For whatever reason, not all college students have work experience under their belt—but it’s not like you’ve been slacking off. Maybe you took classes over the summer; or you had regular sports training; or you volunteered for Habitat for Humanity, building homes in one of their Global Village programs. Wherever you were, and whatever you were doing, chances are you gained some valuable experience that can be translated into professional skills to help you land your first job. Here’s how to do that, and catch your future employer’s eye.
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Sam, a computer science major at University of Central Florida, was part of the marching band in high school and during his freshman year in college, before he joined a competitive drum corp to follow his passion as a percussionist. That meant 4 summers during college traveling the country. Now pursuing his master’s at Georgia Tech, Sam says he knew he could get plenty of software experience after he graduated, but the drum corps was a limited opportunity. “I consciously made that choice. I wanted to follow my passion, and I knew the skills that I learned would carry over,” he says of his decision to not pursue an internship. “In hindsight, they were probably the best summers of my life, and I also learned a ton.”
He recalls that when it came time to look for a job, “I thought, ‘OK, I have zero office experience, and all these places say I need to be able to do XYZ.’ But that’s typical—in order to apply for a job, you need experience or you need to know how to do the job.”
So what Sam did was relate the skills he learned from the drum line to skills that employers are interested in. “When it came to creating a resume, I knew I couldn’t say ‘I got better at drumming’— I was going for a job in the software industry! But I was able to look at my experience and say, ‘I developed work ethic, time management, and leadership skills; I learned how to set goals and meet expectations; I practiced teamwork, etc.’ I pulled those things out of it.”
Not only did he glean resume skills from his passion but he also showcased them on his LinkedIn profile. “For me, it was a way to say, ‘Hey, there’s this drumming thing that I do, and it’s important to me. I enjoy music— it’s a huge part of who I am.”
The important point, he says, is how you tell your story—and how you frame those experiences on your resume and in interviews.
College athletes often don’t have internship experience, since they spend most of their spare time training for their sport and can’t commit to regular office hours. However, “it’s just a matter of knowing how to communicate the skills they develop on a resume,” explains Beth Hendler-Grunt, founder and president of Next Great Step, an advisory service that helps new grads land their first job. Ask yourself, “What have I learned from my experience?” Did you learn how to lead a team? How to analyze plays? Were you able to resolve disputes or gain insights from mistakes or challenges? That is what you should be focusing on and highlighting.
For instance, “I [worked with] a really high-level Division I lacrosse player for Duke,” says Hendler-Grunt. “He spent all his time doing that, but he was able to talk about how, by senior year, he was a captain, and how he mentored the younger players. Investing time to teach and mentor junior teammates demonstrates leadership and team building. On your resume, you can say, ‘Led junior team members to accomplish team goals,’ or ‘Teamed with other partners to create common initiatives for the school,’ or ‘Provided leadership on the field.’”
Something else to mention, she adds, is your ability to persevere through difficulties and challenges. That translates across activities and professions.
You can also turn your classwork into skills that are relevant to the workforce. “There are so many group projects that happen in class and capstone,” says Hendler-Grunt. And the experience gained working with others can give your career potential a lift.
“One of our team members in Senior Design dropped out, and I stepped up into a leadership role,” says Nick, a senior in computer engineering at North Carolina State. “That required time-management skills to successfully handle the additional responsibilities.”
“Even though it’s classwork, it still shows that you’ve thought through the skills you’ve learned, and what might be applicable, and important, to an employer,” says Hendler-Grunt. “Have you worked well with others in school? You can translate that to the workplace by saying you managed conflicts while working on a team of 4 people to develop a marketing campaign for XYZ Company.”
If there was something unique that you achieved, for example writing a thesis or coming up with an especially creative class project, Hendler-Grunt says you can include that on your resume. Just don’t call it work experience, because that would be untrue. Instead, create a section on your resume called Leadership Experience or Relevant Coursework to highlight where you invested significant time. Whether it was as part of a campus club or a leadership role in a Capstone course to create a campaign or develop an idea, Hendler-Grunt suggests you break it out on your resume and explain your part in it.
Clubs and other activities
Samantha, a broadcast journalism major at Boston University, volunteered for a live morning news show on BUTV for 4 years as part of the media club. “Doing so, I learned more about production, writing, and working with a team than I ever could from a class,” she says. While that experience was directly related to her major, she found additional valuable skills outside of her studies as well. “As the VP of recruitment for my sorority, I was able to learn event management, social media, and leadership skills”—all things I would never have picked up just in the classroom, or even from many internships, Samantha believes. “The role taught me a lot about myself, my ability to be a leader, how to manage others, and to give and receive feedback.”
How to tell your story
Here’s what Hendler-Grunt suggests:
- Go through all your activities and make a list of the skills you’ve developed, and your strengths. Employers want to know you’re proud of your achievements, so you should feel confident coming up with this list.
- Include accomplishments and skills that are most relevant to the type of job you’re going for. “You don’t want to put everything on your resume; you want to be really concise about what you highlight and share,” says Hendler-Grunt.
- “Then, pick 3 things that you’d want someone to know about you. You want to make sure that a potential employer understands what you are competent in, and provide examples to back it up,” she says. Keep the wording strong, but concise. Remember, recruiters often spend just a minute or so reviewing your resume. It should be easy for them to see how your skills align with a potential job opportunity.