How to turn your college experience into a startup-ready resume
Or: How to think like a hiring manager
We all know someone who graduated from high school dead set on a startup career — that girl down the hall who spent college attending hackathons, working strategic internships, networking with local entrepreneurs, and generally getting her foot in the door.
But if that’s not you—if you came to your interest in startups later in the game, couldn’t work unpaid internships, or for some other reason didn’t gain startup experience during college—don’t despair! Even if your resume lacks all explicit startup experience, it doesn’t mean startup jobs are outside of your grasp. But it does mean you’ll need to be strategic about how you present yourself.
Every year, we evaluates thousands of resumes from college seniors and recent grads, and we’re pretty good at spotting candidates who seem equipped to excel in a startup environment. Here are the do’s and don’ts of taking your undergrad experience and crafting a resume appropriate for a startup role.
THE DON’Ts: here’s what not to do when crafting your startup resume.
DON’T focus on academic achievement
It’s great if you took your studies seriously and excelled in college. A strong GPA can show hiring managers that you know how to focus and work hard.
But for the most part, college courses don’t translate directly to startup work. If you focus too heavily on academic work — by highlighting papers you wrote or specific courses you took, for example — it can come off as though you don’t know what startup jobs are like, and what experience is valuable.
When to ignore this rule: If you’ve taken classes that feel unambiguously relevant (mechanical engineering for a mechanical engineering job), or if you’ve worked on projects for a class that have real world outcomes (developing an app or planning a large event, etc.).
DON’T focus on experience gained during high school (unless you’re a first-year or sophomore)
For those of you applying for your first college job or internship, feel free to skip this bullet point.
As for the rest of you—even if you were the valedictorian, squash captain, and founder of the Latin club, don’t feature this information prominently, if at all. It gives the impression that you haven’t done anything of note during your years in college, and trust us, you do not want your resume to indicate that you reached your professional apex during high school.
High school experience can be included if you held a relevant job or internship—but it should be a complimentary couple of lines, not the full story.
DON’T overdo it on the jargon
Most of the hiring managers you will encounter have had retail, food service, and/or on-campus jobs, just like you. If you dress up your barista job with startup jargon past the point of recognition, it will seem at best a little silly, and at worst dishonest or desperate. Either way, the hiring manager will probably have a pretty clear sense of what your job was actually like—you won’t fool anyone.
If you did work you’re proud of, you should be able to communicate that work in straightforward language.
DON’T rely on a list of vague character traits
Are you detail-oriented, a strong analytic thinker, and great at working in teams? Excellent! But anyone can make those claims, so it’s super important to back them up with experience. (Work experience, or a rigorous class project, are better than a list of courses taken—no one will be impressed by your analytic thinking skills if your only proof is an A- in Logic 101).
A rule of thumb: if you can’t think of a single action you’ve taken to demonstrate a given trait, don’t include it on your resume. (And consider how you might add it to your work repertoire.)
DON’T focus on super common skills
There was a time when being “proficient in Microsoft Word” was a rare-enough skill to deserve its own line on your resume. Not so in 2017—basic computer skills won’t get you very far. If you spend space on your resume listing skills that nearly all recent grads possess, it will indicate that you’re lacking in the kinds of experiences and skills that would elevate you from the rest of the candidate pool.
THE DOs: here’s how to you tailor your resume for a startup.
DO demonstrate that you’re willing to do the gritty work, and that you don’t have a sense of entitlement
Sometimes working for a startup means doing data entry for a month. Sometimes it means answering hundreds of support emails, or putting in dozens of hours of work for an event that ultimately falls through. Most hiring managers want to find someone who has a great attitude, even when the work is tedious. If you’ve entered numbers into a spreadsheet, scheduled thousands of appointments, or answered a huge volume of customer questions, all with a great track record, that’s something to note (and quantify if possible—more on that below).
DO showcase your ability to take initiative and solve problems
Have you ever gone above and beyond—not just done your job, but improved the way your organization does business? Take a moment to think about any problems you solved at work. Let’s say the cafe where you made coffee only took cash, so you did some research, talked the owner into investing into a card reader system, and helped implement the new tool. This might not seem like a sexy resume item, but it shows your ability to identify a problem, take ownership of it, and improve the situation—a trait most busy startup employers would love to see in their new hire.
DO prove that you’re adaptable
You probably know by now that startups often require their early hires to wear a lot of hats, and to pick up new skills on the fly. If you were hired to do one type of work but ended up seriously expanding your realm of expertise—say if you were hired to re-shelve books at the library, but on top of your normal responsibilities, you developed a student reading series—this is worth mentioning. It will show you’re a team player who won’t say no to learning a new skill, or experimenting with something outside of your wheelhouse.
DO demonstrate that you can work independently
At a startup, your manager probably won’t be able to spend a lot of time coaching you, even if they want to. Lean companies are generally low on staff members and high on urgent tasks.
If you handled something without much (or any) oversight, make that clear. Did you plan an open mic at the cafe where you work, all by yourself? Singlehandedly onboard a new hire? Manage social media for the restaurant where you waitress, sans help? These things show your ability to work autonomously—a surprisingly rare and super desirable startup trait.
DO show that you have leadership potential
Take a look at the experience you’ve listed, and think about whether or not your responsibilities shifted over the course of each job. If you started out with basic, entry-level tasks, any by the end your manager trusted you to close the store at night, take cash to the bank, or interview and train new employees, that kind of growth is worth noting. It shows that you did more than just get by—you earned the trust of your employer. To a hiring manager, a long line of employers trusting you in the past looks like a strong indicator of your future performance.
DO support your achievements with numbers wherever possible
We’re big fans of Laszlo Bock’s simple formula: Accomplished [X] as measured by [Y] by doing [Z].
- Start with an active verb (check out 185 great options here)
- Quantify what you accomplished
- Provide a baseline for comparison
- Explain how you achieved that result
Plain and simple, numbers add impact. Try to include information like the size of the company or student org, % growth or change related to your actions, or any related dollar amounts. Also, be sure to put the numbers into context. Is x% good? Is it the best in the history of the org? What’s average?
If you’re still feeling like your resume doesn’t adequately convey who you are, don’t stress — a resume is only part of the application. Read our tips for writing a knockout cover letter here. And good luck!
Now quite at the resume-crafting stage? If you’re wondering how to gain startup experience if you’re getting a totally unrelated degree, read our tips!
For more resources, visit ventureforamerica.org.
And if there’s a topic you’d like us to cover, email us!