I was speaking to some students at Humber College earlier this week, and several of them asked me similar questions about what to highlight in their resumes when they hadn’t really started their careers yet.

That is a tricky question that many people struggle with.

I told them not to worry if you don’t have all of the qualifications for a job before applying – there is a phenomenon known as ‘credential creep,’ where employers are asking for more and more credentials for a role than were traditionally called for. I told them to read job descriptions carefully, and to apply for those jobs where they have the ability to be of significant value in the role. And then to write a resume that demonstrates this specifically for the job at hand.

The key message that your resume must deliver is: I understand what needs to be done (in this role, at this company), and here’s why I would be great at it.

This can take some of the pressure off not having direct working experience in the industry. Because the theme of a resume should not be what you have done in the past, but what you can do in the future.

Employers look for your achievements over the specific job titles you may have held. Job titles are basically made-up terms that vary widely across sectors and companies. I’ve worked at places where every sales rep was a ‘vice president’ of business development. A ‘junior manager’ here might be a ‘senior director’ there.

It’s the stuff that you can actually do that matters most.

So while, especially if you’re just starting out in your career – or transitioning to a new field, you may not have those ‘guru’ or ‘ninja’ job titles on your resume yet, you do have insights, skills, experiences, valuable personal qualities that can make you an asset to a team. Write how using these leads to greater success – in ways that are relevant to the job you are applying for.

For example: I have a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature, so I’ve read a lot of books and written a lot of papers. Big whoop. Outside of academia, how does this matter to the people I want to work for?

On my own resume, I don’t write what I know – but I describe this degree in terms of what I can do with what I know:

    This program stresses skills such as leading group discussions and introducing new topics and angles of dialogue to a diverse audience. As well as a high level of technical precision with the use of language and advanced research skills, my MA in Comparative Literature gives me native fluency in both English and French and a deep understanding of Canada’s many cultures and their place on the world scene. I can absorb broad and complex volumes of information and accurately boil them down into easily communicated and understood summaries.

That could come in handy.

That’s the one skill that matters

Employers want to see your ability to achieve results. Nobody cares about what you know. They care about what you can do with what you know. So while in your resume you are listing what you have studied, done, and accomplished in the past, the theme is always the future. Here’s why this matters. Here’s what I can do for you.

The only skill that really counts is your ability to get things successfully done, to accomplish, to achieve. The most sought-after candidates are those who can understand the challenge of a situation, formulate practical solutions, and execute the strategy to a successful outcome. Demonstrate this on your resume – at whatever stage your career is at – and you’ll be streets ahead of the competition.

In your personal life, at school, on the job, think about the ways that being you has set you apart. Write down where you have achieved above and beyond what just anyone would do. And then tailor those stories to be relevant to the needs of the jobs that you are applying for. That’s where the best content for your resume always comes from.

Similarly: The only job interview question that really matters


Peter Harris

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