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Résumé Tips for Recent College Graduates

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A lot of résumé advice is targeted to people with years of experience in their professions. But, if you’ve recently been enrolled in college, chances are you have résumé questions that are specific to your first post-college job search.
You may be wondering whether to include your GPA, if you’re supposed to list your high school diploma, and what to say about the part-time jobs you’ve had over the last few years.

So let’s explore some résumé-writing rules that apply specifically to recent grads. First we’ll look at what to delete from your résumé. Then we’ll cover what to add, elaborate, or emphasize.

5 Items to Remove from Your Post-College Résumé

For several years, I taught technical writing courses to college sophomores, juniors, and seniors. As the final assignment of the semester, my students had to prepare résumés and cover letters in response to real job openings in their fields. If they were not yet seniors, we pretended they were and focused on how to write that first post-college résumé. Here are the items we most commonly had to remove.

1. High School Info
This includes your degree, honors and awards, extracurricular activities, and anything else from your high-school years. If you’ve finished college, any reader of your résumé knows you also completed a high-school diploma or equivalent certification. Instead of listing high-school activities and awards, list your college ones. Employers want to know what you’ve done more recently.

2. College GPA
Unless your GPA is 3.5 or higher (on a 4.0 scale), remove it. You probably don’t know the specific person who will be reading your résumé. She might have barely scraped a C-minus average in college, or she might have earned a perfect 4.0. She may be impressed by a 3.0, or that might sound low to her. The best practice is to rely on widely accepted standards about what counts as a noteworthy GPA. Graduating with a 3.5 or higher usually qualifies a student for honors: cum laude, magana cum laude, or summa cum laude. If you earned one of these distinctions, it should be on your résumé.

3. Course Numbers
Course numbers mean everything when you’re filling out a degree plan and counting up your credits toward graduation. To an employer, however, they’re just random numbers. Use course titles instead.

4. Irrelevant Coursework
Don’t list every upper-level course you took or every course in your major. Be selective. Study the job posting. Then include only the courses that are relevant to the job. Maybe that’s a short, focused list of senior-level courses in your major. Maybe it includes electives that demonstrate you’re a well-rounded candidate with unexpected and useful skills.

5. Personal Information
Your résumé should not include a photo, anything about your marital status or family life, or anything about your hobbies. Some career experts disagree about hobbies, but I side with those who say leave them off. Your list of hobbies is unlikely to land you an interview, but the list itself is likely to be perceived as fluff or filler.


4 Items to Emphasize on Your Post-College Résumé

When I was teaching, we would go through the list above, and my students would ruthlessly pare down their résumés. Then we’d come back to class and start rebuilding. Some of my students would arrive at that class meeting with a mostly blank page bearing only contact info, a degree, and a couple of part-time jobs. Here’s what we would add and elaborate to make effective, professional résumés.

All of these items deal with precision, which I’ve also written about here.

1. Specific Job Duties
You may not have any experience in your degree field yet, but I bet you have relevant experience. Maybe a stressful retail job required you to interact with disgruntled customers. As a result, you know how to deal gracefully and diplomatically with tense situations. Maybe running your own lawn-mowing business taught you about careful scheduling and the importance of communicating with clients. Take a look at your experience section. If your job duties say only that you “assisted customers” or “mowed lawns,” you need to elaborate. Consider what you learned from those previous jobs that would be valuable to a future employer. Make sure your experience section reflects those useful skills and experiences.

2. Work Accomplishments
If you benefited the company you worked for — by saving money, by finding a flaw in a system, by streamlining a process — mention that in your experience section. Be precise. Be factual. But don’t be shy about including these things. It shows off your problem-solving abilities.

3. Community Involvement
Employers tend to view volunteer experience quite favorably. Volunteering demonstrates strong character, a willingness to help others, and engagement with your community. Put work experience in one section, volunteer experience in another. Involvement in your campus community is also important, so include a section for your extracurricular activities during college.

4. Specific Skills
Employers will be unimpressed if you tell them you can have excellent communication skills or strong leadership skills. Merely claiming these skills, rather than demonstrating them in the specifics of your experience section, inevitably comes across as vague and slightly suspicious. But you should include what Lily Zhang, a career development specialist at MIT, calls “hard skills.”  Hard skills include Photoshop, programming languages, laboratory skills, and SEO (search engine optimization). Rather than making vague claims, these items tell employers specific things you can do, things not every applicant is capable of.


An Exception to Every Rule

All of the points above are solid guidelines. You can use them to make your résumé better. I’ve used them to help many college students and recent grads improve their résumés. Along the way I’ve learned that every person’s collection of experiences is unique. I’ve worked with a student in her 40s who still included her high school diploma. I’ve worked with recent graduates who chose to include hobbies or a GPA below 3.5. They each had solid reasons.

It’s quite possible that one of these really good rules simply doesn’t work for you. You can always bend the rules, but know exactly why you’re bending them. Have a good reason. Be able to explain why your situation is the exception.


Résumé Tips for Recent College Graduates

What questions do you still have about preparing your post-college résumé? Ask in the comments. I’d love to discuss it with you.

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