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Prioritizing Experience on Your Résumé

School Supplements
DT Wang
DT Wang

    The Strategy Behind the Scenes

    Some graduate programs will ask for your résumé or CV, while others may include a section in their application that will allow you to input relevant experience or activities. By asking for this information, programs are aiming to gauge your commitment to your chosen field, and your achievements in the field. While you may be tempted to show off activities that demonstrate your diverse interests, remember that graduate programs are investing in your academic and professional future; they are looking for focused candidates with a clear commitment to a specific field. As we mention in Chapter 3, programs are looking for “spiky” candidates whose potential for future success and innovation are clearly seen in their past accomplishments. Therefore, you should tailor your résumé to include experiences that clearly reflect your passion for your chosen field.

    When considering which experiences to include on your résumé, first prioritize activities that are directly related to your chosen field. For example, four summers working with Habitat for Humanity will not make a big impression on an admissions board considering your candidacy for a PhD in biology. However, that same experience could be more relevant if you are pursuing a degree in architecture or public policy.

    Next, narrow down your activities based on these three factors: time, impact, and leadership. Focus on activities in which you devoted a substantial amount of time and effort, and prioritize those in which your impact, interpersonal skills, and leadership can be clearly demonstrated.

    Step 1: Listing your Experience

    If you are writing a résumé from scratch, first consider what each of your activities demonstrates about your interests, how you have spent your time, your personality traits, and the impact you will have on academic communities. Then, divide them into different sections that highlight your commitment. For example, if you are applying to journalism programs, you should devote a section to your editorial experience. You may also include a section on relevant work experience, internships, etc.

    Quality Over Quantity

    Remember that your résumé is only one part of your application, and that readers will only spend a few minutes browsing through it. As we’ll discuss in Chapter 7, your résumé should be easily readable, and should include only highly relevant information.  Focus on showing the quality of your work in specific areas, rather than aiming to describe every activity in which you have participated.  If you include undergraduate activities (which you should), prioritize those to which you devoted at least two or three hours a week as a member or a leader for at least a full year. Do not include activities from high school, unless they were incredibly prestigious and demonstrated your early interest in your chosen field.

    Gap Years and Late Bloomers

    Admissions boards have access to your undergraduate transcripts, and will notice which courses you took in college, and how many years you have taken off in between graduating and applying to graduate school. If you came to your chosen field late, or if several years have passed since you graduated from college, it is important to show readers how you have pursued your passions outside of school. Did you start a successful business after college, and are now applying for an MBA? Did you not discover your passion for literature until senior year, but then went on to intern at a prestigious literary magazine? Show off how you have made up for lost time. Since your résumé should include the years during which you participated in your activities, admissions boards will notice if all of your relevant experience was five years ago. Readers will be curious about what you have done with your time since then, so make sure to fill in gap years with experiences that demonstrate your commitment.

    Note on gap years:

    If an important life change led you to leave your field for a significant amount of time, you may address this in your personal statement. For example, if you became a parent after college and have spent the last five years working in a different field in order to support your family, you should include that information in your personal statement, and highlight your passion for your field and your commitment to making up for lost time. Programs are looking for applicants whose diverse life experiences will positively influence their incoming class. If you have taken time off, do not worry about that being a liability in your application; instead, leverage your experiences to show programs that you are uniquely qualified and will contribute an interesting perspective to their incoming class. For example, if you served in the military after college and during that time became interested in writing, an MFA program would be interested to hear how those experiences shaped you as a writer. While other candidates may have more publications or experience in writing workshops, your military service will distinguish you as someone with a unique perspective. If you use your diverse experiences strategically, you can show readers that you will contribute an exciting voice to their program, and that you may be an even better fit than candidates who have not taken time off.

    Step 2: Paring Down Your List

    Once you have made a draft of your list, it is time to make sure that each item you have included helps paint a picture of who you are as an applicant.

    As you begin paring down your list, ask yourself these questions to decide which activities are relevant:

    • How does my commitment to this activity reflect my potential?
    • How is this activity related to my goals in this field?
    • Did I invest a substantial amount of time in this activity?

    After asking yourself these questions, you may be able to eliminate some activities. However, if you did not hold many leadership positions but feel you grew as an individual from certain activities, do not hesitate to include them—just make sure they are strategically ranked.

    Step 3: Prioritizing Your Experiences

    Once you have a finalized list of your most relevant experiences, see whether they can fit in separate, specific categories (for example, “Work experience,” “Editorial experience,” etc.) Then, arrange them in order from “most important” to “least important.” Consider these three factors:

    • Whether you had a leadership role.
    • The time you invested in each activity.
    • The impact you made in the organization.

    Not sure how to prioritize your list? Read below to see how your activities should rank.

    Leadership and Growth

    Consider how your role in each activity has grown and changed over the course of your participation. Include both formal and informal leadership positions. For example:

    • Did you eventually become editor of the newspaper where you used to be a reporter?
    • Were you the sole founder of a website, blog, or small business?
    • Did you increase your volunteering hours at an organization once you realized you were passionate about its cause?
    • Were you elected or nominated for any titles by your mentors or peers? (such as student council positions, editorial boards, student liaison, peer mentor, or leadership roles within a club)

    Your application is a chance to demonstrate how you will seek leadership positions on campus, and how you measure up against other applicants. This is your opportunity to show how you have distinguished yourself from your peers.

    Time and Effort

    Next, consider the amount of time you put into each activity. If you spent hours each week organizing fundraising events for the Hispanic Student Union, but only attended a few meetings of a photography club, eliminate the latter. Chances are, the more time you spent on an activity, the greater your impact and the more relevant it is to your future success.


    Finally, consider your impact. Admissions boards are looking for applicants whose effort, dedication, and leadership have helped an organization succeed. Prioritize activities in which you had significant quantitative and qualitative impact. For example:

    • Did your newspaper win an award while you were editor-in-chief?
    • Did you successfully lobby for important changes as a student council member?
    • Did an event you organized and publicized have increased attendance this year?
    • Did you play a major role in fundraising for your organization?

    Showcase how your leadership contributed to the success of an organization, and prioritize any activities where your effort was beneficial to your club and community.

    Dos and Don’ts

    From your rough draft of your activities, you now have a list of experiences that best showcase your interests, strengths, and recognitions. This list should be ranked from the most impressive to the least, taking into account the factors of leadership roles, time, and impact. Remember these tips as you prioritize and finalize these sections on your résumé:


    • Prioritize experiences that are directly related to your chosen field.
    • Prioritize activities in which you held a leadership position (president, founder, etc.)
    • Prioritize activities in which you had a concrete, positive impact on an organization or event.
    • Prioritize activities to which you devoted a considerable amount of time.
    • Remember that activities in which you were a member or participant can go towards the end of your list. For these activities, you will have room in your bullet-point descriptions to explain why they were relevant to your field, and how you served as an effective team member.


    • Include activities that are irrelevant to your academic or professional focus.

    By prioritizing your activity list and considering your specific role in each activity, you can guide a reader’s attention to your most impressive accomplishments. Permission to show off: granted!

    In addition to listing your relevant experiences, your résumé may also include an awards and honors section. Just as when you list your experience, your awards and honors should be relevant to your chosen field. If your honors and awards are not related to your field, only include them if you feel it will give readers an important insight into your achievements and interests.

    When preparing to write this section, first consider which of your accomplishments will fit into the category of honors. Then prioritize your list, beginning with the most impressive and ending with the least selective awards.


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