Fellow Undergrads: Congrats, not on finishing another (and for many, a first) semester of college, but on taking the time to treat yourself to the requisite reward of binge-watching television, sleeping in, and eating yourself into a food coma. Congratulations on your triumph over finals—a feat, which only a few short weeks ago, seemed damn near impossible. For those of you who snagged a job for the measly 2-to-6-week span of time off, I offer extra kudos. And to those of you who are now occupying the position that is my new favorite pre-professional portmanteau —*Winterns*— nice work on landing that glorified coffee delivery position. But once the recharge phrase of winter break is exhausted (Let’s face it, guys: there are only 2 seasons of House of Cards on Netflix), the remainder of the vacation is the perfect time to get a head start on various opportunities without having to worry about schoolwork. Here are the best ways to maximize your winter breakto your personal and pre-professional advantage.
1) Update your resume. The resume is the highest priority on this list, for three reasons. First, a resume is required as a supplement to just about any application. Scholarship, Internship, Part-Time job, Extracurricular Leadership, Semester Abroad—you name the application, chances are, it will require a resume. Second, the kind of resume you need as a college student beginning to facilitate close encounters with the adult professional world is likely a far cry from the laundry-list-like document you may have employed as a high school student in the college application process. Third, and most important, is the fact that a resume can act as a visual-textual snapshot of your life. Making your resume an advantageous, yet accurate, representation of your life can be a daunting task and easily procrastinated. In the midst of another wave of term papers and tests, the updated resume can fall by the wayside so be proactive and do it now.
There is no reason to scrap your high school resume and start from scratch, rather it can be modified and tailored to suit your new “adult” aspirations. Professors can offer great insight into this process and may offer additional suggestions depending on which type of application your resume will accompany. Most college students are not expected to have professionally meaningful work in the first year or so of college. If this is the case for you, do not panic; you can construct a resume that incorporates your most significant high school experiences and gradually phase these out as you acquire more experiences in college. This will likely mean prioritizing the experiences you’ve had so far in college by listing them first, and eliminating the sort of meaningless “involvement” that your high school guidance counselors probably championed. In other words, if an experience you had in high school doesn’t display any marketable or meaningful responsibility, skills, or accomplishment that pertains to the position for which you are applying, lose it.
Another aspect in which a college application resume or activities list differs from a real, professional resume is that the latter typically incorporates a list of skills that are useful in professional settings, such as Excel, Photoshop, or other technical proficiencies. If you have these skills—especially if your area of study or career interest is highly technical—be sure to include them.
As far as format goes, templates simplify the process. Your template choice should be based on more than just what you find to be aesthetically pleasing (although providing ample white space is a good rule of thumb). Form should follow function. The layout of your resume should be tailored to your needs in order to best display your capability. If you’ve already amassed a good deal of pertinent work experience, extracurricular involvement, or volunteer work, then a standard resume that lists and briefly describes these experiences would be desirable. If you, like most college students, have only a few key elements to highlight in the resume, then a format that allows you to elaborate more fully on the meaningfulness of these experiences would be a more ideal way to present yourself.
2) Consider the Cover Letter. Yet another essential component to many applications—and one which new college students may never have encountered before—is the cover letter. The cover letter is basically the resume’s more amiable, artsy companion. It serves the same basic function as the resume, but it allows you to introduce yourself and establish your candidacy for which you are applying in a slightly more personable way. This is not to say that the cover letter should be too personal. The dictated tone for a cover letter is decidedly “formal.” The cover letter should be a place where you essentially argue why you’d be a good candidate, without of course being contentious, pretentious, or overly braggy. Sound confusing? That’s because it is. Maintaining a professional tone while balancing the correct level of “selling yourself” while incorporating your personality and providing more in-depth, rather than repetitious, information in no more than 500 words is a feat of rhetoric not easily mastered.
That’s why it’s a good idea to start constructing one now, in tandem with an updated resume. Cover letters should, in some cases, be application-specific, but once you have a solid cover letter that introduces yourself and your pertinent experiences, you’ll be able to adapt it for different purposes, and update it as you continue to gain experience. It is a great idea to have a person of professional experience—even if this means an overly nitpicky parent or other relative—look over it and give you feedback. One more thing you should know about cover letters, and one aspect in which they differ from resumes, when it comes to formatting them, conventions are key. Follow the standard protocol in terms of layout—which can be seen in online examples, and includes block formatting rather than indentations. Showing that you care about, and are conscientious of, the conventions of professional discourse will impress those reviewing your application more than creative formatting ever will.
3) Recommence the scholarship search. Remember eons ago, before college, when you searched online for scholarships? Remember the listings for which you thought you’d be a great fit, until you realized that only upperclassmen, or those currently enrolled in college, were eligible for them? Now that you’re armed with college-student status, a new resume and a cover letter, you’re ready to track those suckers down. Scour not only the scholarship search engines, but community organizations in your local area that may also grant scholarships to students other than incoming freshmen. If the thought of having to write yet another essay—let alone those in the dreaded, usually first-person “application” genre— is sickening think about this. As a college student you’ve likely done more serious writing in the last three months than in any other three-month span of your life. Any scholarship application essay will be nothing compared to that 20-page final research paper you bested this semester. And besides that, most importantly – if you have to do all this writing in college, wouldn’t you rather someone else be paying for it?
4) Internships: They are out there. Next to scholarships, internship applications are likely the most common type that you will encounter as a college student. If you’re looking to intern this spring or summer, it’s a good idea to start looking for internships and begin their applications now, as some deadlines for these internships could be as early as January. Additionally, as the job market continues to become more competitive, so do valuable work experiences like internships. The sooner you start searching, the better you’ll be able to identify and compete for the internship opportunities in which you are interested. That being said, companies will often specify that they are seeking upperclassmen, or will be seeking previous internship experience as a prerequisite, which can make obtaining these experiences even more challenging for new college students. There are several internship search strategies, though, that can help you to maximize your chances of landing one.
First and foremost, if your college or university has its own job and internship database, or gives you access to an outside one, exhaust this search before looking elsewhere. It’s good to do this first because many times job opportunities that show up in these databases are being offered exclusively to your school. If you are using an advanced search criteria in one of these databases, search for internships not only in your career field of interest, but in related fields. You never know how some internships will be categorized, so keep an open mind and don’t restrict your search too narrowly.
Second, don’t discount the possibility of an internship in or near your hometown. Though decidedly less glamorous than the big-city gig, a lower-profile internship in your local area could be a stepping stone to a higher-profile one later on. There can be a lot of advantages to this: you can save money by living at home, possibly work another job, and will often get better hands-on experience from a smaller, local-based company than you would at a large, multi-national corporation. If you live in an area that is an odd mix of countryside and housing developments clustered around a nondescript city, “subrural,” internships in these less commercialized areas may not be well publicized. That doesn’t mean they aren’t there. A lot of smaller companies in areas like these will be more open to taking on interns than you might think. It might take a little bit of research and ingenuity but the legwork could be worth it.
Additionally, if you are going to seek out internships in your local area, or even in a major metropolitan one, there are a few often overlooked resources that could really help your search. The Chamber of Commerce in areas small and large alike will often keep a directory of different types of businesses. You can use this list as an extra source for your search, looking up the businesses in the fields in which you are interested and checking out their websites to see if they are seeking interns.
Now that you’ve completed your “real world” obligations, your next semester’s studies will be slightly less burdened. With a little time to yourself go find a new series to binge-watch. (My personal recommendation and winter break addiction? CBS’s Madam Secretary, because I’m #ReadyforHillary and Tea Leoni is a goddess).