can I compare attending college to working a full-time job in my cover letter?

A reader writes:

I have recently graduated from college. I currently have no job prospects, but I am applying to jobs on a daily basis. I feel that if I can write a really good cover letter it will give me that extra boost, as I did not work very much during college due to having scholarships. I have been trying to spin my college years as actually working a full-time job in my cover letter.

What I mean is comparing attending college full-time to having a full-time job. For example, showing up to classes on time is just like showing up to work on time. Also, what you learn in the classroom is giving you experience in what you might encounter in your chosen field of work. For me, it was working with all the laws (i.e. FMLA, Title 7, COBRA, etc.) and how they might apply to situations. My courses also taught me indirectly the tricks of Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, and Excel.

I view my college years as my main job for the last four years. Here is what I have so far for my cover letter concerning my college years: “Attending college has been my full-time job for the last four years. Attending a full schedule of classes is very comparable to being employed full-time. I had to meet the expectations of solid attendance, completion of projects within expected parameters and prioritizing various assignments all while maintaining a good relationship with an ever-changing set of diverse classmates. My assignments were viewed as miniature performance reviews with the grade being the equivalent to a performance rating.” Is this a plausible way to go for my cover letter?

Yeah, no, don’t do that. Attending college full-time is actually not like having a full-time job, and you will come across as naive if you write that.

There are lots of differences between school and work that employers find significant. For example:

* If you mess up or neglect your work in college, it will only impact you. In a job, other people are counting on your work. (And yes, college has team projects, but the stakes aren’t the same.)

* In school, the emphasis is on exploring your subject and learning how to think. At work, the emphasis is about getting things done, often as quickly as possible. Learning is good, but it’s not the point.

* At school, you have someone guiding your learning. At work, you’re often expected to figure most things out on your own.

* In school, you have a whole cadre of people who are there to help you succeed — professors, advisors, counselors, etc. At work, whether or not you succeed is basically on you and you alone, and if you’re not succeeding, you’re probably not going to keep that job.

* At school, you can get away with a certain amount of slacking — skip a class you don’t feel like attending, throw a paper together at the last minute. You might not do as well as you otherwise would, but you can get away with it to a point. But if you try that at work, slacking will often affect other people, and it can get you fired.

* At school, effort often matters a lot. At work, effort doesn’t matter; results do. You’ll be judged by the quality of what you produce, not by how hard you worked to produce it.

So no, don’t compare attending school to working a full-time job. Also, don’t include that list of what you needed to do to succeed in school; employers know what school entails. Moreover, most or all of the candidates you’re competing with have probably had that same experience, so it’s not setting you apart from them.

Instead, talk about what makes you particularly qualified. Look at it from an employer’s perspective — when faced with a sea of candidates who all recently graduated, and some of whom worked jobs during that time too, what is it that should make them interested in hiring you? That’s what you need to talk about in your cover letter and resume. (There’s advice here on how to do that when you don’t have much experience.)

This is going to be more challenging because not working much during school is going to put you at a disadvantage when you’re competing against people who did (and it’s why I strongly encourage people to work and intern while they’re in school, although I realize that advice is totally unhelpful to you now). So the challenge for you now is to figure out what you have to offer employers and present that in a compelling way. Hopefully “didn’t work very much” does mean “did work a bit” — and you can mine those experiences for cover letter and resume fodder.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 245 comments… read them below }

  1. 12345678910112 do do do*

    Unfortunately, classwork is not comparable to a job. It might give you knowledge and skills that are applicable to a job, but attending classes and completing homework and projects isn’t quite the same. Maybe you didn’t work, but were you an officer in any clubs? Did you have internships? Were you a TA? Did you do any work-study for your scholarships? Did the scholarships require any work that had to be evaluated by someone? Did you do a capstone project?

    1. BronxRosie*

      Can I second this? Also, are you including all experiences in the “work” category. My daughter received her first paid internship in her sophomore year of college because she listed a job caring for an ailing dog on a daily basis on her resume. The interviewer said anyone willing to do that (the poor dog was not continent by then) was hard-working and dedicated. That internship lead to five others so she will have a total of six when she graduates next year.

    2. Charlie*

      In fact, it’s so unlike working a job that the comparison makes it brutally obvious that you have no idea what the working world is like. I would run screaming from such a cover letter, even as someone who has hired two fresh college grads, because it comes off so tone-deaf.

