How college seniors can get their resumes to the top of the pack before graduation

As part of Monster's series interviewing college career counselors, the experts share tips for creating a resume that will get you noticed—then get you hired.

How college seniors can get their resumes to the top of the pack before graduation

Now is the time to get your resume in shape.

Between studying and socializing, you’re faced with an unnerving question: How do you make sure you get a job after college? It starts with knowing how to make a resume that holds up under scrutiny. After all, that’s the first thing prospective employers see, so to break through in today’s competitive world, it’s got to be perfect—or it’s as good as recycled.

To say that the entry-level job market is competitive is an understatement. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for people between the ages of 16 and 24 was at 8.3% as of October 2018 (down slightly from a year prior). Compare that to the current overall unemployment rate of 3.9% as of December 2018, and you can almost feel the anxiety coming from college dorms and soon-to-be-graduates’ apartments. 

Relax. We asked college career counselors for resume writing tips to get yours to the top of the pile. This is how to stand out from the crowd.

Don’t be generic

Your resume is your one shot to get noticed by a recruiter or hiring manager, so the last thing you want to do is send out something generic. A generic resume tells a recruiter or hiring manager that you didn’t take the time to learn about the company or the job, which can be a big red flag.

Resumes that stand out are more customized, and use language and jargon from the actual job they are applying for, or from the industry,” says Catrina DosReis, director of career services and outreach at North Carolina Central University.

So the first step is tailoring your resume to the job you’re applying to, but, “the strongest applicants go beyond that to include knowledge of a company’s needs and goals,” says Vickie Cox Lanyon, former career services director, Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts.

“Show how your background and experience can address their challenges,” she adds.

Sometimes, that’s easiest to do in a cover letter, but you can find ways to address the company’s needs and your ability to meet them in both the summary sections and descriptions of your past experience.

Paint a cohesive picture of you, the employee

While you may have had a variety of different part-time jobs, extra-curricular activities, and even relevant coursework, it’s important that employers look at your resume and see a clear picture of who you are as a potential employee.

“In the liberal arts, emphasizing a targeted resume with similar, not disparate, activities, is very helpful,” says Jim Allison, executive director of the Career Center at the College of Charleston, South Carolina.

“A major in English, a part-time campus job in the writing center, and a summer editorial internship show a targeted or focused application, as opposed to ‘random’ jobs that do not relate to the major or the career passion of the student,” he says.

Highlight real-world experience

Employers want to know what kind of experience you have in the workplace, so spend time telling the story of what you bring to the table, says Kristen McMullen, director of the Student Success Center at the College of Charleston School of Business in Charleston, South Carolina.

She says internships are very important but don’t downplay the part-time job you had while going to school. You also probably did more in that job than you think.

“I have sat with students who started by saying that they really don’t do much in their job, however, as we dove deeper we realized that they dealt with customers and solved problems,” she says. “They were trusted to open the store and handle money, and they designed a new spreadsheet for inventory.”

All experience is good experience so don’t overlook anything when you make a resume. And if you’re not sure what to include, run it by someone with more experience reviewing resumes than you—like a parent or college counselor.

Make it easy to read

When you think, “stand out,” you might be tempted to use bold fonts, add flashy graphics, or other eye-catching visual accents. Don’t, says William Bailey, director of career and professional development at Clarion University in Clarion, Pennsylvania.

“Graphics, bright colors and stylized fonts do not work with applicant tracking systems and often do not help with the readability of the resume,” he says. “Calibri, Times New Roman, Arial, Cambria, and Verdana are some of the most preferred resume fonts due to their simplicity and ease of reading, and they also work well with an applicant tracking systems.”

Don’t wait to apply

If you’re a college senior reading this and you have yet to make a resume and send it out, consider this your wake-up call.

“Don’t wait,” says Lisa Gavigan, director of career services at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts.

“Depending upon the industry, most seniors apply for jobs in early March, interview through April and May and start their new position sometime over the summer.”

With that in mind, you don’t want to be left behind. Yes, you’re busy wrapping up senior year, but there’s nothing more important than finding a job after college, so make sure you’re prioritizing your job search now.

Gavigan says seniors should carve out time from their busy academic schedules to prepare application materials, request letters of recommendation, select writing samples and anything else that might be required in the application process.

Get your resume professionally reviewed

If it’s your first time sending your resume out into the world, there’s no excuse for skipping the review process, says Stephanie Kit, director of the Center for Career Development at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

“Seniors should have their resume critiqued by someone at the career center to make sure it best represents their accomplishments,” says Kit. If you’ve already established a relationship with a counselor, he or she may be the best person to assess whether your resume is working hard enough for you.

After the initial review—or if you already left campus for good—double down by relying on the pros. Not sure your resume gets a passing grade? Get a free resume evaluation today from the experts at Monster's Resume Writing Service. You'll get detailed feedback in two business days, including a review of your resume's appearance and content, and a prediction of a recruiter's first impression. It's a quick and easy way to make sure you're putting your most professional foot forward.

More from this series:

How can college seniors decide which jobs to apply for?

How to use your internship to find your first real job