Young Grads Need to Differentiate

I receive many resumes from recent or soon-to-be college graduates. Many are extremely bright kids from the best schools. They do a good job laying out what they’ve done before and during college, but almost all have a flaw that can be fatal in this economy.

Let’s assume you and I are looking at the resume I was reviewing last week. It was a model background, great college, lots of impressive activities and internships during school and between semesters. Call it the model background for a college kid.

Content was strong but the packaging was deficient. Call it an iPod in a crummy box, which Steve Jobs would never permit.  The primary packaging deficiency? Lack of differentiation. His model background did not sell him over all the other model backgrounds out there.

Here’s what I told a young neighbor who was seeking my “business advice” about her resume and job search just recently.

“You and others with model backgrounds are competing for a finite number of jobs. Think of yourself and your competition (i.e., those with other model backgrounds) as boxes of cereal on a supermarket shelf. You’re all sitting there with very model backgrounds that are waiting to be purchased. If I’m a recruiter or a hiring manager at Name Your Company and I have a pile of model backgrounds from people coming out of school (I’ve thrown away the ones from people with average backgrounds), why should I hire you? What is it about your resume that makes you more special than those other boxes of cereal on the shelves?

“Think of your resume as packaging, not a list of activities. There’s a reason Apple is obsessed with design and packaging. Sure, people buy the results that an iPod or Mac Pro delivers. But the cool packaging helps make Apple products further stand out—and sell.

One way to differentiate is to turn activities into results where you can.  I realize that a 21 year old has a smaller list of accomplishments than someone older.  But, try your best to explain not just what you did but why it mattered. If your competitors have lists of activities and you have even a small list of results, you may have a point of differentiation that will represent a tipping point for your customer.

A good hiring manager has choices (lots of them these days).  She will decide on the candidate that stands out above the crowd.

What will make you stand out and, in turn, make the hiring manager look good to her boss?


  1. Jim: I’m saving this for my kid who’ll be graduating (yikes!) next May from your fair city.
    Good point that we make everyday with our clients about outcomes vs. outputs – as well as tailoring messages for impact.
    I think the sooner they learn it the better. Thanks for the post.

  2. Jim, sage advice. By the way, with all the interest in branding, I was surprised last month to meet with several University of California-Berkeley upperclassmen at a student SHRM meeting who weren’t familiar with the concept of a personal brand. I gave them Dan Schwabel’s name and told them to read his blog and his book, Me 2.0. Here’s hoping their resumes will soon reflect their personal brand and some distinction from the rest of the pack!

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