      1. Abbott*

        I agree with this, the part that sucks though is that I had a really hard time in college and life is much better and easier now that I have a job (I’m 3 years out of college). So I actually think college was harder. But I still wouldn’t make this comparison.

  2. MK*

    I would also add, a letter like that is likely to highlight your lack of work experience in a very negative way. You haven’t had worked much in the past; ok, you are not the only first-time worker to come with close-to-zero practical experience. But, given that, you would be better served by expressing a desire to learn, not presuming it can’t be all that different from what you did before. I can deal with someone who is aware of their lack of knowledge and is willing to be taught; someone who thinks they know when they actually don’t.

    1. INTP*

      I agree with this. Most people in office jobs have been to college. If they aren’t open to someone with no work experience, you won’t change their minds by tellin them what college is like. Use your cover letter to highlight what you have done, not what you haven’t, and express an open mind and desire to learn.

    2. Jess*

      Yes, exactly! Your interviewer will likely have attended college AND they already know it’s really not the same thing as holding down a full-time job, so telling them that just emphasizes that you don’t know that it’s different. But even if that weren’t the case, it’s also likely that others applying to the same positions have also graduated college, so spinning college as a full-time job wouldn’t differentiate you from other applicants in any way.

      1. MK*

        Having re-read the letter (“I feel that if I can write a really good cover letter it will give me that extra boost”), it sounds to me as if the OP is not so much thinking of her education as work experience, but that a letter like that might impress/intrigue/amuse the hiring manager and make her stand out. If so, don’t do it, it comes across as gimmicky.

    3. LawPancake*

      Yup! We just rejected an internship candidate because of that exact attitude in the interview.

    4. TowerofJoy*

      Yes. As someone who went to college full time and worked a full time job and part time job concurrently, going to college was my “fun time”. I’m not saying its not difficult or hardwork – but its just not the same. If I was the hiring manager on the other end of this you would be throwing up all kinds of red flags for me. Maybe someone else would like it but – You never know who is going to be on the other end of a letter, so trying to write a letter convincing something that society doesn’t think is a job that it is… could just as well go badly as it could help you. I wouldn’t risk it.

    5. Charisma*

      I completely agree. I’m sorry to say that, unless I knew the candidate personally and that they had some redeeming qualities to help me look past this, I would almost instantly reject this candidate. A cover letter where the candidate conflates college experience with work experience is: 1) Insulting to all of us who busted our asses working part time or full time jobs in college because we didn’t have the privilege to chose not to work (even with grants AND scholarships AND loans). 2) You are already coming in with a superior attitude that frankly I don’t want to deal with and train out of you. 3) At least in my industry, because you have NO prior work experience you are going to be in unpaid internship country for 3-6 months in order to prove yourself, and we give priority to current college students who need the credits and they get paid a stipend.

      Now after all that… if you didn’t want me to reject you immediately. Please heed Alison’s advice, consider going after internships and maybe even some temp jobs for now so that you can get valid office experience.

  3. Not a Real Giraffe*

    OP, FWIW, the cover letter sample you provide shows me that you are capable of meeting the bare minimum of expectations. As a hiring manager, I want to know how you go above and beyond, where you excel, what work you thrive in, etc. This part of Alison’s advise in (in my opinion), the most critical:

    when faced with a sea of candidates who all recently graduated, and some of whom worked jobs during that time too, what is it that should make them interested in hiring you?

    Focus on showing how you stand out and what successes you’ve had, not meeting the minimum expectations for being a student in college.

    1. Koko*

      Yes, this is an important perspective shift for job candidates to make.

      Job seekers often unconsciously behave as if their job is to show that they can do the job, and thus deserve to have it. But they forget that they’re competing against other job seekers, and the company is looking to figure out who among the pool would be the best hire as efficiently as they can. They aren’t looking to give a chance to anyone who convinces them they’re capable and they don’t have to give you a fair opportunity to demonstrate your skills.

      You need to do more than convince them you could do the job. You need to convince them you would do it better than anyone else applying. And you don’t get any do-overs or ability to challenge their decision if you think in hindsight that you didn’t represent yourself as well as you could have.

