When I was an engineering student back in 2009, it seemed like there were a million things I could have been doing to improve my chances of getting hired after graduation.

  • Should I be focusing on studying and keeping my GPA up, or is that not all that important?
  • What about leadership positions in academic societies, clubs, or student government?
  • What about networking? Should I be going to those sponsored events on campus?
  • Do I need work experience? And how do I get work experience when even internships ask for it?

All of that on top of going to class, studying, exams, projects, weekend shenanigans with friends, playing Call of Duty...

It can be hard to know what to focus on when you’re still in college. And then by the time you finally get it, it’s might be too late. The result? You find yourself shotgunning hundreds of resumes to every job posting you find on the internet, hoping that someone will hire you.

So what should you do?

When it comes to technical work (e.g. math, science, engineering, etc.), there are 4 key “pillars” that you should have on your resume that will help you stand out from the masses and get hired. If you focus your efforts on those 4 things, you’ll be in a strong position to get your foot in the door with recruiters.

It's all about showing how you're different from the thousands of other students in your graduating class who also took physics and have a >3.0 GPA. That can't be all you have on your resume. Here’s how to set yourself apart:

Pillar #1: Course-Related Projects

First up? Projects from your coursework.

You know, those awkward group projects where you get split up based on who you’re sitting next to in lectures and then proceed to designate who is going to work on what, all the while hoping that your teammates don’t flake out on you.

Unfortunately, everybody has these projects on their resume, and it’s virtually impossible to tell how well you did. So, in most standard cases, it won’t really set you apart -- unless you put in a bit of extra effort and do something interesting.

Take this as an opportunity to do something impressive and stand out. Like going above and beyond in programming class and putting together a simulation of an actual Boeing 747 landing on a runway (like some crazy kid did in my MATLAB class), or building a gyrosensor-controlled electric skateboard for your senior year engineering capstone project.

Yes, these things typically require a lot of hard work, but you’re going to be putting in effort anyway. So why not think proactively, put in some creativity, and really stand out when it comes job search time? Find others who are similarly geeky about a particular technology and work with them to do something spectacular. This can include professors and mentors, not just your peers!


Pillar #2: Part-Time/Summer Work

In different fields there are different red flags companies look for. For us techies, this is typically their main concern: “Can this person actually do the job and play well with others, or are they just a zany and brainy in their own world?”

The questions running through recruiters heads range from “Can you get along with people?” and “Do you have the practical ability to get stuff done?” to “Are you going to be a complete weirdo?” So the key here is to have something on your resume that shows that you can put in the effort, can communicate properly, and are up for the challenges of any role.

So have some proof in part-time work! This doesn’t have to be an industry-specific. It could be as straightforward as working weekends for the family business, doing landscaping over the summer, or working part-time at a coffee shop during the semester. Whatever it is, you want to have that piece of the puzzle taken care of so you can easily pass the "social pulse" test of the recruiter.

Pillar #3: Internships

Internships are where you want to scope out the type of work or industry you could see yourself in and build up some “insider” experience. You don’t have to limit yourself to the few companies that show up to the career fair every year and compete for the same few summer internship spots.

Instead, think outside the box. Research local companies on LinkedIn and reach out to them. You can even offer up free work (a great TED talk on this), which is a great way to build experience without the small businesses having to take a financial risk on an unproven college student. Just make sure you're doing something valuable, meeting interesting people, and have something to show for it.

In the end, it’s not going to matter if it was a brand name internship or part-time work for a more unknown or traditional company, just that you got an insider scoop on the industry and have some introductory experience in your field.

Pillar #4: Research and/or Self-Driven Projects

Finally, this is where you can set yourself apart with the “cool factor.”

For example, when I was in school, I built up a relationship with a professor whose course I had taken, offered to help with her research, and ended up working on building technology for micro-robots that the military would use for next generation surveillance technology. All I did was run a few experiments and collect some data, but every person I interviewed with out of college asked about it.

Take this example of an applicant I had a few years back for a position in my engineering team. His GPA was listed at a mediocre 2.7 on his resume, but there was also a link to a YouTube video where he demonstrated a glove input device connected to a program he wrote that was manipulating an object on a screen.

That was friggin’ awesome! I showed my boss, the VP, and anybody who came to my desk that day. And it paid off – we ended up offering him a job. Bottom line: do something significant and cool with your free time, and then build a story around it.

What now?

Build a technical resume with those 4 pillars on it, and you’re well on your way to worrying about what to say during the interviews you’ll land rather than worrying about whether you'll ever land an interview in the first place.

So ask yourself what you can do this semester to start building on any of the pillars you might be missing. Can you upgrade any projects you're currently working on? Is there a professor whose research you'd love to help out with? Is there an opportunity for part-time (or free) relevant work?

Sketch out the next three steps you can take, and you'll quickly improve your chances at getting hired quickly upon graduation.

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