How to turn your college experience into a startup-ready resume

Or: How to think like a hiring manager

Anyone who’s worked in a dining hall can tell you, there are plenty of learning opportunities.

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

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)

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

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

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

THE DOs: here’s how to you tailor your resume for a startup.

The campus bookstore isn’t technically a startup. But don’t be dissuaded!

DO demonstrate that you’re willing to do the gritty work, and that you don’t have a sense of entitlement

DO showcase your ability to take initiative and solve problems

DO prove that you’re adaptable

DO demonstrate that you can work independently

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

DO support your achievements with numbers wherever possible

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!

Office Hours

Venture For America's field guide to working in startups and maybe even founding one of your own

Venture For America

Written by

Creating economic opportunity in American cities by mobilizing the next generation of entrepreneurs

Office Hours

Venture For America's field guide to working in startups and maybe even founding one of your own

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