Résumé tips for the new (or soon to be) graduate

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It seems unfair but, after years of hard work slaving over the books and suffering through lectures, labs and exams, the new grad then has the onerous task of finding a job so that s/he can join the workforce.  This can be an especially discouraging endeavour if the job market is highly competitive in your chosen field.  Since nobody gets a job without an interview, and most potential employers decide who to interview based solely on the résumés and cover letters they receive, it pays to do a really super job on both of these documents.  My experience has always been that everyone thinks that their résumé and cover letter are both already awesome (and it’s usually not).  Nobody ever seems to think that a weak resume or cover letter could be the reason why they’re not getting calls and interviews. However, chances are, that is at least part of the problem.  

Since I’ve already posted some tips for preparing the job-seeking cover letter, I thought that it was about time that I posted some tips on tweaking your résumé, as well.  Note – the résumé and cover letter prepared by PhD grads seeking academic positions are typically quite unique and differ from those for more conventional jobs, so I’ll be posting separate advice on that application package later.  This post is primarily intended for the new (or soon to be) graduate of a BSc or MSc/MEng program, but aspects are applicable to any new college or university graduate looking for résumé advice. Even if you think your résumé is already ‘perfect’, I think you might want to give this post a read – especially if you’re not getting the responses you were expecting.

Tip 1 – Keep it brief and to the point

  • Keep your résumé short, 3 pages at the most, 2 if possible.
  • Avoid writing in lengthy paragraphs, instead use bullet points. However, always write in proper (i.e. grammatically correct) sentences within each of these bullet points.
  • Avoid generic descriptions of skills and experience – be as specific as possible. (For example, – instead of just saying you have “strong computer skills” you could say you are “proficient in C# programming”, or have “extensive experience with ArcGIS”; that is, be extremely specific about what your actual skills are.)
  • When describing your work experience, focus on achievements rather than just listing duties. Also, aim to limit yourself to no more than 3 or 4 bullet points under each job, and to just 1 or 2 sentences within each bullet.
  • Many people have been taught to put some life or career “objective” at the top of their résumé – something like: “Goal: to use my extensive education and experience in solving real world problems for the betterment of society and the benefit of my employer.” Personally, as a prospective employer, I find this whole idea silly and uninformative – after all, we all KNOW your goal – you’re done school and you want a job!  So let’s skip the fluff, get to the facts, and see if you have the skills and experience that I need as an employer.

Tip 2 – Provide complete contact information first

  • Provide your full name, mailing address, email address, and phone number(s) at the top of the first page.
  • It’s also a good idea to indicate your citizen status at the beginning of your résumé, as well.

Tip 3 – Highlight your strengths right away

  • Your major asset as a new graduate is your education – so put your education first and foremost on your résumé.
  • Describe what courses and/or major projects (e.g. honours project, major design projects, etc.) you have taken that directly apply to this job.  Yes! That means you need to customize your résumé to the company/ job you are applying for. The résumé will be less variable than the cover letter in this respect, but it’s still important to tailor your résumé to each job or company if you want to get an interview.  In fact, it can give you a big advantage over the competition because most people are just too lazy to do this.
  • If you are (or will soon be) a university of college graduate, it is normally not necessary to waste space by including details about high school.
  • Include all education, even incomplete and less relevant programs – otherwise you will be left with unexplained gaps in your history, which leads to the next tip…

Tip 4 – Provide complete and unambiguous information

  • Provide dates for all education and employment periods; even if you switched programs before completing a degree or certificate. Mysterious gaps in your record normally raise red flags with potential employers.  Also, be absolutely clear about what has been completed and what is in progress.  For example, if you are applying for jobs a few months before graduation, provide the anticipated date of completion for your degree – don’t imply that you’re already done.
  • Leaving questions in the mind of the potential employer can immediately get your application put aside.  At best they will think you are disorganized in your thinking – at worst they will think you are purposely trying to be vague and misleading to your own advantage.  The latter is the more likely reaction – and it’s the kiss of death to any hopes of getting an interview.

