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Build Your Career Get the Job

How Grads Can Get the Job with Limited Work Experience

How Grads Can Get the Job with Limited Work Experience
Credit: RawPixel/Shutterstock

Following final exams, commencement, graduation parties and goodbyes, new college graduates are thrust into the real world in search of jobs.

With all the time spent studying and focusing on grades, it's not always easy to gain valuable job experience during the academic year – which means some new degree-holders desperately need to bolster their resume upon graduation. This doesn't mean they can't stand out when applying for jobs, but it does mean they need to know what employers are looking for in the hiring process.

Even with minimal work experience, recent graduates have the tools to put together a resume that helps them earn a job they're proud of. Here are a few tips to move from a worried graduate to a new hire.

Spend time adapting your resume to each job you apply for. Let's say you're applying to be a manager at a manufacturing plant. Including relevant leadership experience in clubs or internships can help show you'd be a strong fit for a managerial role. On the flip side, sharing that you were a food columnist at your college's student newspaper likely has no relevance to the position and doesn't merit space on your resume. If you're applying to be an entry-level chef, the column may regain relevance and demonstrate your culinary knowledge.

By tailoring your resume to the job instead of using one generic version for each application, you improve your chances of standing out in a stack of resumes. [Read related article: Creative Ways to List Job Skills on Your Resume.]

Alexander Lowry, a professor of finance at Gordon College, says to break the job description down to understand which broad category your job falls under. From there, you can tweak your resume.

"Someone is hired to do one of three things: make the company money, save the company money or make the boss's job easier," he said. "Find out which the job fulfills. Then tailor your resume to address that problem."

It's also important to read the job description in search of keywords. Many companies use applicant tracking software to help sort through the early rounds of resumes. If your resume doesn't address what the employer is looking for in the job description, there's a good chance it  won't even be viewed by a person in the company.

"Your [resume] ... should effectively communicate that you've developed a variety of skills that allowed you to make a real impact," said Alex Sereno, a ZipRecruiter career advisor. "Define the skills in a way that online resume technology will recognize and keep your formatting very simple for that same reason."   

While a candidate may lack formal work experience, that doesn't mean they don't possess relevant skills or meaningful experience in related work. Showcase experiences that can translate to the workforce by highlighting extracurricular activities where you excelled in college. Serving as your school's club lacrosse president might not seem like it has a connection to a job as a project manager, but the leadership experience may separate you from other candidates.

"College students who were elected team captains, elected members of the college's student council, editors of a college publication, stage managers or student directors of a college theater production or officers in any student organization can likely recount some recent leadership or management experiences," said Timothy Wiedman, a retired associate professor of management and human resources at Doane University. "Accomplishing group goals while directing the work of other students is a skill that can often transfer to an employment setting."

Including volunteer experience, athletic achievements and your GPA are all ways to indicate your value without needing previous work experience. These accolades and experiences don't necessarily need to be in a separate portion of your resume, either.

"Unpaid positions can be listed just like jobs within the experience section of your resume; they don't need to be relegated to a volunteer section," said Kelly Donovan, a writer of executive resumes and job search coach. "Your description can make it clear that this was an unpaid volunteer role."

Donovan noted that your role as a student can be listed just like a job in the experience section.

"You can write bullet points highlighting interesting projects you worked on while in school that would be relevant to your target jobs," she added.

LinkedIn and various social media platforms provide students with the opportunity to showcase their talent to employers 24 hours a day. Including a well-designed resume, detailed explanations of their skills and a past portfolio of work at internships or in classes goes a long way toward impressing potential employers. For those with limited work experience, an active and professional LinkedIn can make a world of difference in the hiring process.

"Recent graduates should know that a paper resume can only do so much for them," said Andrew Selepak, the director of the graduate program in social media at the University of Florida. "I encourage all of my students to create portfolio websites and LinkedIn accounts, and to list both at the top of their resume. Unlike a paper resume, an online portfolio can include multimedia as well as projects the students have completed at an internship."

Online portfolios serve as a great way to showcase your skillset with a more interactive and visually appealing resume than one on paper. Incorporate photos and videos to help the portfolio stand out.

Remember, employers want to know you can come in and add value from day one. While formal work experience can show that you'd benefit the team, it isn't the only way to do so. With a great resume, portfolio and personal brand, you can showcase your abilities and impress hiring managers.

"In a world of unique disruption, allowing the resume to showcase the skills a candidate can deliver helps immensely when work experience is limited," said Carole Stizza, a work success coach at Relevant Insight Coaching. "Limited work history doesn't mean you don't have immense value."

Bennett Conlin

Bennett is a B2B editorial assistant based in New York City. He graduated from James Madison University in 2018 with a degree in business management. During his time in Harrisonburg he worked extensively with The Breeze, JMU’s student-run newspaper. Bennett also worked at the Shenandoah Valley SBDC, where he helped small businesses with a variety of needs ranging from social media marketing to business plan writing. Contact him through email or Twitter.