Formatting a Resume When Your Experience Is Limited

There are a few basic building blocks of a resume, but the big one is your experience. I've previously covered how to describe your experience, but if you're like many college students and young professionals, your experience is not necessarily as straightforward as a list of job titles and companies where you've worked.

Here are a few tips on compiling your resume, based on some different possible situations.

What if my biggest qualification is my education?

If you're in college and applying for an internship, or fresh out of college without much work experience, your coursework and/or degree may be the best thing you have going for you to land that first job. In that case, list your education first on your resume, and flesh it out as much as possible. I've previously provided some tips for explaining in greater detail how your education is a selling point for you as a candidate. Don't go overboard, but make sure it's the first and most compelling thing the hiring manager sees on your resume.

What if I have a lot of volunteer experience?

There's generally no good reason to differentiate between paid and volunteer experience on your resume. Experience is experience, and the skills you gained are valuable regardless of how you gained them. You can list your position title as "Volunteer" (although a more detailed title is better, such as "Volunteer Proofreader" or "Circulation Desk Volunteer"), but the rest of it can be exactly the same as for a paid position, detailing what organization it was for, the dates you served in that position, and what you accomplished during your time in that role.

Two caveats: Once you gain relevant work experience, I suggest taking off volunteer positions except for those that are directly related to the kind of work you'd be doing in this new role. Secondly, if you're applying for any job where volunteer work itself is an asset (e.g., a Volunteer Coordinator position), calling out "Volunteer Experience" in a section by itself can show the hiring manager at a glance that you can connect to the volunteers you'd be working with.

What if I have work experience that's not related to the job I'm applying for?

As you move along in your career, you'll be able to trim the less relevant experience from your resume, but when you're starting out you may have to draw on this experience to illustrate transferable skills — skills that you gain in one type of job that are valuable for another type of job. It is 100% your responsibility to connect the dots and describe your past experience in such a way that it highlights the skills you gained. This doesn't mean writing "gained X skills" but rather describing the work that you accomplished that illustrates said skills.

In some cases, I recommend having two experience sections: Relevant Experience and Additional Experience. If your most relevant qualifications are kind of scattershot — a practicum, a certification, a summer internship — you might consider drawing them all together in one place with a "Relevant Experience" section, and putting your other experience — an on-campus, retail, or entry-level job where you learned valuable skills doing unrelated work — in another section.

When considering how to present your experience on a resume, you should think less about the "right" way to format a resume and more about what's going to best present your own experience. This doesn't mean you should throw away the basic conventions like including titles, companies, and dates of work — your resume still needs to be easily comprehensible by someone glancing over it. But consider some of the options above for organization if they seem to work well for your situation.