Resume Tips for Liberal Arts Students

I review a lot of students’ résumés, and I find myself dispensing similar advice résumé after résumé.  So I thought I’d share a few suggestions with you here from my perspective as (1) someone who sat on the hiring side of the desk for a couple of decades and (2) a champion of liberal arts majors looking for opportunities to work in business.  I’ve also written a full e-booklet on the subject, if you more than just a few tips.   For a mere $3.99, you can have the whole story. It’s in “Business Resumes for Liberal Arts Students,” a 34-page e-book available at http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/152076. But here’s the short version.

Sequence:  Education Then Experience?  Or Experience Then Education?

If you have a major that recruiters are actively looking for (e.g., business, computer science), feature it prominently.  If you don’t (English, sociology, philosophy), list it later.  Don’t give recruiters a chance to make hasty assumptions about what you’re able to do for them based on generalizations and misunderstandings (like how well humanities majors are suited for jobs in teaching and nothing else).  Let them get a sense of you first, and then tell them what you majored in.

GPA:  Yes or No

Maybe.  If your GPA is 4.0, and you don’t have much work experience, then, sure, you can include it.  If not, leave it off.  By the time you’ve been working for a couple of years, it becomes irrelevant anyway.  Also, I’ve seen students list their overall GPA and their GPA in their major.  One I saw the other day said “Overall GPA 3.8; Accounting GPA 3.85.”  The difference is miniscule and not worth mentioning. If you’re going to list a GPA, list one or the other, not both.  And if it isn’t outstanding, don’t mention it at all.

Summarize Your Qualifications

Put a summary of your qualifications at the top of your résumé.  Be modest and creative.  For example:  “Experienced researcher, voracious reader, quick learner, astute discerner of quality.”  Or “Literate, responsible self-starter; fluent in Chinese; broad and deep knowledge of Asian culture.”

Your summary should just be a short (no more than three or four lines) bullet list of your highlights.  What makes you different?  How would you quickly tell someone what you have to offer?  That belongs in your “summary of qualifications,” nothing else.

“Excellent Communication Skils”—Really?

Don’t say you’re an “excellent communicator.”  Demonstrate it.  Many people say they have “excellent communication skills,” but most of them don’t.  If you really are a good communicator, describe your abilities in some detail.  Be specific, as I’m sure your English instructors have insisted.  “My communication skills include writing for audience, conducting research, organizing qualitative information, writing efficiently, and optimizing both written deliverables and presentation materials.”  Something like that.  People who are “excellent” communicators know what goes into being one.  People who aren’t don’t.  And one more thing:  your résumé itself demonstrates a little of your abilities as a communicator.  Make sure it reflects all you claim–good organizational abilities, proficiency in copyediting, sizing up your audience, etc.

Career Objective Statement

“Seeking a challenging position in a competitive organization where I can make a difference.” So help me if I never again read this statement at the top of a résumé, it’ll be too soon!  Don’t include an “Objective” statement, especially if you’re going to say something as recycled and meaningless as that.  An objective statement can work against you, too.  If you say “Looking for a position as a business analyst,” even if that’s the job title you’ve applied for, you may exclude yourself from being considered for other opportunities.  Just leave it off—unless you have specific constraints, like “Looking for a summer opportunity to work in the retail industry,” which explains that you’re only available for the summer.

Résumé Length

Keep it short.  If you’re under 30 and you have less than five years of work experience, your résumé shouldn’t be longer than a page.  If by the age of 30 you’ve written a few books and flown around the world delivering motivational speeches or served in the House of Representatives for a couple of years, then maybe it should be longer.  But as a general rule, a page should do it.

Online Résumé Parsers

Your résumé is going to be decomposed by online job application systems, so if you’re applying for a job you really want, for which you have at least a few of the specific qualifications, make sure you include the exact vocabulary that’s in the job posting.  No, I’m not recommending plagiarism here, just that you echo some of the keywords in the job ad.  If the job requirements say you must “analyze financial reports,” say you have experience “analyzing financial reports.” (Unless you don’t.  No lying!)  Or if it says the successful candidate “will have experience in event planning and management” say you have “experience in event planning.”  Online application systems are looking for skills, not people.  These systems de-construct you, reducing you to a bullet list of key phrases (it’s disconcerting, I agree, but it’s the way it is), so you must be the architect of this re-designed representation of your abilities.

