Last Updated: Aug 13, 2020
For those in college or recently graduated, landing your first job can be a daunting experience. Many students may be discouraged by their lack of experience, while others worry about problems with their academic record. If your greatest selling point is your education, how can you compete with other applicants? Here are five must-know résumé tips for college students and recent graduates who are about to enter the working world.
1. Lead with your education
As you move up later in your career, the work experience section of your résumé will become more robust and should be placed at the top of the document. But at this stage in your life, your educational experiences are your greatest strength. By placing them at the top, you can help make up for limited work experience. However, it would be a mistake to only list your college and GPA. If you’re betting on your education to land you an interview, you can’t leave the hiring manager guessing that it makes you qualified for the position. Your college experience can’t be distilled to a single GPA number, so use this section of your résumé to highlight your other college-related activities. Things like relevant coursework, field experiences, group projects, and even formal clubs and organizations can be included to illustrate how your education has prepared you for the challenges of working life.
2. Include relevant experience instead of work experience
Work doesn’t necessarily have to be paid in order to have value. With this in mind, don’t think that not having any paid work experience means there’s nothing for you to reference on your résumé. The trick here is to think of the work experience section more as a practical experience section. This can involve much more than unpaid internships. Volunteer work can be included to showcase the skills and experience you’ve accumulated. Think of opportunities where you had to take on important responsibilities: Were you an officer in those student organizations you joined? What projects did you work on? What events did you help facilitate? Even more importantly, you can really make these experiences sell if you can quantify them in some way. Hiring managers don’t just want to see that you held a position; they want to know how you added value to the organization or company.
3. Take advantage of your career counselors
Students, the career center exists, so please take advantage of what they have to offer! As someone who’s actually worked as a career counselor, it’s frustrating when students don’t bother to take the short walk from their dorms to get résumé help from us. Career counselors are trained to help college students (of all ages, not just seniors) strengthen their résumés and prepare them for career success. Even if you don’t have a strong connection to your assigned counselor, they’ll likely provide a more extensive critique of your résumé and job documents than any other résumé service. While getting help online isn’t the worst idea, as a student, you have access to far more reliable resources—so use them!
4. Write a custom cover letter for each job
As important as your résumé is, it alone won’t secure you an interview. Résumés work best when they’re coupled with a cover letter customized to each job you apply for. While it may not seem worth the effort after spending so much time on your résumé, one study by ResumeGo illustrates that not including a cover letter is a big mistake. The results of that study found that applicants with cover letters carefully tailored to each job yielded over 50% more interviews than those without. Interestingly, applications with generic cover letters fared only slightly better than applications with no cover letter at all.
The study also surveyed recruiters to reveal just how much importance they placed on cover letters. Over three-quarters of hiring managers in the survey indicated that they’d reject applications that didn’t include cover letter. More than anything, a cover letter allows you to send the exact message you want to a hiring manager. An employer is open to interpret your résumé as they see fit, but a well-written cover letter delivers your message on your terms.
5. Show off your skills
The skills section of a résumé can be easily overlooked. However, this section really shows employers exactly how you could fit on their team. Think broader than Microsoft Office and simple soft skills like time management. In the course of your studies, internships, and extracurricular work, you’ve likely built up a number of relevant hard skills. If anything, being a college student has probably made you flexible and adaptable to challenging circumstances. When addressing this section of your résumé, ask yourself: In what ways can I uniquely add value to this company?
6. Address any shortcomings in your academic records
Nobody’s academic record is perfect. Maybe some of your grades aren’t the best, or perhaps your overall GPA leaves something to be desired. Fortunately, there are ways to mitigate against these shortcomings. Highlight the experiences where you excelled. For example, if your major GPA is higher than your cumulative GPA, emphasize that. Additionally, if you’ve had great internships or other hands-on learning, these can make up for some less than stellar grades.
With these six tips, you can send out your résumé with confidence, knowing you’re presenting your best self to potential employers. Moreover, you can rise above any lack of experience and make the right first impression to get the job.
For more great job search advice, check out our Internships and Careers section.