The Liberal-Arts Résumé
January 02, 2020
- 9dream studio | Shutterstock.com
You’ve probably seen them or at least heard parents or teachers talking about them: story after story on Snapbook or Instatwit debating whether a liberal-arts education is worth the price tag. Some have argued that the cost of attending such colleges and universities is not as justified because attending a vocational school to learn a trade or enrolling in a software coding academy will give you better odds at landing a job. Fortunately, evidence from a variety of organizations has debunked the myth that the liberal arts do not adequately prepare students for careers; after all, our students graduate with the abilities to learn new concepts, adapt quickly to changing situations, analyze and solve complex problems, think critically, make decisions, and communicate effectively—all skills valued highly by employers.
But what sometimes gets lost in the mix is that many students don’t always know how to translate what they’ve learned during their college educations to résumés that will convince hiring staff to interview them for jobs. How do you match the research and writing skills you used in a seminar on Gothic literature to a content strategist position at a digital marketing agency? How do you demonstrate on the page or in a PDF that your minor in chemistry can apply to a career in art preservation and restoration? And what do you do if the training and experience you developed during summer internships don’t precisely echo the requirements of jobs that you’re hoping to land after graduation?
Evidence from a variety of organizations has debunked the myth that the liberal arts do not adequately prepare students for careers; after all, our students graduate with the abilities to learn new concepts, adapt quickly to changing situations, analyze and solve complex problems, think critically, make decisions, and communicate effectively—all skills valued highly by employers.
Given the apparent chasm between academia and the world of work, your résumé will need to decode your college activities and achievements in a language easily understood by potential employers. Here are some tips on how to translate your educational experiences into skills and accomplishments that will earn you a second look from hiring managers.
Don’t assume you lack job experience
If you’re like any of the college or graduate students I’ve coached in the past, one of your foremost worries is that you lack job experience. The bad news? You’re probably wrong, and people don’t like being wrong. The good news? You do have experience! Huzzah!
Perhaps you’ve balanced your college classes with working in fields that are not immediately connected to your job of choice, such as lifeguarding, waiting tables, or providing customer service in a retail shop or restaurant. Those experiences are applicable to other industries! You can demonstrate skills such as quick thinking, organization, and teamwork by citing your accomplishments in these positions:
- Collaborated with a team of six coworkers in a fast-paced, high-stress environment.
- Organized and maintained detailed records of daily sales receipts, invoices, and refunds.
- Maintained thorough, up-to-date knowledge of equipment and explained operation, maintenance, and troubleshooting to clients.
Academic assignments should be translated the same way. Many of us have dreaded group projects in class, for example, but employers are excited to see evidence of teamwork. So you could represent group work in this way:
- Coordinated a team of five students for a portfolio project: delegated responsibilities, evaluated contributions, and completed the project by deadline.
And major research projects, capstone papers, and presentations demonstrate your ability to gather, evaluate, analyze, interpret, and communicate information, which is crucial in many workplaces:
Independently designed, proposed, researched, completed, and presented two capstone projects:
- “Where Should We Go for Dinner?: The Psychology of Decision-Making” (psychology)
- “Digital Health: Artificial Intelligence for Medical Diagnosis and Treatment” (computer science)
Similarly, don’t assume that volunteer service or extracurriculars aren’t valid work experience just because you weren’t paid—or were paid minimally. Those activities demonstrate your initiative and provide evidence that you are engaged in your field of study or your community. Have you served as a research assistant in a library or lab or a set designer in a theater production? That’s work. Have you volunteered as a tutor to younger students or peers? That counts, too. Did you plan events as an officer in a student club, an RA in a residence hall, or a peer mentor for first-year orientation? That’s all leadership and organization, my friends. You can present your successes in these activities and familiarity with specialized technology in the same way you present paid work: each bullet point should document what your responsibilities were or, more importantly, what you individually achieved. Here are some examples from volunteer and co- or extracurricular activities:
- Designed and helped implement a successful campaign to increase voter registration on campus, resulting in an increase of the university’s student voting rate from 19% in 2014 to 39% in 2018.
- Tutored 10–15 students per week in the campus writing center, providing detailed feedback on the content, grammar, and style of student essays.
- Collected, modeled, and analyzed structured and unstructured data used for an entrepreneurial initiative using Apache Hadoop and Macrohard Excel.
And for those of you who have had the privilege of studying abroad, please don’t overlook that significant experience on your application documents! Studying abroad fosters cross-cultural awareness, immerses you in foreign-language study, and teaches you resilience and real-world problem-solving, all of which employers value considering the globalization of our economy. So make sure you mention where you studied, with which program, how long you were there, the language(s) you gained proficiency in, and any other academic or professional achievements you accomplished. Your cover letter is also a terrific place to elaborate on such stories: premed students can share how navigating unfamiliar cultural situations in Uppsala, Sweden, taught them how to handle stressful situations, and graduates wanting to pursue careers in urban planning can discuss how examining the architecture of a high-rise community in Tokyo has changed their understanding of sustainable design.
Echo the job description
This is a key technique for any jobseeker, regardless of education level, but your greatest resource is the ad for the job itself. How does the employer describe the position? What skills and experiences do they require and prefer? What does the employer value more broadly (it’s always a good idea to research the company or organization and address their mission in your application). Highlight or take note of the language they use. Then, reflect on how your college experiences have enabled you to engage in that very same work. Finally, write—or rewrite—your bullet points to echo the employers’ language. This is important regardless of who (or what) is reviewing your application. If living, breathing, coffee-drinking human beings are scanning your application, they’re going to take maybe 5–10 seconds to skim each résumé, so using their keywords will help them see your qualifications for the job more quickly and easily. But if the potential employer is using applicant tracking system (ATS) software (hail, robot overlords!) to scan submissions, the Sorting Hat will likely place you in the coveted “further review” or even the “interview” folder.
