Leveraging Experiences that Don’t Fit Perfectly into Your Career Goals: Insights from a Foster Peer Career Coach

We Foster students are a motivated bunch, and we tend to set our sights high. It’s admirable and it will take us far, but unfortunately we’re not guaranteed to get our dream internship in our sophomore (or maybe even our junior) year. This leaves us with a challenge: how to demonstrate that we are capable, driven people whether we’ve had prestigious titles at big-name companies or professional roles at smaller organizations.

We may be tempted to think our experiences are just average, but every job, volunteer role, club responsibility, and internship helps equip us for success in our careers. The key to landing your dream job, then, is to learn how to make the most of every experience and to communicate the ways in which your background has made you uniquely prepared to succeed.

I can count myself among the Foster students who had to take the lemons life had given me and make lemonade. I entered the internship search process in my junior year with a list of experiences that, from my point of view, left much to be desired. The two most significant work experiences on my resume were not at prestigious, big-name companies; and they certainly weren’t related to consulting, the field I was hoping to work in. The first was at The Daily, UW’s student newspaper. My role there was meaningful: I was the co-manager of the advertising department, and I helped lead the organization through one of the most difficult periods in its existence. But to me it didn’t scream ‘impressive’ at first glance. The second was at Skyhawks, an organization that runs sports camps for elementary school-aged kids. Again, my role there – a camp director – required some leadership skills, but didn’t exactly seem to make me qualified to work for a prestigious consulting firm. 

By making the most of these experiences, I was able to secure a consulting internship that eventually helped me land my dream job as a Strategy Analyst at Deloitte Consulting. 

If you’re in a similar position, I recommend doing these three things maximize the value of your experiences:

  • During your imperfect role, seek opportunities to gain transferable skills

Many jobs and volunteer experiences can at times feel irrelevant. As students, we often find ourselves in roles that come with relatively simple responsibilities and an apparent lack of opportunities to build the kinds of skills employers look for. Fortunately, there’s good news: every role has the potential to equip you with powerful experience if you’re willing to seek them out. 

In my role at Skyhawks, I was generally responsible for organizing and leading camps with ten to twenty kids. Though leading young kids is fun, I felt I needed to gain experience in leading adults and other people closer to my own age. Though I was skeptical that it would work, I decided to reach out to my boss and ask him if he had any upcoming opportunities to manage multiple camps simultaneously, which would require managing both the kids participating in the camp and the camp directors leading each individual camp. He appreciated my desire to contribute, and he trusted me to take on the responsibility I was looking for. Because I sought this opportunity, I was later able to tell prospective consulting employers that I had experience managing people of a variety of ages, and that I had conducted events with over one hundred participants. 

Though it may not seem like it, every role can give you skills that strengthen your resume and make you a better candidate. All you have to do is keep your eyes peeled for opportunities to do more and leap at them when you see them.

  • During your time in the role, make note of things you achieved with specific numbers and metrics

One of the most important parts of leveraging your experiences is demonstrating the impact you had on the organization. In other words, how did your presence there make an impact? Some jobs make this easy: in a sales role, you can talk about the revenue you generated; in an operations role, you can talk about the dollar value attached to the projects you worked on. Other jobs make it harder, but still not impossible.

In my role at The Daily, I was responsible for practically every business-related aspect of the organization. This meant that I had my hands in sales, marketing, product development, HR, and many other areas. As consulting recruiting season approached, I realized that I couldn’t possibly remember all the things I had done in my past year at The Daily, and that I needed to start writing down my key achievements and keeping track of the numbers that went along with them. I dug into the organization’s databases, found data on a variety of different projects I had led, and wrote them down in a Word document. I also made note of the way my efforts helped create a healthy workplace culture among the people I managed (not a quantifiable outcome, but a valuable one nonetheless). When it came time for me to update my resume for my internship applications, I had all the information I needed to demonstrate, both qualitatively and quantitatively, my contributions to The Daily.

As a Foster Peer Coach, I have heard countless students lament the lack of concrete, meaningful experiences on their resumes. Through my role as a Peer Coach, I have helped countless students come to the realization that they did, in fact, have an impact worth sharing. Whether it’s a big, impressive, professional-sounding number or an everyday achievement (like the number of customers you assisted at the cash register at McDonald’s or the way that you ensured that shoppers were served in a timely manner at Wal-Mart), making note of your impact and including it on your resume and in your interviewers will help prospective employers get a better idea of how you could make a difference at their organization.

  • Focus on the skills, not the specifics

Quite possibly the most common way in which I see students downplay the value of their experiences is by digging into the specifics of what they did on the job rather than focusing on the skills it helped them gain. If you worked as a barista, for example, rather than highlighting how good you’ve become at making sweet latte art, you could write a resume bullet point about how you learned to remain calm under pressure as you ensured the quality of each latte even while being hit by a barrage of new orders and other customer requests. Where the former shows a specific skill that might not make you a good candidate for, say, an accounting job, the latter shows that you gained a skill that can make you a valuable part of any workplace.

In my case, rather than sharing my proficiency in AdPro, an exceedingly obscure database I used at The Daily, I talked about the skill I gained by using AdPro: managing large sets of constantly-changing data across a variety of platforms.

Regardless of the kind of volunteer, club, internship, or work experience in your background, you can leverage that experience to get the kind of job you’ve always wanted. You first should practice seeing your experience as something that’s making you a better candidate, not as something that’s holding you back. Then, take comfort in the fact that no one has a perfect resume, look for transferable skills, keep track of your impact, focus on the skills, and go get that dream job!

Post Written By: Preston Bingley, Peer Coach