How to Write a Resume When You’re Just Out of College
New graduates find themselves staring at a blank screen when they sit down to write a résumé. But career coaches, professional résumé writers and college placement officers say that with some effort, students will discover that they have accumulated plenty of experience and know-how to put together a convincing document that will land them a job, even if they haven’t interned in the White House or worked at a top law firm. One encouraging statistic for grads to keep in mind: For those with a bachelor’s degree, the unemployment rate is 4%, less than half the national average of 8.1%.
Ideally, a new grad’s résumé is a focused one-page marketing document, with a succinct job goal that molds the résumé writer’s descriptions of each previous job and related experience. But many students and new grads haven’t figured out what they want to do, or even the broad area in which they want to work. If you can’t come up with a specific goal, you can still benefit from assessing your life up to this point, and pulling out details, like the K-Mart job, that will make you look like a strong candidate.
As for format, there are two approaches for new grads. One is the conventional, with an objective at the top, then education and relevant coursework, and after that, experience and skills. Another format, advocated by Laura DeCarlo, executive director of Career Directors International, a trade association for résumé writers and career coaches, and the former director of career planning at a for-profit school called Herzing University, lists skills and training at the top, then education, and after that, experience and employment.
I lean toward the conventional, because I find it simpler and easier to take in. But both formats have their merits, and putting them together involves a similar exercise. I’ll lay that out here:
1. List a career objective if you’re clear on what you want to do or you’re applying to a specific job.
Katharine Brooks, director of liberal arts career services at the University of Texas at Austin and author of You Majored in What? Mapping Your Path from Chaos to Career, says you should only list a career objective if you’re crystal clear on what it is, like “entry level management position in the banking industry.” If you are vague about your goals, you will do more harm than good if you list something like, “promising position in a forward-looking company.” Of course if you are applying for a specific job, it’s easy enough to amend a résumé to include an objective that matches the job description.
2. List your school, degree year, and any honors, including your grade point average if it’s high.
Unlike experienced workers, who put their education at the end of their résumé, soon-to-be and recent graduates list it at the top. Include your school, your major, the degree you expect to earn and the year you will graduate. If you’ve achieved academic honors like the dean’s list or phi beta kappa, include that as well. Some coaches think you should list your GPA if it’s higher than 3.0. Others think you should only include it if it’s quite high, like 3.8 or above. San Francisco résumé writer Beth Brown, co-author of The Damn Good Résumé Guide: A Crash Course In Résumé Writing, also recommends including a list of course work that’s relevant to your major and career objective. For instance, if you majored in accounting and you want to work at an accounting firm, you could include a table of accounting courses you took, like tax accounting, GAAP, and public accounting.
3. Consider listing additional coursework outside your major.
If your career objective differs from your major, but you took courses directly related to the career you want, it makes sense to list those courses in your education section, suggests Brooks. For instance, if you majored in history but you want to work in a counseling center for troubled youth, you could add, “Coursework included child psychology, developmental psychology and child development theory.”
4. Take a fresh look at what you may think are menial jobs.
Like the USF student’s K-Mart experience, many jobs you may think of as low-level can be cast in a light that is appealing to employers. Brooks, Muir, DeCarlo and Brown all work with their counselees to draw out exactly what they did while waitressing or babysitting. For instance, did you babysit for five different families in your neighborhood? That can be framed as managing a child care business, working with children aged 2-10, providing recreational activities and nutritional snacks. If you mowed lawns over the summer for ten different clients, you ran a garden care business.
Brooks encourages students to loosen up a little and take an expansive view of what they’ve done. She counseled one student who had worked at Hershey HSY +0.69% Park in Hershey, Pa. Her résumé’s first draft listed the job as “customer relations representative.” When Brooks queried her, she learned that the young woman had dressed up as a Krackel Bar and walked around the grounds. The student wound up doing everything from giving directions to helping an elderly gentleman who had collapsed from exhaustion. Brooks advised her to list her job as “Krackel Bar,” and then include bullet points that described how she provided tourist information including accommodations and restaurants, and interacted with at least 100,000 visitors.
5. Scrutinize your extra-curricular activities and think about how they might relate to a real-world job.
Students often dismiss their experiences if they didn’t come in the form of an internship or a formal job. But involvement in extra-curricular activities, like clubs, social groups and sports, can demonstrate that you have valuable expertise. For instance, if you were the event coordinator at your sorority fundraiser, that can impress hiring managers, especially if you want to work in non-profit fundraising or event management. Beth Brown recommends listing your job as “Student, full time, Florida State University,” and in your bullet points, saying something like, “coordinated logistics for annual fundraising resulting in raising $35,000 for the local Red Cross chapter.” You could also say you managed 57 volunteers, secured donations for a silent auction, and designed and orchestrated a theme. All of those details could impress a potential employer.