Working an internship is good for more than just earning college credit — it’s also an opportunity to make valuable connections in your preferred professional field and gain real-life work experience.
However, many college students have a tough choice to make this season: accept an unpaid internship to get a foot in the door of their target career, or find a summer job to help pay for school.
If financial constraints mean an unpaid internship is off the table for you, don’t worry. There are plenty of ways to boost your resume and advance in your career, even if you can’t take an internship.
1. Leverage Your Work Experience
Roughly a quarter of Americans have participated in an unpaid internship, according to a recent survey from Student Loan Hero. What’s more, almost half of them (47 percent) took on debt as a result.
If you’d rather have a paying gig than go into debt for an internship, look for ways to reframe your experience working a traditional summer job to your advantage.
“If people have been working any kind of job, even if it’s a restaurant job, you’re developing a skill set,” says Daisy Swan, career and executive coach. “A resume really needs to be built around those skills.”
Look back on your summer jobs and think about how the skills you honed in those roles might translate to the kinds of jobs you’re seeking now. Swan recommends avoiding vague, general descriptors that fall flat on the page when adding those skills to your resume. In particular, steer clear of more tentative language like “worked,” “helped,” “supported,” or “assisted.” Instead, opt for more active descriptions, like:
• Provided excellent customer service
• Resolved complex problems for customers
• Managed busy phone lines and emails
2. Play Up Skills You Learned Outside of Work
Your work experience is a vital component of your resume, but the education section can also give employers a good idea of your capabilities. Reflect on relevant school projects or clubs you were involved with. Might those experiences be sources of transferable skills, too? For example, if you took a course where you learned to build a website, you could highlight that fact when applying to jobs that involve web design and programming.
Don’t limit yourself to formal schooling, either. Swan says you can draw on coding bootcamps, one-off online classes, and personal professional development courses you may have taken.
Volunteer opportunities can be another great way to pick up valuable skills that add extra punch to your resume. While volunteer work may be unpaid, it usually has a flexible enough arrangement that you can volunteer while still holding down a paying job. Just like an internship, volunteering can also result in full-time work down the line, and it may make you eligible for student loan assistance after graduation, depending on your degree and the volunteer work you do.
3. Consider an Apprenticeship
Internships aren’t the only way to gain relevant work experience in your future profession. Many employers across a variety of industries use apprenticeship programs to train and recruit new hires — and, unlike internships, apprenticeships offer competitive wages in addition to on-the-job training, course work, and mentorship. The US Department of Labor maintains a database of nationwide openings.
Your target employer may lack a formal program, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be open to the idea of taking you on as a paid apprentice or post-graduate intern.
“Get very proactive and targeted about who you want to work for,” says Swan. “If you find a company and you want to offer yourself as an apprentice, you can reach out to them.”
4. Include a Profile Section in Your Resume
The average recruiter only spends about 7.4 seconds reviewing each new resume they come across, according to Ladders. That underscores just how important it is to make sure your resume stands out immediately.
Swan recommends tailoring your resume to each individual job opening. “Use the job description as a kind of map for your resume,” she says. “You really write it for the position.”
Swan also suggests adding a brief profile section to the top of your resume, which can be a particularly effective strategy for candidates who lack formal work or internship experience. This profile gives you space to highlight characteristics that make you special — like the fact that you’re a go-getter who self-financed part or all of your education.
If you have to take summer jobs in lieu of unpaid internships, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re at a disadvantage. In fact, you may be able to spin your work experience as a positive thing. Some employers will see your choice to take a paying job as a testament to your work ethic and character.
Marianne Hayes is a longtime freelance writer and content marketing specialist.
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