Building a Strong Resume for Graduate School

So, you may still be in college, or you’re a year or few out, and you are considering applying to graduate school. (Nice.) The application process is very different than when you applied to undergraduate programs, where the common application accounted for most of everything. For graduate school, each university has a maddeningly different application process, and you will have to look at each carefully to fulfill the requirements appropriately. The good news is that most schools have some application materials in common: 

  • Personal Statement or Statement of Purpose
  • Supplemental and Optional Essays
  • Letters of Recommendation (usually 3+)
  • CV/Resume
  • Test Scores (GRE, MCAT, LSAT, GMAT, etc.)

Together, all of these components are crucial to paint a holistic picture of you as a potential graduate student (and really, you as a graduate school… graduate), but today, our focus will be on your CV/Resume.

Some of you probably have some semblance of a working resume, but it is likely the one you might have used for landing an amazing internship or that initial job, ain’t gonna fly for THIS purpose. The good news is you can repurpose some of the content for your graduate school applications, but you will likely need to tweak the content considerably, and far less important but still a consideration, optimize the format.

How to Start

Perhaps you’ve used a popular resume template over the last few years. Cool. You know that long paragraph people have encouraged you to place at the top? That thing that’s supposed to say something “Honors student with excellent verbal and written communications skills, looking for a challenging opportunity to apply my knowledge in mechanical engineering to complex projects at a groundbreaking biomedical device firm…” – Burn it. Yeah that’s right. Set it on fire. And watch it burn. 

Now we’re ready to get serious. You see, those paragraphs are (a) not applicable to your graduate school application, (b) they take up ‘prime real estate’ on your CVs/Resumes, and (c) they’re kinda just lame in general. There, we said it. Cool, so the top of your resume should highlight your education – that’s the very first thing people want to see: where did you graduate (or from which school will you graduate) relevant course work, your GPA, and any academic honors that you have received. This is the equivalent of meeting someone in real life and including “your name” when you introduce yourself. This is that.

Now Let’s Talk “Work Experience”

Next up, is what you’ve done. If you’re in college, maybe you have some work experience. If so, lead with that. If you have actual, lived years of real life human work experience under your belt, boom. For work on a college on campus, it can be stuff like teaching assistantships, working at the college bookstore, summer internships, something other than “the classes you are expected to have taken.” The key here is partially the list itself, but more interestingly, it’s the ‘what you did’ for each one. Your responsibilities, your actions, your evolution. (This is part of an arc, this is how they start to develop a 3D picture of who you are, where you came from, and where you seem to be headed.) Again, don’t just convey tasks executed, add action-packed details that reveal to the admissions committee learn what you did such that your unique skills become evident. You might say:

  • Managed cash register

But that’s how the children do. YOU, friend, might say instead:

  • Managed cash register, tracked and resolved discrepancies, entered transactions into stock database, and convinced management to run weekly reconciliation

The second bullet starts to tell a story, and force the reader to formulate a picture. You did more than operate a machine, you also used problem solving and critical thinking skills to address issues. You also seemed to have taken initiave. And that’s just one bullet. Sure we can tighten that up, but this is how you’ll want to start thinking about all this. It’s just a few extra words, but boy will make all the difference. The truth? Folks who scan resumes will get a sense––quickly, even from a FEW bullets––that “this is the kind of person who…” and honestly? You won’t even need to finish that sentence. The reader’s mind is already headed in the direction of giving you the benefit of the doubt. You’re INCLINING them to see you in a certain light. That’s how powerful it is to get all this right.

Include Your Important Activities

The next section may showcase your activities, like cool student groups, and volunteer experiences, etc. Again, flesh out the bullets where you can, to show more than just what your baseline responsibilities were. When you are able, prove that you’re the type to go above and beyond, to not just do what’s prescribed, but to proact, to push, to question, to lead, to ENGAGE. These are winning traits to an admissions committee.

Non-School Extracurricular Activities / Hobbies

The final section can focus on hobbies and extracurricular activities. This shouldn’t dominate your resume and account for “half of it.” But also, don’t just tack stuff on as though it were an afterthought, because it’ll read that way. Lean into this. Have fun with it. Get excited about what you’re putting down here. Believe in it. Sell it. If you care about the stuff you’re throwing down, we will too. If you’re lobbing stuff in because you think doing so will impress us, we’ll know. I can’t tell you how, but we’ll just… know. So, take this seriously, and get fired up about the stuff you care about, and convey it. This can sometimes be a cincher of sorts––if the reader is inclined to think positively about you from the stuff above, you may score HUGE here by showing a fun, interesting, cheeky, or playful side. I don’t know why folks don’t talk about this enough. Humans, amirite? But take it from us, this stuff sells. When done right.

Oh and don’t forget about foreign languages you speak. That stuff is way cooler than “skills.” We don’t need to know that you know how to use Microsoft Word or TikTok, cool? Not here. We want to know more about the human potential and coollness for a grad school CV/Resume. (Unless it’s for a program where specific skills may actually be vital––consult your consultant for those insights.)

Final Thoughts on Graduate School CVs/Resumes

A good rule of thumb is to keep resumes at 1-2 pages but check each program as requirements vary with each degree or program. MBA programs, for example, want your resume to take up no more than one page. Other programs that are more research-focused are okay with lengthier resume that may detail research experience and publications. 

Use your best judgment and always double-check the instructions. And resist the temptation to overload this sucker. Yes, you want to showcase your potential as a student, but be concise and kill unnecessary details that don’t add much to the whole. We can help with that.

Now this goes without saying, but your resume is a reflection of you as a person. The notion that a CV/Resume might include a typo is foreign to us. But––sigh––it happens more than you think. Yay for you! You can have a typo-free document that instantly gives you an advantage! How sad for humanity! But so, you get it. Don’t be an idiot and scrub your doc a thousand times, please.

With a solid CV/Resume, killer application essays, and passionate letters of recommendation, your graduate school applications will be contenders. Get there.