    2. New Bee*

      Agreed, and compared to so many students who worked in college (I also had scholarships, and I worked 4 jobs and ran multiple clubs), if you get to an interview you may still need to explain why you chose to focus only on schoolwork. My job hires a lot of college graduates, and a key criterion is leadership skills (either through clubs/activities) or work experience, which we then use to talk about time management and organization (balancing multiple obligations and meeting deadlines). Doing poorly in those areas (e.g., having missed classroom deadlines or dropped multiple classes) would certainly work against you, but doing well wouldn’t work for you because that’s true of most candidates, overall.

      FWIW, my cousin was in a similar situation, but worse: he took 5 years to get a single degree, and had no work experience and mediocre grades. He struggled to find anything (in part because he had unrealistic expectations and enablers with “just walk in and demand an interview” advice). He finally got a job at a department store, then started substitute teaching, and is now working on getting a credential to teach Art, which he majored in. So it’s possible, and you did the smart thing and wrote to AAM. Good luck to you!

      1. sunny-dee*

        I had a scholarship that required that I kept a minimum 3.8 average every semester or I lost it — so I did very little work during college. I was active in clubs and campus activities, though.

        If the scholarship is prestigious enough, that may be both a hook and a reasonable explanation for why the OP has little work history. “I focused on my studies for four years because of an Awesome Scholarship which required a 4.0 average.” Or whatever.

        1. Spooky*

          Well, I think most scholarships have that requirement. I think New Bee’s point was that plenty of people managed to maintain the necessary grades PLUS work and participate in clubs. Just doing one isn’t going to look that impressive.

          1. Triceratops*

            No, they really don’t. I had two renewable scholarships — one required a 2.0 and one required a 3.0. A scholarship that requires a 3.5+ is not terribly common IME.

            1. TowerofJoy*

              There are scholarships that only require a 2.0? I am pretty sure the GPA for my need-based financial aid was higher than that. I had no idea how wildly schools varied.

        2. OP*

          This is one of the reasons why I didn’t work that much during the semester. I had a few scholarships that required me to have 3.8 or better in order to keep receiving that scholarship. I did volunteer work during the semesters but I mostly worked during breaks because I didn’t want to risk losing those scholarships.

          1. Consultant Liz*

            Volunteer work and work during breaks is great! Focus on that on your resume and cover letter. I interview lots of undergrads and I expect to see at least one solid summer internship (between Junior and Senior years) a 2-3 solid on campus activities with leadership roles.

    3. Ell*

      Yes! Things like showing up to work (and class) on time, turning in projects when they’re expected of you, and receiving feedback in the form of either grades or a performance review is a bare minimum expectation for job AND school, not a reason you’ll excel in the position you’re applying for. If I’m a hiring manager, OPs cover letter demonstrates that they can probably manage to have a job but not much else.

    4. Chickaletta*

      Agree with Giraffe, the characteristics OP talks about are the bare minimum of what is expected of a full time student. Perhaps it’s telling about other students these days that OP finds being on time to be an exceptional quality?

      Here’s the deal: I was one of those students who went full time and did not work or get an internship either. Nobody encouraged me to and my parents actually discouraged it because they wanted me to focus on my studies, their reasoning was that that’s what they were paying my college for. College was actually pretty dang easy when that’s all you do: I received honors, I joined lots of clubs, I studied abroad, hell, I almost did an undergrad thesis because I just had so much time on my hands and I could have focused on it if I had wanted. But all this focus on myself and learning and diving into complex theories and academic concepts without actually working in my field left me disconnected from reality. So I spent the first several years out of school disliking work a lot and switching jobs more than I should have because nothing was very satisfying. I really wish I had worked and interned during college. Work is actually very different from college, not because of the time commitment and responsibilities, but in ways you don’t even know about yet.

  4. Not Today Satan*

    “At school, you can get away with a certain amount of slacking — skip a class you don’t feel like attending, throw a paper together at the last minute. You might not do as well as you otherwise would, but you can get away with it to a point. But if you try that at work, slacking will often affect other people, and it can get you fired.” I agree with the overall post, but this hasn’t been my experience at all. I’d say both school and work are the same in that you can get by as a slacker but need to work hard to be highly regarded. And depending on the school/program/workplace the talent pool can often be a lot more competitive at school than at work, and thus you need to work even harder to stick out.

    At all the places I’ve worked, being an excellent worker is important if you want to advance (which obviously a lot of people want to do). But a lotttttt of people get by for a long time being totally mediocre or worse.

    1. Argh!*

      You can graduate from a lot of schools skating by on less work than would be required at a job.

