10 Résumé Tips for Non-Traditional Students
With more and more adults going back to school to finish their degree, so too are many looking to change or advance in their careers. Are you one among the wave of students looking to advance in their career? Congratulations! Earning your bachelor’s degree is an excellent first step. The next one is to create a strong new résumé to show future employers all that your past work and current education will have developed you into a strong candidate.
Our team at Abound collaborated with Erin Lewis, Assistant Director of the Center for Career and Professional Development at Clarion University of Pennsylvania, to help you craft and utilize an interview-ready résumé.
1. Forget about “traditional” guidelines
If you’ve scoured the internet for résumé tips, you’ve probably already encountered such advice as ‘keep it to one page’ or ‘list your education first.’ These guidelines are fine enough as a basic foundation, but they are not hard-and-fast rules that you need to adhere to. “Traditional guidelines such as page length and content order are intended to be guides, and don’t apply to everyone in every situation,” says Lewis. “[I]t is more important to craft a résumé that includes keywords and requirements for the position, rather than following a set format.”
Every employer is familiar with the standard résumé template; they’ve read countless cookie-cutter variations of it time and time again. You won’t get any bonus points for sticking entirely to the basics. “Each person is different, and you should focus on crafting a document that is specific to you and your experiences.”
2. Keep it updated
As you progress through your degree, it’s always wise to keep your résumé fresh and updated. Erin Lewis suggests revisiting your document at the end of every semester; your recent projects and accomplishments will be at the top of your mind, and you save yourself from doing a huge overhaul of your résumé at the last minute. She also adds that, “if you use the time to be reflective on your collegiate experiences and all you’ve accomplished, [revising your résumé] can be a time of great pride.”
Semesters fly by pretty quickly, and you might not always feel that you have much to change. That’s okay! It is nevertheless worthwhile to reflect. Remember as well that you can always visit your career services office to maximize the resources available to you. “College career centers are filled with experts who can help you reach your career goals.” What’s more, going in for help on your résumé is “often a catalyst to dynamic conversations that may help guide you towards other helpful services or experiences.”
3. Tailor to each prospective job description
You might think your past experience and current educational pursuits are enough to get you noticed by a recruiter, but that’s not always the case. Especially in specialized career fields, employers want to ensure that the person they hire has relevant experience, not just experience in general. One strategy that companies use to narrow down their applicant pool is to implement Applicant Tracking Systems, AI-driven software that ‘weeds out’ unqualified applicants through keyword searches and other automated vetting. If you aren’t tailoring your résumé (and cover letter) to the specific job, you might not even make it to the eyes of a human recruiter.
Show each potential employer that you care about the position. “Carefully review each job or internship posting for keywords such as skills, experiences, or requirements. Go through your résumé looking for these keywords and finding ways in which to include them strategically in your document.” This doesn’t mean that you should try to trick the system; rather, it just means that you’re paying attention to how your experience aligns with what each position is asking for.
4. Address any gaps or discrepancies
Hey, life happens, and sometimes the things that take priority aren’t what can be measured by profit or promotions. That’s okay! Did you take some years off of work or school to raise your family? Did you need to take some time away from school to work a part-time job? It’s all valid. Even if you’re not comfortable sharing the exact circumstances, you can keep it vague. Just know that recruiters will want to know something.
“If you have gaps in your experiences, it is always better to be proactive rather than reactive,” says Lewis. “Consider addressing this in your application letter or using class projects to fill the gaps. You could also focus on your community involvement if you took extensive time off work. If you were part of a community group and actively engaged, consider calling that career-related experience and focus on the skills you developed or enhanced during that time.”
5. List all of your experience
You’d be surprised at how much of your life can transfer to your success as an employee. Do you volunteer with your church or participate in a student organization? Have you earned any achievements or awards? Include industry honors, company honors, and significant work milestones, all of which demonstrate that you’re an achiever.
“Oftentimes,” says Lewis, “we undervalue our life experiences. Take time to be reflective of all you’ve accomplished on your journey. Inventory your experiences and make a few notes about how this experience helped you to achieve a goal, enhance a skill, or challenged you in some way.”
Don’t be discouraged if you can’t think of achievements on the spot. Your school’s career services office is available to help you brainstorm your past experiences and communicate them in a marketable way for employers.
6. Think outside the box: soft skills and transferable skills
Employers aren’t just looking for candidates who have industry-specific skills and knowledge; they want employees with strong soft skills, or universally valued skills that make for a good worker in all professions. Communication skills, the ability to work in a team, leadership and work ethic—all of these attributes are key in every workplace.
Have you worked a part-time job while also raising a family or going to school? Congrats, you’re a great multi-tasker. Have you worked in the service industry? Great, you probably have unparalleled patience and problem solving skills. Think creatively about your experience, and don’t underestimate how many transferable skills you have.
7. Get professional help
As we’ve mentioned, the career services office at your institution is an incredible resource. Navigating the application and interview process is what they do every day. Schedule an appointment with a career counselor to get a clear idea of how you can strategize and achieve your career goals. It’s their job to understand every student’s unique needs and how to set them up for success, so take advantage!
8. Do a mock interview
You can never be over-prepared to make a good first impression. Job interviews are your opportunity to show employers who you are and bring your résumé to life. The way you conduct yourself and respond to challenging questions can make or break your chances at getting hired, so it’s always a good idea to schedule a mock interview with someone from your career services office.
Erin Lewis stresses that you should do at least one mock interview to practice answering common interview questions. “This helps you to have an understanding of what to expect and how to elaborate on your résumé story.” With your career counselor’s help, you will be able to handle with grace whatever is thrown at you, all while learning how to more clearly articulate more details that you might have left out of the résumé itself.
9. Hand it out at career fairs
You never know when you’ll find an opportunity to network with a potential employer. Your school might even host a career fair specifically designed for non-traditional students! To take advantage of these golden opportunities, bring freshly updated copies of your résumé to hand out to the employers you meet. Keep in mind that other students will be doing the same, so take time to think about how you can stand out in person, not just on paper. Prepare a 30-second elevator pitch to let them know what your goals are, what skills you have, and who you are as a person.
10. Be patient
Landing a fulfilling career takes patience and persistence, so don’t get discouraged through all of your résumé work and job seeking. Just by pursuing your bachelor’s degree, you’re already taking a huge step in the right direction!
One of the most valuable things you can do to make sure your résumé is the strongest it can be is to ask a career center professional for help. From finding out what your goals are to making the leap and applying for a job, the staff at your institution are there to help you every step of the way. It As Ms. Lewis suggests, this entire process “is not just about finding a job; it is about finding a career that is fulfilling. Be reflective of your goals. Knowing what you value and what you find important will help navigate the complexities of the job search by narrowing down your options. There is no ‘right’ career, there is only what is right for you. Working with a career center professional on this process can help take out some of the mystery. They are trained at asking you questions and helping you understand the process.”
For more about Clarion University and its professional preparation, go to its Abound: Finish College profile or clarion.edu. And for more advice on completing your degree and landing a post-graduate career, check out our Advice section for non-traditional students.