Higher education prepares millions of students every year to enter the workforce, but there’s another piece of the puzzle that can help your resume stand out more than a GPA: an on-campus job. These experiences in the workplace—whether it’s working at the on-campus coffee shop, staffing the school library’s front desk, doing research in a professor’s lab, or countless other responsibilities—can help you land your first job after graduation.
Successfully knowing how to talk about on-campus jobs on your resume, in your cover letter, and throughout the interview process, can make all the difference in your job search.
Below is a complete guide on how to take your job from on-campus to post-grad:
Resumes are all about presenting relevant accomplishments: what did you do while you were in school, during work-study, or at an internship, did you do it well, and how does it prepare you for a job?
Say, for example, you are the head of a student organization and your main job is to encourage attendance at on-campus events. Reframe your experience! As an organization ambassador, you “Helped engage the student body for a variety of on-campus activities,” “Represented the organization’s brand,” or “Developed marketing materials that led to well-attended events.” Then, add data. How many people attended events when you first started your job? How much did that number increase by the time you left?
Resumes also benefit from specificity and hard skills. If you were in a coding club, list the computer languages you can write, any certifications you received, and events you attended. If you worked an on-campus job that helped acquaint you with useful software, such as AutoCAD, or Adobe Photoshop, list those as skills.
Finally, and I can’t stress this enough, a lot of companies are on the lookout for self-starters and people with initiative and leadership skills. If you worked at the on-campus sandwich shop for three years and eventually managed some of your fellow students, that is leadership experience. You have led and managed a team, showing a prospective employer that you are organized and can listen to your peers and communicate.
The Cover Letter
Cover letters are where you can provide some color and context beyond the bare-bones descriptions of your accomplishments and skillset. It allows you to contextualize your on-campus jobs, write your professional narrative, and answer questions like why you chose each position, what you are passionate about, and how past roles—along with the opportunity you’re applying for—fit into your broader goals.
As you are writing, think of each on-campus job with a beginning, during, and after. What did you hope to get out of the experience; what skills and qualities did you demonstrate on the job; and, most importantly, what did you learn? Maybe you were a tour guide in college. Here’s how you can talk about it from beginning to end:
- Beginning: You chose this job because you love your school and want others to love it as much as you do.
- During: It was challenging at first because you’ve never had a position like that before. You didn’t have much experience speaking to large groups of strangers. However, you learned how to master the role and it was rewarding to hear students say, “I’m so excited to apply here. I hope I’m accepted!” at the end of tours.
- After: You developed your public speaking skills and learned how to tailor information to different audiences while thinking on your feet.
Passion is an important element to convey in a cover letter. Hiring managers want to see that you’re excited about what you do and that you’ll bring a positive energy to the office (or virtual office!). However, even if you weren’t passionate about your job—if it was something that just helped pay the bills—you can still find ways to connect it back to your career goals. Explain how it introduced you to a new skill you enjoyed or a person who served as a mentor that guided you to your next step. Think about what your answer would be to the question, “why did you take that job in the first place?” if asked by a recruiter or job interviewer.
The Job Interview
The final step. You’ve gotten in the door (or on the phone) with an amazing cover letter and a resume that shows the value in every on-campus job, internship, and volunteering gig, and now you have to talk about them with a hiring manager. It’s important to spend time thinking about how to discuss your experiences with potential interviewers.
Think about specific stories from your on-campus experiences. While job interviewers are interested in your character, personality, and professionalism, they will also ask you specific questions about past positions or roles. Prepare yourself to discuss specific times you led a group or instances where you disagreed with a supervisor and how you resolved that. Be prepared to discuss these stories in a realistic manner, like you would tell a grandparent or a family friend, painting yourself in a favorable light and explaining what you learned from the experience.
If you’re overwhelmed by the prospect of leaving college and taking your first step into adulthood, don’t be scared! Plenty of people care about your success and have got your back. A few more helpful resources are LinkedIn, The Balance Careers, and Glassdoor. We also highly recommend connecting with your school’s career planning office. Many of them offer practical advice, will read and help edit your resume, and will even do practice interviews with you over Zoom or other video conferencing services. Happy job hunting and best of luck!