If you're a non-traditional student, the time off you've taken in your formal education can be an asset to prospective employers. Your life experience gives you several advantages – maturity, professional skills, ambition – that traditional students might lack.
The key to getting the job you want is to make sure that your prospective employer gets the best impression of you. This means emphasizing more than your college education; you have to sell your experience.
A growing number of employers are now looking at the accomplishments of the applicant, not the choices they have made. "We don't care how old you are or when you decided to learn what you need to get a job here," says Claudia Hammond, a spokeswoman for IBM in White Plains, NY. "If you come through our recruitment or applications process and have the right qualifications, then we want to hire you."
So how do non-traditional graduates capitalize on their circumstances? According to Dick Griffith of Lifeworks, a career counseling service in Illinois, it's all in the way applicants present themselves, both on paper and in person.
Use a functional, rather than chronological resume.
List your concrete good points, and be succinct. "You need to be clear about what you do well, and you want to explain that with clear, short, to-the-point examples," Griffith says.
Rehearse your work and life stories, so that your strongest points come out during the interview.
Be prepared for questions about your academic and professional choices, so you won’t come across as flustered or defensive. "Even with a good resume, some [job seekers] will walk into an interview and immediately explain to the employer why they shouldn’t be hired," Griffith says. "I tell my clients to tell the truth, but tell it constructively."
Network with others in your field and utilize your pre-college relationships.
While this is a necessary tool for all job-seekers, non-traditional college graduates have a distinct advantage. They are more likely to have a wide array of contacts from previous jobs and personal acquaintances.
Build up your less obvious strengths.
Jaime Saul, a recent Notre Dame graduate, included on her resume her time as a salesperson at Banana Republic, even though it didn’t relate to her career plans. "It turned out that I was really good at it and even won some sales prizes," Saul says. "That was something else I could use to get a good job. I went into Morgan Stanley and made them see that I’m a hard-working people person who can sell."
Volunteer work, political activism or community involvement can all demonstrate marketable skills to prospective employers.
Have confidence in your skills and experience.
Non-traditional students bring with them maturity and the determination to succeed. They also benefit from having taken the time to know what they want and how best to pursue their goals. Let employers know that you're prepared to go the extra mile to do a good job. "I've hired a lot of people with unconventional pasts," says Martin Schultz, the former editor of Nashville Magazine. "They are always excellent workers. They are most concerned with getting the job done properly, rather than what is in it for them."
Remember, you may have been non-traditional as a college student, but as a graduate looking for a job, the unorthodox path you have taken can be one of your greatest strengths.