Resumes For Recent Grads: Translating Campus Experiences Into Real-World Skills

Photo: afronie

If you’re a recent grad, I hope you've snagged the job of your dreams with a great company, perhaps after having completed summer internships or cooperative work programs with your current employer. But you may be in the midst of a job search (or as a rising senior, getting ready to launch a campaign) and wondering what should be included on your résumé and what is best left unsaid. Will the bartending gig make you seem unsuitable for corporate life? Will employers avoid those who have spent summers on church mission trips? I’ll share ways to translate class projects, volunteer activities, and campus involvement into real-life skills valuable in the workplace.

So, should you include the bartending job and church mission trips? It depends…on your career goals and other experiences. If you hope to land an event planning position with the community affairs department of a major corporation or want to build a career in the hospitality industry, then your stints tending bar for black-tie galas are relevant; but if you’ve spent the last two summers orchestrating formal dinners with guest lists exceeding 500 people or running a bed & breakfast while the owners took an extended vacation, then the bartending jobs may be eliminated in favor of more significant experience.

For the mission trips, consider your duties and the working environment. Your experiences may be impressive to a hiring manager if you helped provide medical attention to people in a foreign country and want to work in a hospital with a large immigrant population, if you tutored at-risk children and want to be a teacher in an inner-city high school, or you repaired houses and hope to start a career in construction.

To figure out what’s relevant, it’s helpful to do 3 things:

  • Clarify what kind of position you’re hoping to find and/or what type of company might have such a position;
  • Define the capabilities that the person in this position will need in order to excel and/or what types of skills the company values;
  • Determine the relevance of each experience (paid job, volunteer work, campus activity, or class project) to your target position and its significance relative to all of your qualifications.

Then, think about experiences that can be applied to the needs of a potential employer. If you majored in fashion design, you may have researched seasonal trends, conceptualized design themes, and selected color palettes. The computer science major may have led a system conversion, written and tested programming code, evaluated new technology, and provided technical support to users.

If you’re not exactly sure what you’d like to do after college or your dream job is not yet attainable, then consider general abilities that most any employer will find useful, such as the ability to:

  • Research information, draw conclusions, and present findings;
  • Communicate effectively through written and oral presentations;
  • Collaborate with people on multi-disciplinary teams;
  • Manage projects by setting goals, defining project components with timelines, making assignments, reviewing progress, resolving issues, and bringing projects to conclusion.

Is it necessary to have acquired these experiences in a paid position? No! You may have built skills by completing a class assignment, going on an outing with your sorority, or hanging out a friend. While you don’t want to overstate the value of the all-nighter you pulled helping your roommate study for a big exam ("provided remedial instruction to underperforming student"?), it’s okay to discuss meaningful experiences. 

Examples of what you might include:

  • Campus club project: planned and directed a 5K fundraiser; led club members in securing business sponsorships and in-kind donations, promoting participation among students and community members, and supervising race-day activities. 
  • Student competition: designed and built an unmanned aerial vehicle that performed specific tasks by interpreting GPS navigational data, working in collaboration with a cross-functional team.
  • Sorority/Fraternity: participated in community service projects that included hosting a health fair for an underserved population.
  • Class project: created a business plan for a proposed retailer specializing in licensed athletic apparel; developed budget for start-up and ongoing operations; devised marketing plan to drive store traffic.
  • Other: contributed to the development of a proposal for an art exhibit involving theme selection, identification of relevant works, feasibility analysis, and budget preparation, yielding $50,000 in grant funds.

Should grades, high school activities, interests, or other stuff be included? Consider sharing on your résumé if the item

  • is spectacular;
  • sets you apart from other students;
  • sparks a conversation.

Examples are earning academic honors such as Phi Beta Kappa; finishing 5 marathons in 5 months; earning the Eagle Scout or Gold Award (Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts); or competing on a high school team that placed first in a national science competition. 

Hopefully, you'll uncover a few experiences that will be meaningful to hiring managers. Tell about your internship but don't forget the leadership skills you acquired as soccer captain or head of a class project. If you're a recent grad who has impressed employers with traditional work experiences and/or campus experiences, share your story.

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Guest's picture

I think that showcasing the fact that you held a position for a significant amount of time is important, no matter what the job was in college.

