How to Write a Resume if You’ve Never Had a Real Job

Entering the job market for the first time can be scary, but you can still make your resume stand out from the pack by using these tips and tricks from career experts.

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Sep 26 2018, 4:06pm

Illustration by Kitron Neuschatz

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When it comes to finding a job, everyone has to start somewhere, especially if you are still in college and have nothing but a bunch of unpaid internships and class projects under your belt. Competing with people who have more experience under their belt can make it seem like you’ll never get hired. But you can become a standout candidate without lying or over even exaggerating on your resume.

The market is very strong right now for entry level jobs, with the number of open jobs hitting an all time record high in July of seven million vacancies, CNBC reported, and new college grads making an average of $50,390 a year. “At the same time, I have also seen an upward trend of starting salaries over the past three years,” Marla McGraw, director of career management at Michigan State University, said.

All those job openings mean employers are more open-minded about hiring someone with less experience and even those without a degree. The manufacturing industry has been hardest hit— some companies hire people who haven’t completed high school for jobs that pay up to $25 an hour with benefits, the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, New York reported.

But even many entry-level jobs require a resume. “You have one shot to make a good impression,” explains Vicki Salemi, career expert for Monster. “Your cover letter and resume are your ticket to get your foot in the door.”

Just remember to limit your resume to one page. “There is no reason for a resume to be two pages when you are coming right out of college,” Salemi says. “Plus, a concise resume shows the employer you are an effective communicator.” Keep your experience to a few bullet points—a lengthy resume is game over before it begins. This sample resume from Fastweb is a good example of a concise resume layout.

Now that you are ready to dive in, here’s how to make your resume shine:

Start with your education

In addition to your degree, include if you studied abroad and can fluently speak a foreign language, along with any special skills you learned in school, Salemi says. “If they’ve had a leadership role within a student organization, companies look at that as very valuable, and the corresponding bullet points would be about the work they’ve done or projects they lead on behalf of the club,” McGraw says.

“Students could also add in capstone projects or in-class projects involving companies, as long as they’re clear within the resume about the role they had—which might be indicated by ‘student lead’ or ‘student consultant’.” Monster offers this example of how to feature your education on your resume. Here’s a sample for an environmental science grad, for instance:

Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio, Sept. 2015 - May 2019
Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science, Current GPA: 3.6

If you want to feature the lead you took on a class project, try this approach:

Introduction to Philosophy (PHIL 101) – Great Western Philosophers Project
Created interactive website listing five great western philosophers and their teachings
Led team of four students to develop words, graphics, and short videos
Presented project at Student Philosophical Society of America in May 2018

Here are some templates from Pennsylvania State University and the University of Wisconsin that you can use as a guide.

Summer jobs, internships and club leadership is all fair game

Don’t discount summer jobs or internships as they can demonstrate your work ethic and ability to excel. “Think of ways you shined in that job, whether you were stocking shelves or waiting tables,” Salemi says. “Did you train other employees, always clock in on time or did you effectively deal with difficult customers? Also, did you supervise and train new interns or work seven consecutive days at your job? These are all important accomplishments you shouldn’t minimize.”

Additionally, “If a student has significant volunteer or unpaid work experience, and can demonstrate that they’ve gained some transferable skills and added value to their community or to the organization, then that experience should be listed,” McGraw says.

Write up your experience like this:

Lucy’s General Store
Stock Clerk, June - August 2017
In charge of merchandising and maintaining produce placement and supply for the entire store
Pivoted easily between stocking shelves to part-time cashier during rush periods
Provided customer service to demanding summer vacationers, which often included problem solving on pricing or supply issues

Here's a sample for an internship:

Robert Shaw
Professional Association Law Intern, June - August 2018
Assisted in legal and organization work for private public interest environmental law firm
Researched and flipped a case in the firm’s favor using historical evidence and case law
Wrote legal memos and personally delivered evidence to state courts

Lastly, here's a sample entry for a club you took and active role in:

Women in Business Club
Vice President, September 2017 - Present
Networking and collaboration with women interested in a career path in business
Reached out to local business leaders and arranged on-campus discussions with undergraduates, which led to several internships for club members.

The Muse and Indeed have good samples of how to feature a summer or part-time job.

You've got skillz

Pump up any technical skills you’ve learned along the way like any special software or hardware systems, coding or special research skills. You can either include these in the sections where you learned them or create a separated list of special skills in a column on the side or at the bottom of your resume. Here’s an example:

Special skills
Investigative research, Wordpress, Photoshop, Microsoft Excel, SAS, Italian (fluent)

Don’t forget the cover letter

The content of your cover letter—yes, you need one—can make or break your chances of getting an initial interview. “Think of your cover letter as your elevator pitch to the employer,” Salemi explains. “You have a short time to get the hiring manager’s attention so you want to highlight special skills without just repeating what you included on your resume.”

Be sure to customize the cover letter for each job too, as hiring managers can spot a form letter a mile away and won't be impressed. A good start is simply to read the job description and use that as a way to connect your skills and experience to what they want. It doesn't hurt to add why you want to work for that company in particular as opposed to any other media company, law firm, tech startup.

Don't be afraid to name drop, either. “If you networked with someone at the company, put that within the first paragraph of the cover letter, “After speaking with Sarah Spartan about her project…,’” McGraw says. Monster offers a cover letter template recent college grads can follow.

Before you hit the send button ...

Always check your grammar and spelling. “Don’t rely on spell check to catch errors,” Salemi says. “You could mean ‘job’ and spell check will clear a word like ‘jog,’ for instance.” You should also have someone review your resume too because, “companies throw out resumes with spelling and grammatical errors,” McGraw says.

Finally, steer clear of clichéd language like saying you are a “fast learner” or are “detail oriented.” Instead actually demonstrate these qualities through a concise, well-written resume filled with actual examples. You've got this!

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