Not a Lot of Job Experience? Use These 5 Tips to Craft the Perfect Resume

A woman helps a student with her new hire paperwork at USF.
Career Center Director Lesa Shouse goes over new hire paperwork with Shannon Ingman, a freshman, at the University of South Florida’s St. Petersburg campus. Shouse recommends using similar language to the job listing in your resume. Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

“Man Confidently Hits ‘Send’ on Worst Job Application Company Has Ever Seen” is probably my favorite article from The Onion.

It makes me laugh and then think, “Oh, man, that was definitely me on more than one occasion.”

For instance, my first professional resume in college was a train wreck. I lacked any work experience sans a server job. I had no idea how I was supposed to fill an entire page. I used a lot of white space, clashing fonts, different verb tenses — you name it.

And then there was another time, one far more recent than I’d like to admit. When I moved back to the U.S. from South Korea, I left a picture of my smiling face attached to my resume. There, headshots are required on resumes. Here? Not so much.

Both of those examples are huge no-nos, according to the career experts I spoke to. Below are other key areas that college students and early career professionals fumble on. (But even if you’re well into your career, this advice applies.)

Don’t Undersell Yourself

A diverse group of college students walk around campus at USF St. Petersburg campus.
Students walk to class at the University of South Florida’s St. Petersburg campus. Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

If you’re a current college student or recent grad, chances are you don’t have years of professional experience. But what you might have is some part-time work and volunteer experience. Learning how to talk about your experience constructively is key.

For example, if you worked at a restaurant like me, don’t simply put “washed dishes” on your resume.

“Well, you didn’t just wash dishes.” says John Sheehy, a career adviser at Stetson University’s Office of Career and Professional Development. “You were actually maintaining sanitation to specific state and federal guidelines.”

That word “just” comes up frequently during advising sessions, according to Lesa Shouse, director of the Career Center at University of South Florida’s St. Petersburg campus.

Just a Jimmy John’s driver? Just a baby sitter?

“Wait a minute, there are transferable skills there,” says Shouse. “You were a baby sitter? Great! Someone trusted you with their child.”

The same goes for other side gigs like grass-cutting and au pair programs that students frequently overlook. Study abroad trips, relevant coursework and volunteer experience are fair game, too.

“The No. 1 deficiency for [early career professionals] is the inability to properly articulate their skills,” Sheehy says. “There’s a reason you’re there to do that [job].”

So get creative. Think about why your old job exists and identify the key areas that you had responsibility over. If you want bonus points, try to quantify some positive outcomes. Exceeded sales quotas? Gained new customers? Show it. And be specific.

“Showcase your skills,” says Shouse. “Don’t just list them.”

“Quantifying the data is always a wonderful thing,” Sheehy adds. “It’s a loophole that most students aren’t doing enough of.”

Keep Your Format Clean

A woman talks on the phone while taking a break in-bewteen college classes.
Jess Minton, a junior studying public health and speech pathology, talks on her phone between classes at the University of South Florida’s St. Petersburg campus. Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

Rule of thumb: Simple is better.

According to Harvard University’s Office of Career Services, your resume should have these four sections: contact information, skills, experience and education.

No gimmicks. No colored paper. And please, no photos.

“I had one student put their family picture on the resume, which was interesting,” Sheehy says. “Another student had a picture of her pet. It was a dog.”

If you’re feeling lost, a simple business resume template is a good place to start. But personalize it. Make sure your bullet points align, verb tenses agree and dates are all to one side.

Look up examples of resumes for the industry you’re interested in and compare. If your resume looks drastically different, consider changing it. The exception is if you’re applying to a graphic design or creative industry, Sheehy says.

“But 99% of the time you need to follow the standardized procedures.”

Reach Human Eyes With the Right Content and Keywords

A career center director helps a new employee with her paperwork to begin her job at the career center center.
Shouse goes over protocol for new hires with Ingman. Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

If you’re applying to a large company, chances are your resume will go through something called an applicant tracking system (ATS).

