When I first heard of Simon Fraser University’s acclaimed Co-op program, I could not wait to get my fingers to the keyboard to start writing resumes, cover letters and – hopefully – land my first real job that summer. I compiled a comprehensive list of my academic, work and volunteer experience and formatted an eye-catching blue header on my resume and cover letter. It was only after I began reading sample resumes featured on the OLC that I realized my resume may be missing a key component… actual, bona-fide work experience.
Why did every resume I looked at seem to list internships that actually gave their recipients useful skills for the world of marketing, communications, research and every other imaginable field? I was fresh out of high school and the only position I previously held was as a part-time server at my local Chinese food kiosk. Was there some secret SFU club that opened the door to these priceless experiences, and how could I get a membership? In a morale-boosting chat with an Arts Co-op coordinator I was advised that, while more difficult, securing a work term with no professional experience was possible if you gave it your all – it was all about how you presented yourself, and how much effort you were willing to put in. I was skeptical, but decided to give it a shot. And voila – I’m halfway through my first work term, summer of 2015, after just one year of university! Here is some advice to any work seekers that are feeling that they don’t have the competitive experience that others do. You can do it!
Broaden Your Expectations
Most university students begin the co-op process with bright, shiny dreams of an internship position in the exact field they want to break in to when graduated. I know I did! While that isn’t unheard of and is fantastic when it does happen, students with less experience can’t afford to be too picky. Instead of looking at a MyExperience (formally Symplicity) posting while thinking “What does this have to do with my potential career,” approach it with the attitude that you can use experience from virtually any field to help secure that better fitting internship for your next co-op. Following along those lines, even if your heart is set on going back to studies in the fall, entertain the possibility of an 8-month position. If your budget allows it, even consider going international! The bottom line is that the less experience you have, the less picky you can be, and if you open up your mind to different opportunities, you may accidentally have the experience of a lifetime.
Highlight Other Aspects of Your Resume
If the “Work Experience” column of your resume is looking a little short, one strategy is to beef the whole document up with other relevant experience. Consider the specific position you are applying for and think back to see if any past school or volunteer activities have given you transferable skills. Have you worked a volunteer position that was basically an unpaid job? In my experience, employers care more about the atmosphere you worked in and the skills it taught you – getting paid was just a bonus! Or have you completed university projects that made you familiar with the stock market, teamwork or Excel spreadsheets? If you can prove that you really learned the abilities in a sentence or two on your resume, put it down! Furthermore, make sure to highlight and elaborate these skills even more in your cover letter, so the employer really understands their value. Soon enough your resume will look almost as professional as those that actually have an internship on them!
Put in the Time
Most fellow co-op students I have talked about work searching with told me they applied to 5-10 jobs, received 3-4 interviews and received an offer from one or two of those employers. Wouldn’t that be nice? As a student with less experience, you may not have that luxury. I applied to 40 positions and was lucky to receive four interviews! While it may not be fair, less experience means you need to make the time to apply to many more organizations than a more experienced student. A good tactic is to stay on top of the Symplicity postings and check for new postings every day. Then take the time that same day to apply to at least one of them. While it may be an exhausting process, that first job offer call or email makes it completely worth it!
Don’t Get Discouraged Easily
The co-op experience includes facing rejection, exactly like one does in the real job market. The reality is, you may be rejected ten or more times before you even get one interview. But that is also a reason why co-op is so valuable – after the first time, it does get easier and soon enough you can handle the occasional setback like a pro. If you hear back that you didn’t get an offer for your dream job and feel discouraged, take an hour or two to do something you love. After that, put your nose to the grindstone and get back on track! Even if it’s getting close to the end of the semester, there is “Lightning Round,” where many people get placed in co-op positions right before the beginning of the next semester. Not to mention the few jobs that are still offered in the first two weeks of the semester you hope to work!
Present Yourself Professionally
Professionalism begins with the employer’s first impression of you. If the resume and cover letter package do not come off professionally, it may highlight your lack of experience and work against you. To avoid this kind of impression, it is important to format your documents professionally and use the same header for both – eye-catching but not too flashy. Once you finally land that well-earned interview, dress a little more smartly than you anticipate the company’s dress code to be and maintain a business-appropriate demeanor at all times. Address everyone by their respective title, maintain eye contact, offer handshakes and speak formally when the situation calls for it. The employer may have your lack of experience in the back of their mind, but if you present yourself in a seamlessly professional manner, it will alleviate any worries they may possess on the subject and you just might land that dream co-op position.
Each university student’s co-op journey is completely different and never even close to easy. Yet the reward comes in the challenges and making that first leap to secure your first professional position is one of the most rewarding co-op experiences a student can have. With a little luck and a lot of perseverance, positive thinking and strategy, you too can cheer so loud you wake your roommates when you get that first, glorious job offer.
Beyond the Blog
- Check out the OLC's Resume Gallery for creative resume examples!