Font Size Rarely Matters, But When it Does …

For those rare occasions where someone actually sees your printed résumé—not an uploaded version that’s lost all the artistry you thought you were including—make sure the font you use isn’t too small.  If you’ve crammed the details onto your one page using a 10-point font, stand back and look at the page you’ve created as if it weren’t your own.  Would you want to read it?  White space is inviting.  Densely packed words on a page aren’t.  Remember, too, that the hiring manager or recruiter who’s reading your résumé might not have the great eyesight you have.

Talking About Your Experience

When it comes to job experience, don’t just say what you did—Responsible for this…. Duties included….  Yeah, so what?  Say also what good came of the work you did.  What were the results?  Sales people usually have the easiest opportunity to exploit this—like “Implemented a new cold-calling sales approach that resulted in a 8% increase in sales the first month.”  But they’re by no means the only people who can do that.

For example, a student recently submitted her résumé draft to me.  It said she’d worked in the university library as part of a group to assess security issues.  Her résumé listed the name of the group she was with and then said “Examined student safety issues at library.”  Yeah, so what?  “What came of the work you did?” I asked her.  “Nothing,” she said.  “Well, except we made recommendations for changes to make in some library areas.”  “And?” I asked.  “And they made those changes, so students feel safer now.”  Ah ha!  She changed it to:  “Our group examined student safety issues at the library, made recommendations for physical security improvements which were implemented.  Students now have an improved sense of personal security while using those sections of the library.”

More Than One Version?

Yes, you should have several versions of your résumé.  I’ve been helping my nephew with his recently.  He’s been in hot pursuit of part-time work in the food service industry.  He has three versions:  One highlighting his barista experience, another focused on his general food service experience, and a third describing his customer service abilities.  All of them list his jobs and education but they do so in slightly different language, helping prospective managers see his abilities in different ways.  (He got a job, by the way, thanks in part to version #3.)

And if you want more help with your resume, you can now get our new booklet, “Business Resumes for Liberal Arts Students.”  Only $4.95 for the downloadable PDF.  A step-by-step guide to building a resume just for liberal arts students, with worksheets, business vocabulary tips, suggestions to supplement experience and education, and a lot of encouragement from a long-time hiring manager (and former English major!).

Order “Business Resumes for Liberal Arts Students,” an e-book available in more e-book formats than you can imagine. It’s $3.99 from Smashwords, http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/152076

11 thoughts on “Resume Tips for Liberal Arts Students

  1. Susan- this is great, keep um coming.
    I used to agree with you about leaving OFF the objective, then a HR person suggested, “if you don’t know what you’re looking for, no one is going to figure it out for you.” I thought that made sense to. So now I just advise students to use the objective as a kind of “title”…. Program manager at XYZ company, customized for each job they submit to.

  2. I’m sending this to all my kids and friends and their kids and their friends. This is important information for anyone looking for work right now. Thanks Susan!

  3. Thank you for such great advice. Great, fun to read advice. My only comment contrary to what you say is regarding the summary of
    qualifications. I see so many of these that contain totally subjective information — I tell students/clients I prefer to see the results of their “excellent communication skills” — or an example of when they used those “great teamwork skills”.

  4. I like the summary of qualifications, too. Even without the results orientation suggested by Jan, I think you give the reader a reason to read the rest of the resume more carefully and be looking for the proof of your statements.

  5. Pingback: Resume Tips for Liberal Arts Students | SUNY Cortland Career Blog

  6. fantastic! i found this to be very helpful! will look into it, develop my résumé, and see where all this takes me!-recent performing arts grad

    • Glad you found the information useful. Good luck! If you’re a liberal arts student or graduate looking for a job, you might alwso be interested in the e-book Business Resumes for Liberal Arts Students, available at Smashwords.com.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s