What Start-Ups Like to See in Resumes from College Students and Entry-Level Candidates

This post was originally posted on jenny.webs.com.

Last week, I represented Scribd at my alma mater Carnegie Mellon’s job fair — the TOC. While the quality of students that we met were incredible beyond what our recruiters had expected, the overall quality of the resume writing was honestly atrocious. I’m sure college seniors feel like they don’t have a lot yet to put on a resume, but there are certainly ways to stand-out. This post is specifically about how to make your resume stand-out to a start-up.

Why a start-up? Start-ups are a lot of fun. The atmosphere is also closer to college life, which makes an easier transition. Working at a start-up is also a really great way to learn a ton since they are generally small with a lot of work and interesting problems. The start-ups I’ve worked at include Overture Technologieswebs.com, and now Scribd. The hours are extremely flexible (anything before 11am is considered “early”), the offices are filled with toys, snacks and drinks, and I really respected the intelligence, abilities, and passion of my co-workers. The last point goes to show why these companies look more for these qualities rather than for a list of skills. This post describes how to showcase these points on your resume.

List Personal Projects
Personal projects are a way to differentiate yourself from other candidates; they show that programming is part of who you are in life, not just your job. Personal projects can be as small and simple as a little game or a tutorial for a new language or framework you went through not because you needed to know it, but because you wanted to learn more about it. We weigh these things heavier than academic or work projects. I was flabbergasted to find that when I asked one student why his personal projects weren’t on his resume, he answered, “They weren’t real projects; I just did them for fun.” That is exactly the reason they should be on your resume! Not everyone programs for fun. We want people for whom programming is fun, not just work.

List Only Academic Projects that Differentiate You
Most companies send alumni back to represent them at college job fairs. Being a Carnegie Mellon School of Computer Science alumna, I could easily recognize all the academic projects listed on various students’ resumes. While “Diffusing a Binary Bomb” is really a great project and in fact the one I like to use as an example of why I thought our homework projects were really well-written, it is something that every CMU computer science student has to do. Meanwhile, projects in elective classes or ones where you must self-design your project helps a potential employer understand what sort of problems interest you. Specifying that it was an elective helps recruiters less familiar with various academic programs parse your resume.

Specify Links that Reference You and Your Work
Especially for college students, it is huge when we see someone who has a github account. Whether the github account shows original code, forked projects, or simply following other projects, it shows not only interest in the industry but also that you are already a part of the community. Links to projects are also useful; we can not only read about your work, we can see it first hand. Even links to twitter accounts or blogs are good as well. Particularly if you are applying to a social media start-up, it is good to see that you are a user of social media tools yourself and already have some domain knowledge.

List your Hobbies
We review so many resumes. Hobbies make us feel like you’re more of a person than just a list of skills and qualifications. It also may help us determine whether you’d be a culture fit with the company.

Realize the Skills List is Not the Most Important Part of Your Resume
While more traditional companies may look for a checklist of skills, this is not the start-up mentality; start-ups look for smart, passionate people who can learn and pick-up anything. I remember being an entry-level candidate and listing skills that I had, but didn’t really want to pursue at a company (like my sysadmin experience). I thought it was better to fill my resume with anything I could do rather than leave it off. As a result of course, I piqued the interest of several companies wanting me to do a role I was not interested in. I like to state it this way to candidates: if you are in the middle of figuring out a problem on Friday and you really have to leave work to go to a friend’s birthday dinner, what sort of problem would make you more likely to want to continue figuring it out over the weekend rather than waiting until Monday to get back to it? I’m not saying don’t like all the various skills you have, but know your passions and be sure to be forthright about what you are passionate about versus what you just “know how to do” or are simply “willing to do”.

The start-up hiring mentality is just different from the traditional hiring mentality; what your parents advise you or what your college teaches may not be applicable here. Passion, intelligence, and love of the industry are what matter. If you are looking to apply to both start-ups and non-start-ups, I actually advise you to make two different resumes that emphasize things differently and make your own choice on what type of company you prefer after you get to see their offices and meet the employees.

If you are interested in working at Scribd (located in San Francisco) or webs.com (located in the DC area), please check out their job pages at http://www.scribd.com/jobs and http://webs.com/Careers/.

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8 responses to “What Start-Ups Like to See in Resumes from College Students and Entry-Level Candidates

  1. Thanks, this was helpful, I’m in the process of applying for an internship to tech startups now!

    Would you say that the cover letter or the CV is more important ? Also, what would you look for in a cover letter, what would make you respond to the application and at least have a phone chat, and what would be an instant turn-off ? It is my burning desire to go and work in a tech startup next summer, but I’m not sure how to express this in my cover letter, and at least be considered by the company.

    Finally, how important when applying to a tech startup is it to know by heart books such as Introduction to Algorithms… ? It seems that the startup hiring process is skewed towards knowledge of arcane algorithms and maths such as problems from interviewstreet.com. I’m just not sure whether I should be spending couple hours a day going through algorithms and implementing esoteric data structures, or whether my time would be better spent making cool web-apps or learning something new like iOS programming.

    Thanks for the help! I’ll apply to scribd too!

  2. Former cover letters are outdated; a simple e-mail stating the job position you’re looking for, with maybe links to your projects or github if they are not already on your resume is all that is necessary.

    Concepts from the CLRS book are definitely common at many start-ups, but it really varies. Brainteasers used to be popular, now “Big-O” algorithm problems and data structure problems. Memorizing esoteric data structures won’t really help you though. The interviewer isn’t looking for an immediate right answer, and would prefer not to get one. The purpose of these questions are to listen through your thought process about the problem and work through it together. Most of the time, the interviewer wants to hear your initial thoughts and questions you have. They are expecting to give you hints along the way as you make a few steps into the problem so they can see how you use those hints. At the same time, if you have already heard a question, it is best to admit it, but then discuss the trade-offs of various solutions and why the problem is interesting.

    Spending time making cool side projects that interest you and learning best practices will definitely make you stand out more than someone who can just spit back answers. Open-sourcing them and linking them to your resume will definitely help. Good luck!

  3. I thought listing of personal projects is not necessary on Resume, Now I will surely mention it :)
    Thank U very much jenny :)

  4. Neil

    Its great to see that some companies do value these kind of things rather than just how many acronyms you have. However, its so hard to tell what each company is going to want to see, and you can’t fit everything onto 2 pages, forget 1. Also, a lot of fun projects aren’t polished enough to be shown to the public, or not on their own domain name and such. How does one convey the kind of work one has done without being able to show a lot of it?

  5. Working for start ups is always fun because you get a chance to show who you really are, take major decisions, involve better etc.

  6. ya i agree with manish , this is opportunity for us for proving ourself in front of others. :)

  7. Thanks for sharing this valuble information and it is useful for us.we also provides Entry Level Resume Writing

  8. This was very useful information for me and we also providing for free

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