For example, lets say the grad is applying for a job in finances somewhere, but held down a bartending gig for two years while keeping up their grades. Sure, the bartending experience isn't applicable to investments, but it does show commitment, and the ability to juggle work and studies successfully for an extended period of time.

Guest's picture

I'm so frustrated with finding a job. I've been unemployed for over a year now and it seems like my degree isn't worth **** in the real world. I need experience, yet nobody wants to give me the chance to gain any experience. I already have plenty of experience during college but it seems now that I've been unemployed for a year that NOBODY wants to hire my sorry ass. I'm contemplating suicide, what the hell is wrong with me? Why can't I find a job? I'm so fed up with life.

Julie Rains's picture

Hang in there -- things will get better though often it takes a while.

When I graduated from college, the country was in a recession and unemployment rates were in the double-digits (in some states); I really didn't realize the full implications -- only that I and many people I knew were having trouble finding jobs. I moved to a tiny town in order to take a position; my later-to-become husband took a low paying job after looking for work for a year. It certainly seemed that experience was in demand and there were lots of experienced people looking for jobs, making it even more difficult for me, as a recent college grad, to distinguish myself. The small town thing worked for me despite the culture shock.  

Since then, I've observed what others did to get through those times: some moved to remote locations to get a job (places more experienced people tended to avoid); some returned to school to wait out the bad times; some just took whatever they job available and then moved on when times got better; a few started investing in part-time businesses. Getting any type of experience, whether or not it is a precise match to your background, is useful to moving on.

I should add that it was difficult not to associate the economic conditions with worthiness as a job candidate or an employee; there are/were many who managed to thrive but for many, it took at least a few-to-several years to find our niche.  


Guest's picture

Wow. I'm in a similar position as you Guest, but am taking it better since I don't buy into self-fulfillment through employment. But having no money can be depressing. I suggest you go to an employment agency or temp agency if you are really desperate. And, since the BA is the new HS diploma, you'll probably need to go back to school for an actual degree. The job-market is getting more competitive, so you can't expect an employer to take a risk on you. Whether additional student loans will be worth it is difficult to say. Probably not, but you're kind of trapped.

Otherwise get vocational training in a trade or join the military. (Someday I might even take my own advice)

Guest's picture

I am about to finish my 3rd year of bible college in 5 months and I decided to take it into my own hands to create my dream job. Instead of waiting for someone to offer it to me I decided I want to work for myself.
I want to be a writer and I am passionate about finances so I have started my own blog and I will be building up my readership over the next year and writing an ebook in the next 18 months.
I don't want to be stuck to a boring day job, I want to work for myself.

Guest's picture

I am starting my senior year of college this fall and I am scared of going into the job market next spring. I am worried about not being able to find a job despite all my internships/extracurriculars/experience. All I can hope is that what I have is enough to get a career I truly enjoy and with potential to move up. But I guess that is what everyone is hoping for.

Guest's picture

After graduating and being unemployed hemorrhaging money sporadically to pay off school loans and credit card debt I sat down with an old mentor who provided me with some great advice.

"When the economy is in a recession and you can count on the job market to be crawling up, you have two options. You can either travel or go back to school. In todays market the reward for learning a second language like Mandarin is much higher than the business school you can afford right now."

So I am off to Hebei, China to teach for a year and attend grad school at the same uni.

Fred Lee's picture

Call me crazy, you wouldn't be the first, but I'm one of those weird people that thinks going to college is more than just preparing for a job. I'm saying this in response to your guest who thinks his degree isn't worth anything.

And the truth of the matter is, your degree does mean something. The completion of a college liberal arts degree, while not necessarily giving a person a world of practical experience, tells employers a lot of who a person is in terms of character. In the long run, for a business, that means a lot.

Recruiters will tell you that where you went to school and how you performed are factors in deciding who to hire. The problem is that your classmates who could afford to do unpaid summer internships have a leg up on you, but like Julie says, you can translate all college experiences into practical assets, especially if you enjoy learning and make the most of your college experience.

Thanks for the in-depth and very informative article, Julie. There's great advice in there.

Guest's picture

I've completely switched to using a skills resume now that I'm not in the career field I trained for in college. It's helped me to get varried and interesting jobs while I try and figure out what I want to be when I grow up. Thanks for the great post!