For example, does the ad state that the job requires you to “research, develop, write, and edit grant reports”? Then in reflecting on your coursework for the previous semester, you might recall and document that you “researched, developed, wrote, and edited 11 reports and essays in three months.” Does the description include that you’ll be responsible for “collaborating with team members to determine the conceptual and visual direction of creative deliverables”? Then in thinking about your practicum course in visual arts, you might describe in one bullet how you “collaborated with team members to determine the conceptual and visual direction of a multimedia art installation, Deviant Peanut Butter, for public exhibition in the university art gallery.”
You might be triggering your Sirlexagoo digital personal assistant by asking aloud, “Wait, isn’t that plagiarizing the job ad?” In academia and in professional writing more generally, presenting the words or ideas of others as our own is unethical and will invite the Furies to pursue you (you’re in the liberal arts, so you should recognize my allusion). However, the résumé is a strange and unruly beast that lives by its own rules, so you can—and should—reiterate the language of job descriptions in your applications to improve your chances of landing an interview.
Tailor each résumé
You might be wondering how to do this if you’re applying for a variety of jobs in different fields. Now, don’t throw things at me because you’ll just crack the tempered glass protecting your screen, but you’re going to need to customize your descriptions of experiences for each type of position. I know this means extra time, but if your goal is to improve your chances of getting interviewed and hired for a job, then you need to put in that effort.
For example, say you’re a communications major applying for a marketing research analyst job but also a teaching position at a private or charter school. For the former, you might focus on how the coursework in your major improved your writing skills and trained you to analyze the rhetoric of digital and print advertising and research marketing campaigns; for the latter, you might instead emphasize how those classes found you regularly translating complex ideas, such as rhetorical theory, into clear, accessible presentation handouts and PowerNote slideshows for fellow students. And keep using those keywords you identified in each job ad!
By the way, I have read enough (too many) job ads to know that many are written in obscure or difficult-to-dissect ways, so if you’re having trouble making heads or tails or torsos of the description, you may have to resort to looking up the same job title at similar organizations to see what those employers require and then match your experiences with those industry standards.
Be honest, but think creatively, too!
Obviously, if you did not actually accomplish the things the job requires, do not—I repeat, do not—lie. The world is a smaller place than you think; people in the same industry circles talk, they will talk about résumés submitted by job candidates who try to falsify their qualifications, … and then they’ll give your name to those same Furies I mentioned earlier.
But what you should do is think creatively and put on your problem-solving cap—again, you have those skills thanks to your liberal-arts degree! You’ll need to think about how what you have achieved transfers to what the employer is looking for, even when those skill sets don’t initially appear to align.
For example, say you’ve decided to pursue work as a parks and forests ranger, but your only previous job was leading campus tours for the admissions office. Brainstorm all the possible connections between these two positions. If you’re thinking like you did when writing those old comparison–contrast essays for English class (yes, there are reasons teachers assign those, and not all of them include torture!), you might start to recognize that both positions require clear, friendly communication with members of the public and educating visitors about the space—so include those in your description of relevant experiences! Have you taken an ecology, animal behavior, or environmental studies course? Consider mentioning how specific material you studied or projects you completed in those courses have helped you develop an understanding of wildlife and their environment, animal interactions, or sustainability initiatives. Describing these applications further in your cover letter will give your application an additional boost.
Building your skill set
Of course, if you’re at the beginning of your job search, you could always seek out activities and opportunities that will give you the skills that your dream employers are looking for. Take note of responsibilities or requirements commonly mentioned in ads for those jobs, and then talk with your professors, career center staff, volunteer coordinators, alumni mentors, or current employers to strategize how you might gain those valuable proficiencies. You might find yourself volunteering in a professional organization in your field, which gives you the added bonus of career networking, or you might propose a campus internship or independent research project that will help you practice what you need to learn while earning academic credit and/or funding from your college or university. That’s a longer-term solution, of course, but it’s one that will help you not just build your résumé but also gain professional development. And writing about how you sought out such experiences in your résumé or cover letter will again demonstrate your enthusiasm, resourcefulness, and strategic thinking.
You are armed to the hilt with the skills that employers are looking for!
In the end, a résumé is about articulating your value to hiring staff. Having to translate what you’ve accomplished in and beyond the classroom may seem like an insurmountable task, especially if you’re hearing or reading all of the negativity coming from naysayers about how liberal-arts grads aren’t employable. Those people are wrong; you are armed to the hilt with the skills that employers are looking for! But you will have to do the hard work of helping recruiters and HR professionals understand precisely how your past experiences and your current skill set apply to that particular position at their specific organization—and you’ll have to highlight those connections and applications in your cover letters, your elevator pitches, and your interviews with various higher-ups, too. If you can clearly explain how what you bring to the table aligns with the company’s mission and/or will solve their problems, you will be exercising some of the strongest skills you’ve honed during your college education.
Good luck, and happy job-hunting!
Our dedicated staff at Southwestern University’s Center for Career & Professional Development, or CCPD, helps students craft targeted résumés that tell their liberal-arts stories at any stage of the writing process. Check out the numerous resources the CCPD provides, or call 512.863.1346 to schedule an appointment to meet with a career advisor.