subject to the biases and limitations of the real world. They were an imperfect accessory that kind of made sense at the time. What changed?
First, the Great Recession. Then, technology.
The Great Recession started in 2007 and peaked with 10% unemployment in 2009. The aftereffects lingered until 2015. A lot of jobs (and money) just…disappeared. From 2009–2014, employers were inundated with job applications from underqualified, qualified, and overqualified applicants. That led to the rise of ATS, or Applicant Tracking Software.
ATS existed before 2012, but its first incarnations were truly terrible at doing the one thing they were supposed to do. ATS was meant to scan through huge dumps of text very quickly to find good candidates and reject bad ones. It seemed simple enough. But it seemed simple in the way automatic translation software seemed simple (just put the word from one language into another language! Easy!).
The first problem was that ATS wasn’t being fed just text. Look at any resume and there’s a good chance that you’ll see multiple columns, decorative lines, different fonts and sizes, and bullet points. In order to read the resume, ATS first had to convert the input into pure text: smashing categories together, eliminating others entirely, and coming up with some very interesting interpretations of the original text.
I worked with one videographer who traveled internationally to work on film shoots. He put a list of locations in his resume. An ATS system picked one from the list, randomly, and decided that he lived in the British Virgin Islands. Unfortunately, he was seeking positions in Los Angeles. After I reformatted his resume, his interview requests skyrocketed.
But this article isn’t about all the ways ATS can mess up or what you can do to make your resume more attractive to computers. (Those articles are coming soon, don’t worry!)
The point is, starting during the Great Recession, hiring culture had a fast-and-hard shift away from personal review to algorithmic review. And the process itself shifted to a life-or-death matter for thousands of people. Suicide rates increased during the Great Recession because people simply couldn’t find the work they needed to live.
Putting interests and hobbies on your resume made you look silly, or flippant, or unfocused. Taking up a precious few lines of resume real estate to proclaim your love for woodworking and bird-watching seemed almost quaint. Particularly when there were 100 people right behind you who had more experience, more bullet points, more ways to fill up their resumes with things more substantial than hobbies.
The other thing the Great Recession gave us was the gig economy. In short, the gig economy is about making money through small, one-off tasks as an independent contractor instead of sustained on-site employment for a steady paycheck. If you had a hobby, and you were good at it, that was a chance to make some cash.
Love pottery? Go to craft fairs or set up an Etsy shop. Good at graphic design? Make media packages for local businesses. Enjoy being mean to celebrities and critiquing things? You could now monetize your entertainment blog instead of writing purely for your own entertainment.
Every hobby and interest became an opportunity for gaining skills or making money instead of just helping you survive your life on this lumpy rock hurtling through space.
And that brings us to now, 2020, where we’ve assembled all the worst bits of the previous two decades into one hellish job application process.
The old style of painting your personality with broad strokes à la “swimming, learning new languages, swing dancing” doesn’t fly anymore. As of 2018, 70% of employers checked social media when reviewing job applicants. Your social media will summarize your personality for you.
You don’t need to tell employers that you love comedy if you’re constantly sharing The Office memes. And no hiring manager will believe that you truly love camping if all your selfies are taken inside. So the first function of including interests on your resume (to make you seem like a person) has been absorbed into social media. And social media itself has changed so people can find your posts as quickly and as easily as you publish them.
The second function of putting interests on your resume (to make you seem good at things) has been changed by the rise-and-grind hustle mentality. It’s not enough to simply like, say, video games. There is a person with similar work experience who has the same interest in gaming but has turned that into community management experience on a gaming subreddit. Or has monetized that through YouTube videos with game playthroughs. Or has gained hard numbers and writing experience through updating a fan wiki.
Hobbies have turned into work. But hobbies also have turned into potential pools of experience, and should be posted as such on your resume.
What looks better?
Interests: Video games and figure painting
Volunteer Experience: Contributed 25 new pages to the Fallout: New Vegas fan wiki, edited 400+ existing pages, and formatted all pages according to the game-specific style guide.
And what happens if you simply like something, passively, and haven’t turned it into some kind of skill? You guessed it; there are 100 people right behind you who have the same work experience, but more, and the same hobbies, but better. They’re you, only stronger.
I know, that sounds super grim. The good news is that you probably have some hobby or interest-based experience that you can put on your own resume. Even something as superficially simple as running a book club involves skills: scheduling, time management, sourcing books and discussion topics, resolving interpersonal conflicts when people get really heated about the characters. You can put all that on a resume!
Another thing you can start doing (today, immediately) is changing some of your casual activities to mindful ones. Maybe you’re a cook, or crocheter, who always wanted to write down step-by-step guides but you haven’t gotten around to it yet. No better time than now.
See, the thing with the modern job search process is that you can spend hours upon hours sending resumes out into the void and never get a response. It’s psychologically damaging (“How come they don’t want me, man?”). Plus, the act of sending your resume doesn’t do a damn thing to improve the content of it.
So here’s your assignment, and maybe, your permission: Take a break from checking your Indeed alerts and those LinkedIn messages that just want you to buy the premium version. Take some time each week to get back to the things that you actually love. And when you’re in the afterglow of icing a cupcake or a great DnD session, think about the skills you just used — and how you can put them into your resume. How you can be yourself, but just a little bit better.
It will improve the job search process and the content of your resume. And it just might be the change you need to improve your results.