If this is your first time hearing about ATS, you’re not alone.

Senior resume writer Eric Burch says many of his clients aren’t aware of it. Burch is also a Reddit moderator for r/Resume, which offers free resume advice from the community and screened professionals.

He highly recommends writing resumes with the ATS in mind.

If you don’t include a certain amount of keywords or skills from the job description, your resume will likely never reach human eyes.

Ouch. So what should you do?

Shouse recommends using similar language to the job listing.

“Compare the job description to your resume,” she says. “What words are they using? Are you using those words?”

Blending up to 15 keywords into the task descriptions or skills section of your resume helps ATS know that you’re qualified. But don’t over do it. Make it flow naturally.

“I wouldn’t do any more than [15 keywords] because then it becomes almost verbatim copy and pasting,” Sheehy says.

And at the end of your resume, nix the “references available upon request” line. It’s antiquated and takes up space. Instead, Burch recommends including your LinkedIn profile URL.

LinkedIn is a great place to include all the other experience that you may have but might not be relevant on your tailored resume. And if you don’t have a profile yet, our LinkedIn guide can walk you through the process of setting one up.

Don’t Write a Book

A woman with short hair poses for a portrait.
Shouse recommends keeping a “master resume,” or a document that has all of your work experience. Then when you see a job you like, you can draw from that document to keep your resume succinct and ATS-ready. Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

Keep it short. Your resume should only be one page long. The employer doesn’t need to know your life story — yet.

Save the stories for your cover letter and interview.

According to Harvard University’s undergrad resume packet, one of the biggest mistakes on college-student resumes is that they’re too long. To combat that issue, omit conversational or “flowery” language and pronouns (e.g., “Increased sales” instead of “I increased sales”) in your descriptions.

“There’s no reason we shouldn’t have just a one-page document,” Sheehy says. “You can get more concise that way.”

Focus on the core aspects of each job and tailor your resume accordingly. This may require making multiple versions of your resume.  Whatever you do, don’t just send out the same one to every employer.

Shouse recommends keeping a “master resume,” or a document that has all of your work experience. Then when you see a job you like, you can draw from that document to keep your resume succinct and ATS-ready.

Once your resume has cleared the ATS hurdle and made it to a human being, that person will likely glance at it for about six seconds, according to a study that tracked the eye movement of job recruiters.

“Six seconds… are they really going to make it to the next page?” Sheehy says. “Probably not.”

With every rule, there are exceptions, of course. If you’re applying to an academic position, or to international organizations, they may request a CV, which is a chronological list of all your professional experience. In that case, type away.

Otherwise, most U.S. businesses expect a one-page resume of your most relevant work experience.

Proofread and Read and Read

College students walk to class at USF.
Alissa Zdrraluqui, left, and Sara Grindey make their way to class at the University of South Florida’s St. Petersburg campus. Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

This section brings up bad memories.

It makes me cringe to think back to a journalism fellowship application I sent to one of my favorite magazines when I was fresh out of college. In the application, I referred to the organization as a “non-for-profit.”

I didn’t realize the mistake until I re-read it a few days later after no reply. Not even an automated response. My heart sank.

But at least I learned something: No matter how many times I re-read my own resume, I will miss something.

You might get excited when you see a perfect job pop up on Indeed. But before you fire off your resume, have your campus career center look at it, have a faculty member look at it, a classmate, a family member. Anyone.

“The more eyes you have on it, the better. Everyone’s going to read it a little differently,” Shouse says. “But when you read it, your brain doesn’t register [the typo].”

So heed Shouse’s advice. Don’t end up like me or the guy from The Onion article.

Adam Hardy is a reporter, editorial assistant on the Jobs Team at The Penny Hoarder. He lives off a diet of stale puns and iced coffee. Read his full bio here, or say hi on Twitter @hardyjournalism.