      Having supervised someone with no self-management skills but with a college degree, I can attest to the fact that the degree doesn’t guarantee transferable work habits. It can often prepare the person for meeting a deadline, working to the professor’s specs, etc., so I can see mentioning in a cover letter that you feel you’ve learned those things.

      1. Anonymous Educator*

        Eh… in all fairness, I know some people who skate by at their jobs doing less work than would be required at school. I’ve seen the full gamut—jobs where you’re scrambling around doing overtime (exempt, so not actually paid overtime) just to get the basics done, and then jobs where you basically come in late, write a few emails, take a long lunch, and then go home early (especially at places where it’s difficult to fire people). One should certainly not expect to get the latter kind of slacker job, but those jobs do exist.

        1. Anxa*

          I think there are different factors involved in slacking. I slacked off too much at school for a lot of reasons, but one of them is I prioritized work because it seemed more real and others depended on me.

          I’ve skipped quite a few classes, but I can’t imagine ever skipping out at work or showing up late without a good reason.

    2. Koko*

      I think it depends what kind of slacker/mediocre we’re talking about here. Someone who just doesn’t try very hard and completes the bare minimum work just exactly on time every week can survive in many workplaces albeit without advancement. (The equivalent of maybe someone who shows up to class on time each week and turns in all their assignments but doesn’t really study or participate in discussions.)

      But if you miss deadlines, fail to complete assignments, or have a bad attendance record, that’s going to get you fired in more workplaces than not. (The equivalent of skipping class, regularly showing up late, or turning in assignments late/skipping minor homework assignments.)

      1. sunny-dee*

        Haha. Not at my old department. (But taking the issue to management about someone missing major deadlines would get my manager in a froth … for demoralizing the slacker.)

    3. Nova Terra*

      The problem is the bar of entry. For work, you have to convince a hiring manager that you are the best in the entire candidate pool for this job, so not only do you have to beat the requirements, you have to beat the rest of your competitors since there is usually only one opening. Even if this is as workplace where the person can slack and get away with it, they have to have enough of a track record of excellence to get in.

      I mean, there are competitive school programs with limited admittance, but even the most cutthroat ones don’t have just one opening (sometimes workplaces hire for multiple openings of the same position, but still not as many openings as a school enrollment).

      1. LQ*

        Bar for entry is the key here. Basically none* of those slacker people got the job walking in and saying, hey I’ll skate by and get just enough to not get fired one.

        *the people who did are generally for Other Reasons, if you were someone who could skate into a job then you’d not be writing in.

    4. TheBeetsMotel*

      That tends to be indicative of a bad workplace culture, though; not of working in general. Sure, we’re all likely to meet people and workplaces who slack/turn a blind eye to slacking during our careers, for a whole host of reasons. But this isn’t the mindset anyone should go in with – “it looks like Jane spends most of her day messing around on Facebook, so I’ll give it 3 weeks and then I can too.”. Again, if that WAS a candidate’s attitude, that would reflect on the candidate as a whole, not on the fact that they were recently a student.

    5. MK*

      But that doesn’t apply to getting hired. Both at work and at school there is a bar (often a not very high one) and, if you pass it, you don’t get fired or fail the class. But in hiring it’s not a case of not being rejected, it’s about being considered better than the rest of the candidates.

  5. Kyrielle*

    And you can definitely get a job without having worked during college – you just have to sell them on what you do bring to the table.

    I had no internships or work experience in college – I emphasized my quick learning speed and performance under deadline pressure, because the college I went to and its schedule actually provided some objective backing for that. But find something positive about you *that relates to the specific job* and run with it. You will get there.

  6. MissGirl*

    Look for ways you can differentiate yourself from the other candidates. I got my first post-college career job because I was familiar with a program that was up and coming in the industry at the time. I didn’t learn this in class but in a freelance project I did.

    I am now in the midst of my MBA and I don’t have a lot of the experience my cohorts have because I am completely changing in industries so I’ve had to be creative in growing my skills. I am about to start a very good internship, and once again I got the call because I self-trained on a program the industry is immersed in. I have a few weeks before work starts and I’m working through the self-tutorials on a a few programs I’ve heard people reference in informational interviews and job postings.

    Find training, certifications, or an unpaid internship to help boost your resume. One thing people fail to tell you is how little your education prepares you to actual get the job. It only serves to meet the requirement of degree. Good luck.

