Acing the College Resume: 5 Keys for Success

Recently, I had the opportunity to work with college students in a resume workshop.  Most of these students were Seniors graduating in the spring and it was nice to see them take a proactive approach to prepping their resumes for their post-graduation job searches. Their excitement was contagious, their professionalism impressive, and I know these young adults will achieve career success.

I did, however, find myself tackling some of the same issues across most of the students’ resumes.  At the root, these negative trends stemmed from not understanding the purpose of their resume.  I shifted their mindset from viewing their resume as a historical document to viewing it more accurately as a marketing document, where they promote their skills, value, and message to employers. 

Below, I explain the top 5 key strategies for college students to include in their resumes to effectively market their value to employers and outshine the competition.


1.       Open with a Summary and Skills Section

 There has been extensive research done to support the necessity of capturing the reader’s attention within six seconds.  I know it is hard to believe, but recruiters and hiring managers spend an average of just six seconds scanning a resume to determine if the candidate is qualified, or unqualified.  This research supports the critical strategy of including a summary and skills section at the top of the resume. 

 Chances are, hiring managers are not going to take the time to dig through experience, projects, volunteer work, and education to decipher if the candidate has the required skill sets.  Make it easy by including a summary and skills section that acts as a check list for employers to determine if candidates meet the minimum qualifications. 

 The summary is a brief 3-5 sentences, either in bullet point or paragraph form, that should include years of experience, types of roles or industries, degree programs, key internships, or any differentiating relevant information.  View this opening summary as an elevator pitch.   

 Once you have your opening summary, include a core skills list beneath it.  These skills can include soft skills, hard skills, technologies/software, or anything specific employers are looking for.  Make sure each of the skills listed are supported with experience somewhere within the resume.  Additionally, be prepared to talk about these skills in an interview: how the skill was developed or used.

 Food for thought: The summary and skills section should be tailored for each opportunity.  Make sure to talk about how you meet the required qualifications and include plenty of keywords from the job listing.


2.       Use Quantified Information and Give Details

Whether talking about school projects, committee involvement, or work experience include details of the work that was done, how it was done, who was involved, and what the objective was.  Additionally, be sure to use quantified information to articulate the scope at which you preformed.  This helps create a clear picture for employers of what your capabilities are and helps them determine if you can successfully fulfill their needs. 

 To take this a step further, include the accomplishments of your actions. Consider including what was improved, the problem that was solved, or the results of your actions. By identifying and quantifying the accomplishments, you communicate your value proposition to potential employers.      

 Food for Thought: Don’t despise small beginnings.  Managing a team of 3 doesn’t initially sound as impressive as managing a team of 300, but consider this: both situations come with pros/cons.  The leader of 300 probably doesn’t know each team member’s name and only really has touch with a few key people within the team.  Alternately, the leader of 3 has most likely built relationships with each member and has touch on all aspects of team operations. 


 3.       Expound on Academic Achievements

At the beginning of your professional career, there is probably very little relevant work experience to expound on in the resume.  In this case, focusing on academic experience and achievements will help demonstrate the skills employers look for in entry level candidates. 

 In the Education section of the resume, go beyond just listing the degree and school to consider including key projects.  As part of the curriculum for just about any degree program are at least a few key projects directly tying areas of degree focus to real world application; think capstone projects.  By including and detailing these in the resume, they give a boost to your hands-on experience in the areas of study.  If you earned an exceptional grade on the project, be sure to include that as well.

 Other items to consider including under your Education section is your GPA if over 3.5, competitive scholarships, club involvement, study abroad programs, and sports.  If space permits, write a sentence or two detailing your experience in each.

 Food for thought: Your education can communicate your work ethic, drive for excellence, and high performance.  While employers can teach job functions and skills, these innate characteristics are near impossible to teach, so there is a high value placed on them.


4.       Focus on Leadership Roles

 Another item to focus on for a college resume is leadership.  Leadership demonstrates a higher level of responsibility, the ability to successfully work with others, skills in organizing operations, and executing strategies to achieve an objective. 

 Not all leadership experience is going to come from work experience.  In fact, most college students won’t be in positions of leadership in their jobs.  The good news is leadership can be demonstrated in so many other areas of campus life and collegiate study, and it’s important to identify and include these experiences in your resume. 

 The more obvious areas of leadership are in group projects, committee/club roles, or planning various events on campus.  Additionally, consider including leadership experience from sports, residence life (RA), academic tutoring/mentoring, etc. 

Food for thought: Highlighting leadership experience can be a key factor that sets you apart from the competition.  A critical component of talking about leadership is quantifying the scope of the position.  For example, “led team of 8 in developing school project,” or “coordinated catering and agenda for event with 100 attendees.”

5.       Presentation

 Presentation matters.  Often for college students, the resume is the first impression on employers, so professional presentation is critical.  Everything communicated in the resume should be transitioning you from being viewed as a “student” to being viewed as a “professional”.  The presentation should support this message as well. 

 A resume should be easy to scan over, not overwhelming or cluttered, and clearly laid out.  There is no absolute right or wrong presentation in terms of formatting.  There are, however, industry best practices, and more importantly, strategies that work and don’t work. 

 The resume should only be one page in length.  Balance the text on the page by adjusting the margins, font size, and line spacing to comfortably fill the page; no half pages.  Ensure adequate amounts of white space and avoid large blocks of text by using bullet points and clearly separating sections: Professional Experience, Education, Volunteer Experience, etc.

 Food for thought: Before including color in your resume, consider the industry and type of role you are pursuing.  If the industry is more conservative in nature, such as banking or healthcare, the safer bet would be to not include color.  Alternately, if you’re pursuing a role in marketing or design, or going into an innovative industry like software development, you can include color, as your creativity will most likely be appreciated.  If you do include color, use it sparingly. For creatives, keep your resume professional and let your portfolio show off just how creative you can be!


By including these 5 strategies in a college resume, students can more effectively market their value to employers, enabling them to drive ahead of the competition by positioning them as professionals with desirable skill sets and characteristics hiring managers are looking for. 

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