How to Build a Great Resume as a College Student

5 minute read

We are often told that a college degree can open doors. In truth, a college degree is more like a key — you can open many more doors with a key than without, but it is still up to you to find the doors and to turn the handles. Having a great resume is the first step in opening those doors, but as a college student, you may not know how to write a winning one. If so, consider these tips:

Choose a clear template

Individuals who are just starting their careers (i.e. college students) often face two competing imperatives. On the one hand, they want to include as much information as possible in the hopes that their audience will see how talented they are. On the other hand, they are told to write a single-page resume. The natural temptation is to balance these goals by utilizing a small font and minimal white space.

However, research shows that most hiring managers spend mere seconds reviewing a resume. This means that you must display the most important information in a way that hooks your reader and is clearly visible. A crowded resume may contain a wealth of great information, but your audience likely will not have the time to locate it. When you choose a template, keep in mind the importance of being able to quickly scan your resume.

Lead with your qualifications

Set aside the objectives statement. Stating an objective can focus the hiring process on your needs, when you should be asking how you can fill the needs of your potential employer. Instead of an objectives statement, lead with a short sentence that summarizes the skills and experience that you can bring to the position in question. Imagine that you will be sharing an elevator with the hiring manager, and that you will have 15-20 seconds to tell him or her why you are the ideal candidate.

Think about the valuable skills you have learned while in college. Your transcript will speak to the courses you have taken, so use your qualifications statement as a synthesis of sorts. For example, if you are a double major or have a minor in a discipline that is quite distinct from your major, you might say that you are capable of managing complicated requirements across multiple disciplines. If you worked 20 hours a week while taking a full class load, you might state that you can accomplish quality work while under pressure.

Place your education next

As a recent graduate, your degree is one of your best selling points — so feature it prominently near the top of your resume. In addition to the degree title and school name, include several bullet points that illustrate your significant academic accomplishments. This is especially important if your degree is in a very broad field, such as biology or English, where your particular skill set may not be immediately apparent.

Consider highlighting your GPA, any special programs that you participated in (such as student advisory committees or study abroad opportunities), and any academic awards that you won. If you completed a capstone project or senior paper, briefly describe it here. If your degree is in an unusual subject, or if you designed it as an interdisciplinary degree, provide a one- or two-line summary of the focus of your studies.

Continue with work experience

Prioritize those positions you have held while in college, with an emphasis on internships and practical, hands-on experiences. Resume advice for more experienced individuals often emphasizes the importance of avoiding employment gaps. This is less important for college students and recent graduates since it is not uncommon for students to be sporadically employed as they focus on their education.

If you held jobs that were not related to your career aspirations, do not discount their value. Do include your food delivery or store clerk experiences, but incorporate career-relevant information into your bullet points. For example, any job involving other people requires teamwork. If you train new employees, you have mentorship experience. If you have several areas of responsibility (i.e. working registers, stocking shelves, and answering customers’ questions), you are familiar with balancing competing demands for your time. In other words, do not simply describe the position — describe your responsibilities (for example, “I ensured customer satisfaction in a time-sensitive environment.”) In the interests of saving space, do not worry about leaving off temporary jobs or high school experiences if necessary.

Conclude with volunteer and extracurricular experiences

Many college students learn valuable skills outside the classroom. Sports, in particular, are excellent for teaching teamwork, dedication, and a strong work ethic. Volunteering for social causes or in a research lab can also provide you with real-world skills that employers value. As with your work experience, succinctly explain your responsibilities and lessons learned, rather than just writing a project description. Instead of stating that you “volunteered in a research lab,” you could say that you “provided weekly updates that summarized progress on an independently-run project.” The second summary tells prospective employers that you can work independently, as well as remain accountable for your progress — a skill that most companies deeply desire.

While preparing your resume, remember to keep your notes succinct, and to focus on accomplishments that are not immediately obvious from your transcripts and job titles. You have a great deal to offer, but you may have to work on highlighting the lessons you learned beyond the classroom.

Brian Witte is a professional tutor and contributing writer with Varsity Tutors, the leading curated marketplace for the top private tutors in the U.S. He earned his Bachelor of Science from the University of Washington and holds a Ph.D. from The Ohio State University.

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