    1. One of the Sarahs*

      +1 on an internship – and volunteering. If OP didn’t do much outside of her course in college, then it’s worth taking time to do something now, while applying for jobs – or alternately, get temping right away, to get some work experience roles.

  7. Argh!*

    I can see mentioning a project that has practical applications for the job, but that would just be a bullet point not a justification for calling college a “job.”

    So many college grads have good work experience, that the best next step for OP writer is to apply to temp agencies & do some volunteer work. Employers want to see evidence of all those qualities Alison listed.

    1. One of the Sarahs*

      Should have read this before I commented above! Definitely think of temping too, because even though it might not be in a field you want to work in, it gives you that basic work experience (not to mention that temping often opens doors)

      1. TMW*

        I did temp work throughout college and that helped a lot. And as “One of the Sarah’s” said, you may wind up temping at a place that will want to hire you. That’s what happened to me. :-)

    2. Stardust*

      Absolutely agree with looking into a temp agency as well! One of the mistakes I made right after college was not having any idea how to job hunt for a professional role. I applied to a lot less openings and waited too long to try a temp agency. If I had a time machine, I’d tell my younger self to apply for a lot more jobs and temp agencies right away. I found that temping opened doors. I’ve gotten great experience interviewing for positions and twice led to being offered a permanent position. The interviews for temp positions have a higher success rate because the company often needs some *yesterday* and because it’s a very easy relationship to end if they don’t think you are working out. It’s kind of a boost to feel better about interviewing and to practice in a less formal situation. I lucked out. After I worked in a temp role for several months, the supervisor really liked me so they created a role to bring me on. It was beneficial for me and the company. I could really show my work ethic, ask good questions, and shoe that I was good at getting along with everyone. I liked observing office norms in several offices and the chance to see how these companies treated employees (and temps.) If a company treats temps well, it tells me a lot about how the company treats their employees! Another plus is that you can really get a feel for the company’s culture to see if it’s a place you would want to work.

  8. MacchiatoFan*

    What I did to reflect academic experience was that I put little subsections dedicated to projects that emphasized skills or relevant areas of experience that an employer would be interested in (working with data, research, or some demonstrated understanding of the field). It was framed in an academic context and I wasn’t trying to pass it off as work experience, but still relevant to applications I submitted.

    1. Ell*

      Yes, my sister did this because she didn’t work much in college but did a lot of projects for her major (mock fundraising event planning, being a group lead for a big finance plan, etc).
      It wasn’t presented as equivalent to a job, but she did describe it in her cover letter as skill-based achievements.

      It did end up working for her, so I think there are ways to present your school experience this way OP.

      1. Not the Droid You are Looking For*

        School work and projects can definitely translate!

        I have read fantastic cover letters from recent grads that highlight teamwork and leadership outside a traditional work experience.

  9. Snarkus Aurelius*

    Although I know everyone’s circumstances don’t allow it, I’m surprised the OP didn’t have any internships to include.  The reason I ask is that for every entry-level position I’ve ever hired for, the individuals who had zero work experience during college were in the tiny minority.  And, yes, that was enough for me to disregard those resumes.  Whatever work experience you have, OP, you should put that down.

    I once had a high school teacher say, “It doesn’t matter if you guys skip or fail my class.  I get paid just the same no matter what.”  Very true!  That’s the biggest distinction, in my book, between school and work.  If you slack off or skip school, you only hurt yourself.  If you do that at work, you risk hurting everyone else, including your boss.  Like AAM said, the stakes are nowhere near the same, and that’s why you can’t make this comparison.  

    In the meantime, you need to get some more work experience.  Volunteer or be an intern as much as you can because you’re already competing with thousands (and I do mean thousands) of graduates who already have this experience.

    1. The Carrie*

      Although I worked during college, I never had an internship as those are REALLY hard to get. I guess a thing about internships is that if you live in a rural area (like I did) you would have to pay to live someplace else to work in an internship, and not be able to save any money by working. I actually had to work in the summer and make enough to pay for certain things during the year, so a non paid or paid internship in another place was not an option.

      1. Dan*

        Then emphasize the work. In my field (software), most “internships” are paid part time jobs (and I mean always paid) with no benefits, targeted toward college students. This to me is a bit different than “true” internships where the work is coordinated with the school, and the student receives college credit for it. In the end, though, nobody cares about the different, they just care that you got the experience.