Tip 5 – Formatting counts

  • Take advantage of different font formats and sizes for the headings versus the content, to give your résumé a professional and eye-catching appearance. This not only illustrates your attention to detail, but highlights your basic software skills.  Don’t get too carried away though – consistency is also important – pick one font for headings (typically a Sans Serif font like Arial or Helvetica) and use a more readable Serif font (e.g. Times New Roman) for the content.  Avoid Courier font – it makes your résumé look like it was prepared on a typewriter – and it makes you look like a Luddite, (not the kind of impression that will get you an interview in today’s highly competitive job market.)
  • Keep in mind that the people in power (i.e. those who make the decisions on interviewing and hiring) are bound to be a bit older than you and it’s possible that they’re of an age to wear bifocals – tiny fonts will give them a headache, and your résumé a one-way trip to the circular file ( i.e. the garbage pail).  On the other hand, overly large fonts can look goofy.  I suggest you stick to Times 12 pt for the text (or something comparable) and a slightly larger font size for your boldface titles.
  • Avoid shading (e.g. headings in shaded boxes) on your résumé – these documents often get photocopied, and shading always looks sloppy and uneven when copied.  You want every copy of your résumé to look as perfect as the original.  For this same reason, you should avoid using colour on your résumé.
  • Be sure to use tabs and hanging indents to create strong visual lines in the text.
  • Use 1.15 line spacing, instead of single spacing, to make it more readable. (Never use double or 1.5 spacing.)
  • Organize things so that individual elements do not get split between pages and don’t leave any gaps (large white spaces) on any page of your résumé, including the last page.  If you don’t fill the last page, people intuitively think that you have limited experience and qualifications, since you couldn’t even fill a short document.  Adjusting the spacing between lines and above the headings is a good way to get the balance right, just as long as you’re are consistent and you don’t end up with any big (odd-looking) gaps.

Tip 6 – Provide at least one reference!

  • If you’ve done well and you’re suited to the job, the person reading your résumé should be pretty excited about you when they get to the end.  What you want them to do at this point is to call you for an interview – but that seldom happens.  Instead, they are far more likely to call someone to ask about you first and they can’t do that if you don’t give at least one reference.
  • Keep in mind that most employers are not keen to call you directly at this point to ask for these references because they don’t want to get your hopes up unnecessarily.  Instead, they will put your résumé in the B pile – to follow-up on if they don’t find somebody perfect first.  At this point, any momentum you may have built in your favour has just fizzled.  In addition, it makes you look unprepared or lazy – they will wonder: if you are looking for a job, why haven’t you already talked to potential references – what are you waiting for?
  • In reviewing a few dozen résumés recently, I found only one in the entire pile that offered a reference.  All the rest just said “References available upon request.”  My most vehement suggestion to you in this entire post is to arrange for some references right away, and add them to your résumé immediately.  At the very least, get one reference arranged and then say “Additional references available upon request” underneath that.
  • If you are just graduating and looking for a professor to give you a reference – check out my post on How to request an academic reference.”  The procedure is essentially the same for a job reference.

Okay – well that’s it for now – good luck and let me know if you get the job!

7 thoughts on “Résumé tips for the new (or soon to be) graduate

    hifzan shafiee said:
    February 2, 2013 at 7:15 pm

    I would like to add in:

    1) Do research on salary market rate, because many applicant just generalize all their expected salary. Different market/sector have different market rate.
    2) If you want to put a photo, please put professional photo, some applicant use non-professional photo i.e phone camera, etc.
    3) Be a member of professional bodies, i.e ASHRAE, ECUK, ICE, IEEE (related to your specialization) as graduate member, at least the interviewer know that you are aware of your professional society.

      Faye Hicks responded:
      February 3, 2013 at 10:12 am

      All excellent ideas – thanks for contributing!

    Mehar said:
    February 4, 2013 at 7:36 am

    Great Ideas!

      Faye Hicks responded:
      February 4, 2013 at 7:48 am

      Thanks, Mehar! And thanks too for visiting and commenting.🙂

    […] Note – you might also want to check out my related post of tips on on preparing your resume. […]

    Kemal said:
    July 13, 2016 at 11:02 am

    Totally agree that the time of graduation should be explicitly given as this may play a trick on you. But I was wondering if there is a specific term for the period/ status when a candidate for a job hasn’t graduated and passed the final test but has completed all the courses that are part of their bachelor’s or master’s education. Anyone, any idea?

      Faye Hicks responded:
      July 13, 2016 at 3:28 pm

      I would suggest you simply state that you are all done but the exams (or whatever is outstanding) and provide a clear date of expected graduation.
      Good luck!

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