The transition from college student to working adult is not smooth. I’m not talking about a little turbulence on the descent. I’m talking about getting kicked off the plane with a partially assembled parachute with latin instructions!
One of the (many) ways in which college grads are expected to fend for themselves is in the job application process. Sure you can ask your career center for advice, but you’re pretty much expected to fail a hundred times before you’ll succeed.
That’s why we always appreciate seeing a well-constructed college student resume. It’s a testament to that student's ability to communicate their value without relying on traditional metrics like job experience.
So as a new crop of graduates gets ready to finish their last semester in college, we decided to drag out some of our favorite college resumes for inspiration. Today we’ll show you how to create a killer resume as you plan your entry into the workforce, including:
- Step 1: Focus on your strengths, and your personal and academic life that makes you look best. Whether that’s extracurriculars, high-level classes, sports, or anything else.
- Step 2: Add references for filler, they’re still a testament to your hireability.
- Step 3: Add and emphasize volunteer experience.
- Step 4: For the work experience you do have, go into a bit more detail than normal.
- Step 5: Tell your story if you need to boost your resume, but make sure it applies to the job you’re applying too.
Now, let’s a closer look at each of these topics.
1. Lead with your strengths
Let’s talk about that big blinking warning sign that’s jumping out from almost every college grads’ resume. You may not have any experience!
Sure you filed papers at your Mom’s office that one summer, or maybe you helped out selling Vitamin Water at the campus store. But in terms of real, career experience, the best you’ll probably be able to point to are some internships (if you’re lucky).
And that’s fine! Everyone, at one point or another, started out at that same place. They all faced the infamous catch-22: the need to get experience to get a job so you can get experience.
That’s why I recommend that recent college grads play fast and loose with the standard formatting rules of resumes. Most of the time, the biggest, earliest section is your experience section. But for you, that will just highlight your lack of experience.
Instead, focus your resume on whatever aspect of your personal and academic life makes you look best. Whether that’s extracurriculars, high-level classes, sports, or anything else.
Consider this example resume. Here we see a student who’s looking for work while in the middle of college, and they only have one part-time job at a pet store to point to as experience.
Instead of leading with the experience section, they lead with their academic extracurriculars. They include prestigious sounding things like the National Honor Society and volunteer work. So this resume says “I’m smart and hardworking” first instead of “look at the little nibbles of experience I have.”
On resumes, you should lead with the good news, and hope they might not even notice the bad.
2. Add references for filler
A resume should be a page. That’s partly for practical reasons. It sucks to fiddle around with multiple pieces of paper. But it also looks terrible for there to be big gaps of unused space on your one sheet.
So even though filling out a full page resume for recent college grads can be a challenge, you’re going to need to find a way. That’s why I say a little filler is no problem if it helps you reach the goal.
Normally, we don’t recommend including references in your resume, but only because they crowd out other more useful info. If you’re struggling to reach the end of a page on your resume, adding your references can be a good way to fill it with useful content.
While references might not be as a good as a hearty experience section, they’re still a testament to your hireability. Check out this example resume. This student actually does have some experience as a sales associate, which is great, but not much of anything else. And they found themselves with a third of a page left blank.
So they added their references there. Notice how they put the references down at the bottom of the resume. This is always the best tactic for filler.
As sad as it sounds, many employers don’t spend the time to read through a full resume. On average, according to studies, a hiring manager will spend a total of six seconds to look over any given resume.
Adding your references at the bottom saves you from presenting a big blank gap that anyone will see from ten feet away. But, there’s a good chance most employers won’t ever read far enough to see it’s just your references.
3. Focus on volunteer experience
People are too stuffy with their resumes. There, I said it! From old fashioned designs to over-formal language, job-seekers act like they’re presenting at a funeral rather than looking for exciting opportunities.
You can see this in the way “experience” is always read as “jobs where I sat in an office chair for at least eight hours a day.” While many students don’t have much in the way of that sort of experience, many have other types of experience that they totally forget about.
I’m talking about volunteering! Whether you did it out of compassion, to join a prestigious club, or just for extra credit, volunteer positions are great experience to add to a resume.
Take a look at this example resume to see what I’m talking about. This applicant to a teacher assistant position has years of volunteer experience in roles associated with her career. It goes miles towards compensating for her limited on-the-job experience.
You might even find that employers get a much better sense of your dedication and temperament from volunteer positions than from “real” jobs.
One caveat—I’d stick to calling out recurring volunteer roles. You want to point to situations where you had a position. “I spent one afternoon raking leaves at the old folks home,” won’t cut it I’m afraid.
4. Limited career experience? Go into detail
So far we’ve covered what to do if you want to cover for limited experience with other facets of your life, but lots of you will have some work experience to share! Just not, you know, very much of it.
It’s going to take a few years before you have enough positions to fill out a multi-faceted experience section. For some of you who will have the same job for a long time, you might find yourself needing to make the most out of one or two jobs.
In that circumstance, I don’t recommend hiding behind volunteer hours or references. I say you should make the most out of every position you’ve had.
To do that, you can go into great detail about the particular responsibilities you had and skills you demonstrated for each job. While you’ll normally see just a bullet point or two on a standard resume under each position, someone with limited (but valuable) experience can bump that up to 4 or 5.
You’ll still have an experience section that takes up most of the resume and you’ll be able to go into great detail about why the positions you’ve had matter. Consider this example resume. This young person is applying for a position as a real estate assistant.
Since they held two (but only two) similar positions before going to school, they’ve outlined in extreme detail what they learned at those positions. They cover responsibilities, specific projects they worked on, and more.
We think this tactic works best when you tie the details you’re adding to your experience directly to the positions you’re applying for. So, for example, if you’re applying for a customer support role, any time you’ve spent working over the phone will be valuable, even if it’s not in the same industry.
5. Extra space? Tell your story
Uh oh. You’ve read this far in our guide. You’ve used all our tips and tricks but there’s still a big chunk of space down on the bottom of your resume. More than font tricks and creative line spacing can cover for.
Don’t panic, we have one more card up our sleeve.
If you think you’re a good fit for a job even though your resume doesn’t show it, you can just ... tell them that. It really can be that simple.
One underutilized section of many resumes is your profile. It’s a little blurb many add to the top of their resume. If your resume doesn’t communicate your tremendous passion for science or retail or whatever else, you can use your profile to highlight it and tell a story about where it comes from.
In this example resume, we see a nursing student who doesn’t have a ton of professional experience in nursing. So they use their profile to describe their love of nursing and a bit of why they think they’ll excel at it.
Not everyone is going to take the time to read a paragraph of text like that, but all it takes is one person to help you get your foot in the door.
Getting your start
Even college grads with picture perfect resumes are going to find the next few years to be a bumpy ride. The best you can do is make the most of your resources and hang on for dear life.
That’s why it’s important to critically assess your strengths and flesh them out in your resume. A little smart planning will help you to hop over some barriers and land that first job before you know it.
And once you have that first job, you’ll start gathering a long list of experiences that will make the next job search easier. And the next one easier after that. Now all you have to do is make the leap.