The College Student Resume

Or maybe I should say “A College Student Resume”, since there is not one format or one approach to building THE best resume for a college student or graduate.

The single greatest challenge with a new graduate’s resume is getting potential employers to find the skills and talents nestled in your academic-focused resume that would meet their business-focused needs. It’s tough enough for those of us with years of business experience to accomplish that, so it’s definitely not an easy task for the new graduate. While relying on job networking or college alumni groups or your career center at school are all smart strategies to getting job leads, you’ll still need a solid resume to supplement the search and interview aspects of your job search.

The World Has Changed

  • At this time in our society we are struggling with a multi-year recession, financial challenges in the European markets, thousands of jobs being out-sourced to other countries, baby boomers reluctant (or unable) to retire, and a stubbornly high unemployment rate.
  • Humans read resumes only after a computer filters them! Over the last several years, most companies have moved to electronic filtering of resumes, which means a resume that is light on keywords or doesn’t have all the required details will get skipped over.
  • With a higher percentage of people entering the market with degrees than ever before, the competition for entry-level jobs is at an all-time high. All of these issues and more make it even harder for new college graduates to land a good job.

To get past some of these hurdles, your resume has to meet the classical needs as well as the new-age needs of the job search.

Focus on Your Education

Notice that I didn’t say “Focus on Your Degree“. As a new college graduate, this is the most common mistake in the job search. I’ve seen people prominently put their school, their degree (major and minor) and their GPA on their resume and then, without further details, they listed their numerous summer or part-time jobs as burger flippers or cashiers at grocery stores. While it is important to show the work, in many cases these job seekers aren’t grasping the point that after 4 or more years of college, the potential employer is needing much more information here than just a degree, school and GPA. Here are some things to expand on:

  • Academic awards – Awards or achievement lists, such as dean’s list, cum laude designations, honor rolls, etc., are measures of success in your academic works that give an indication that you are a high-achiever in your education program.
  • Academic scholarships – These are indications that you had high academics to get into the college. If you qualified on a semester or annual basis, then list these. If they were granted based on your High School grades, then list them only if you maintained a good GPA (3.3/B+ or better) in college.
  • Study Abroad – Focus on listing the benefit of the travel to your gain in knowledge or skills. This is especially useful information for firms that have an international presence or clientele.
  • Presentations/projects – Point out any really outstanding efforts you might have made in doing research or speaking to external groups or role as a student assistant. Make special note of these activities especially if they could help define you as having a talent an employer might need.
  • Certifications – Some programs help students get certifications or licenses for certain types of work, so make sure to list these and expand a bit on how you succeeded in obtaining the certification.
  • Key Courses – Are there interesting college courses that you’ve taken that might interest the potential employer? Point out two or three courses, your success in the course, the elements of the course you thought were intriguing, and how you might be able to pursue a career that relates to these unique studies.

Focus on Your Work

The most important thing I look for when interviewing college students is any type of work they may have performed during the last several years, this includes jobs that were held just prior to staring college as well as those during and since the degree programs. I’m looking for work ethic, increasing responsibility, modest stability and a sense of professionalism. As a recent student, I expect you to focus on your academics and I expect the jobs may be just to supplement your income and not always a career path choice. So it doesn’t surprise me to see an MBA graduate with a summer job at a Pizza Hut or an engineering student stocking shelves at Costco.

But what I don’t want to read is a list of all your tasks at these places. Just give me the basic job description in a 2-sentence paragraph and then add a bullet or two that focuses on what you did there to make your work stand out. Did you consistently stock the shelves in less time than required, did you get a customer service award, did you recommend changes to the schedule to improve staffing coverage, did you exceed sales quota, did you offer to do the tasks that nobody else wanted, and did you leave on good terms with the management?? These are the things I want to know about…traits that could give me insight on how you might fit in at my firm. Look for the transferable talents you learned and exercised and then make those the central points of these non-career jobs on your resume.

Focus on Your Activities

Not all of your time at college is spent in studies or working. There are numerous extra-curricular activities that are worth mentioning on your resume, but be careful not to distract the hiring manager away from your skills. For example, if you are the captain of a team, or a treasurer of a club, these roles are worth mentioning on your resume. If you compete in sports and you might be applying to a company that manufactures sporting goods equipment, then you would want to mention some of your sporting activities.  List at least one activity, as this shows that you have a life beyond your studies…that you are socially adept. But don’t list more than about two or three activities, as this indicates you’re less focused on academics and are more interested in all the distractions on campus. The hiring managers want a person that can socially “fit in” with their firms, but not a person that is too busy to put in an honest day’s work.

Don’t forget to list your Volunteer activities (work).  This does two things…it shows that the employer that you are willing to commit time to a cause that you think is valuable and it provides the employer with a small concept of your sense of “moral direction”. So make sure you take an active role in a volunteer group (that the employer would be proud of) and definitely indicate any leadership role you took in this group.

Focus on Solid Keywords

As I mentioned earlier, with electronic filtering of resumes, keywords have become one of the most critical elements of a resume. The recommendations for college graduates is similar to experienced workers that are seeking jobs. You must make sure you have the right keywords in your resume.

Once you’ve written your basic resume, go to Monster, CareerBuilder or your college career center and search for about 5 job descriptions that interest you (without regard to location). Then go through each one and highlight the keywords, products, capabilities or other words that identify skill, knowledge, or requirements that are identified in these job postings. After you’ve reviewed each job posting, identify the top 10-20 words that the job postings are listing that you are sure you have in your skill-set. Now, find a way to weave each of those words into your resume in some fashion. The best way is to use the identical word in your resume at least once. Remember that the recruiter is looking for the keywords used in context in your resume (not your cover letter, not lumped in a keyword section, not in your email) — the more matches, the more likely your resume will be further considered for its content, not just the keywords.

Bottom Line:

When a college student or graduate develops a resume, make sure you are listening to current advice…so much has changed over the years. The focus of the resume is usually your education, so lead with it if you have little work experience. If you have worked while in college, yes, list the jobs, but emphasize the aspects of the job that are relevant to your career search. Be cautious listing your extra-curricular activities by listing just the ones that are relevant to your career or where you showed leadership skills. And really focus on getting your keywords right…that’s what allows recruiters to connect your resume with their job opportunities.

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