How to Get Started on Your Resume: A Five-Step Primer for College Students and Recent College Grads

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by Randall S. Hansen Ph.D.

When we visit college campuses here are the two most common scenarios we see with students and resumes. First a solid majority do not have a resume. Second of those students who do have a resume many are unhappy with it.

If you fall into one of those groups — or are simply looking for a few tips to put your resume among the best — this article is for you. The same writer’s block that many students face when writing papers seems to hold true with developing a resume. To help break that inertia this primer provides a clear framework for developing your resume the single most important job-hunting tool.

Your resume is the tool that helps you get noticed and asked for interviews. Your resume helps brand you — and can also be used with networking and building an online presence.

Ready to proceed?

Step 1: Review Sample Resumes

While we strongly suggest not using a resume template for your design you’ll find great value in reviewing high-quality sample resumes. When looking at the sample resumes don’t just examine the format but look at the style focus and wording used.

Your goal is to find one or more sample resumes that you want to use as a model for building your own.

Find sample resumes to review here.

You should also pay close attention to how job experiences and accomplishments are worded on the sample resumes. You can find specific bulleted examples using action verbs here.

For real resume beginners consider our overview of a basic resume and our resume tutorials.

Step 2: Seek Professional Help

If you completed the first step and still aren’t sure how to even get started developing your resume you might consider a trip to your school’s career-services office. The career counselors can provide you with some hands-on expertise that may be just enough to jump-start your efforts.

One caveat here. Do not limit yourself to the advice provided by the career-services office. We’ve found that many schools have very specific guidelines and pet peeves about resumes that do not always align with hiring managers’ preferences.

You may do better seeking the guidance of your academic adviser or favorite professor.

Step 3: Compiling the Information You Need

Once you have some idea of how you want your finished resume to look and feel your next step is getting down to the details — establishing a specific focus or goal for your resume creating your branding statement compiling past employment data and developing key accomplishments from work and school experiences.

An unfocused resume is almost as bad as not having a resume at all. The more specific you can be the stronger your resume. You develop your resume’s focus based on the job(s) you desire — and with potential employers and hiring managers in mind. For example it’s not enough to simply say you are interested in a marketing position; your focus should be on specific jobs for new grads in marketing such as assistant brand manager market research assistant retail management trainee. Complete the research you need to find the types of jobs you seek — and base your resume around the qualifications and requirements those positions entail.

Next think about what makes you different from all the other college students and grads on the job market — that’s your brand or unique selling proposition. What makes you different? It might be your combination of majors and minors mix of internships and other experiences foreign-language or computer skills or athletic or leadership expertise. Learn more about branding your resume in this article and find additional career branding tools and resources here.

The third element of this step is compiling all your employment and unpaid experience (volunteering internships etc.) data — including names locations (city state) and dates (months/years). You won’t necessarily use all this information on your resume but it is also good practice to keep this information in a handy location.

Finally and perhaps the toughest part for novice resume writers is developing a list of your accomplishments — from school work and volunteering experiences. Develop a list that of achievements and activities (not job duties or responsibilities) that you performed that set you apart from others — and quantify those accomplishments whenever possible. Read our article For Job-Hunting Success: Track and Leverage Your Accomplishments.

Step 4: Creating Your Resume

Now it’s time to jump in and actually start crafting your resume. If you are still unsure of the final format you want to use the best way to start writing your resume is by developing a simple text version — which you can format later.

Remember your focus — showcase yourself your skills and abilities and your education and experience in a way that is targeted specifically to why someone should hire you for a particular job.

Besides the accomplishments you developed in the last step you’ll also want to consider keywords and transferable skills. Keywords are the words and phrases employers use to search for job-seekers who are a match for what they are seeking in a candidate — and are vitally important for a top-notch resume. You can read more about keywords (and how to find them) in this article: Tapping the Power of Keywords to Enhance Your Resume’s Effectiveness. Transferable skills are just as the name implies — skills that you perfected in one situation that can easily be applied to others (such as communications organizing leading teamwork etc.). Learn more about transferable skills here.

If you are still stumped at this point we also offer some free worksheets that can help guide you to putting words to paper — from helping you with your accomplishments to highlighting your college experience. Use one or more of the worksheets found here: Career and Job-Search Worksheets.

Step 5: Polishing Your Resume

Writing a resume can be an arduous task for many and some people may even feel inclined to stop once a draft is completed but that’s the wrong way to go. First a resume is kind of a living document that should change as often as you have new information to add (such as new job/internship experience additional education or certifications and the like). Second your resume should be tailored to every specific job opportunity every specific employer; there no longer is just one version of your resume. Finally everyone’s writing can stand to be edited and improved — so creating several drafts of a resume as you move toward a final polished version is fairly common. Use spell-check but remember to also proofread carefully to avoid common misspellings and word usage issues (to too; their there). Typos misspellings missing words and weak grammar mar your resume and can kill your chances of obtaining the job interview.

Once you have a basic version of your resume that you are pleased with seek out critiques from a variety of sources — including a few of your professors family members or family friends former bosses and other key members of your network. You could also get it critiqued by your college career-service office. Once you have all the feedback in front of you decide which elements you’ll incorporate into your most polished version — which you can then modify for each new job opportunity and job lead that you uncover.

Critique your resume yourself using our Resume Critique Worksheet for Job-Seekers

Final Thoughts on Developing Your Resume
While it’s fairly rare for a new graduate to seek the services of a professional resume writer that certainly is an option if you have the financial resources and simply cannot produce a resume on your own.

Once you’ve completed your basic resume don’t stop there! Consider the various file formats you may need beyond your word-processed resume — such as ASCII text HTML or PDF.

Next because most resumes are sent with a short letter of introduction — a cover letter — consider creating a basic polished cover letter that you can modify for each specific job lead. Read more in our cover-letter resources section.

If you want even more exposure as a job-seeker another step you can take is to consider a branded Website that includes your resume and an online portfolio — allowing interested employers and hiring managers the opportunity to find you 24/7. Read more here: Your Job Skills Portfolio: Giving You an Edge in the Marketplace.

You’ll also want to line up some folks — favorite professors and former bosses or co-workers — as references. Don’t ask for letters of recommendation but instead ask if they will serve as a reference for when employers are finalizing their hiring decisions. Read more here: References: The Keys to Choosing and Using the Best Job References in Your Job Search.

Finally any article about job-hunting would not be complete without a short plug for networking — and for building your network. While the resume is the key tool of job-hunting it is often networking — people helping others in their job-search — that gets you the job lead or name of the hiring manager. Read more here in our Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Career Networking.

Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college career and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker’s Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms. Founder Dr. Randall Hansen Dr. Randall S. Hansen is founder of Quintessential Careers one of the oldest and most comprehensive career development sites on the Web as well CEO of He is also founder of and He is publisher of Quintessential Careers Press including the Quintessential Careers electronic newsletter QuintZine. Dr. Hansen is also a published author with several books chapters in books and hundreds of articles. He’s often quoted in the media and conducts empowering workshops around the country. Finally Dr. Hansen is also an educator having taught at the college level for more than 15 years. Visit his personal Website or reach him by email at randall(at) Check out Dr. Hansen on GooglePlus.

Have you taken advantage of all the many free resume tools articles samples and more that we have in the Resume Resources section of Quintessential Careers?