        I’m similar to you in that I grew up in an area where you didn’t “move home” for the summer and work an “internship.” You worked at a restaurant. It’s also why I chose to go to school in the “big city”, figuring that academic year internships were easier to find. They were.

        If I were ranking resumes, it’d probably be 1) Industry work/intern/coop experience, 2) General work experience, and 3) No work experience at all.

        You’re in a field that is tough to break into, and oftentimes doesn’t pay interns, and probably requires relevant intern experience to be competitive. There’s no silver bullet to get around that.

        1. The Carrie*

          True. We have some interns at my company, but really, they can’t actually do anything that is too mid bending, so it might look good to employers down the road, but I know the truth that the internship is not really equivalent to any kind of real world experience. Its just a super cushy summer job.

      2. Snarkus Aurelius*

        Because of that circumstance, I’d give equal weight to relevant and non-relevant work experience. I just need to see -some- work experience. I don’t care what form it’s in.

    2. Ruthie*

      Listen to this advice, OP. And just to reinforce what they are saying, I have a hard time considering interns with no job experience. They don’t need to have previous internships, but I look for any indication at all that they can handle a work environment. I simply would not consider a recent graduate with no internship experience, let alone a campus job.

      For someone with little or no intern or work experience in college, I recommend applying for internships along with full-time jobs. ASAP.

    3. Sunflower*

      Depending on the field(I’m thinking communications/PR), almost all the internships are unpaid and some want you living in NYC which is undo-able for the majority of people. And a lot of these internships are unapid. Also if you’re interning during the summer for credit and not taking classes, you have to pay for the credits individually. So you are essentially paying to do an internship.

      I went to a Big 10 school in the middle of nowhere and the only internships available during the year were within the school and thus there was a lot of competition.

      1. Bend & Snap*

        I’ve never seen an unpaid comms internship except for my own, which was for a nonprofit.

        1. Rusty Shackelford*

          At my alma mater, communications students were not allowed to have paid internships. The department head’s opinion was that those were simply part-time jobs, not true learning opportunities. Luckily, that was back when our diplomas were carved onto stone tablets, and it’s no longer the case.

        2. Chocolate lover*

          I have worked with many students who’ve done unpaid comm (among other fields) internships. And they weren’t just nonprofits, there were major advertising and marketing companies.

        3. Khal E. Eesi*

          Unpaid PR interns at smaller boutique firms (even in big cities) are also extremely common. It’s terrible and unfair.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        It doesn’t have to be internships, specifically — just work experience. Internships are often preferably in that they let you demonstrate office experience, but any work experience is better than none.

  10. Jamie*

    Are there any extracurricular activities that demonstrates responsibility or organisation and communication skills that you can highlight? I didn’t work that much during my undergrad, but did stuff like enter group-based problem-solving competitions (they had cash prizes!), mock-UN debates, student induction events (for first-year students) etc. They provided pretty good examples for application criteria / interview questions.

    1. Anonathon*


      I did have a summer job throughout college, but I also had a couple leadership positions during the school year that involved managing volunteers, overseeing budgets, doing project management, etc. and that was super helpful in applying to jobs.

  11. my two cents*

    Did you work during high school or were you a part of any organizations during college? If so, add those. You could try to frame-up how you enjoyed either being in a support/info-gatherer role or maybe you really liked being the team lead on group projects, speaking to what type of employee you are and how it matches the job description.

    Did you help tutor during college? Did you pick up any additional hobbies or skills, like tinkering around with website designs or coding projects? I work in tech, so these are some tangentially related topics that could speak to some general ‘experience’ in a cover letter, without specific past jobs to speak about.

  12. MindoverMoneyChick*

    I used to hire entry level employees straight out of college. The job involved research and writing. We needed people who were good a learning new content and writing about it in clear cut ways, and also people with great attention to detail/editing. Also we needed self-starters who could learn on their own, because frankly we were totally trial by fire and needed people who could pick up what they needed to do on the job.

    Cover letters that worked talked about how they edited all their friends’ papers in classed, how they chose a particular major and excelled in it because of the writing involved, how they documented processes for a work study or extra-curricular activity just because they saw the someone needed to do it. That’s the kind of stuff that worked.

    As a side note, I disliked it when people over-emphasized their leadership ability (making much of being swim team captain comes to mind). We were looking for good worker bees. Focusing on leadership when it was not in our ad and had nothing to do with our needs made me think they weren’t great at picking out what was important from our ad. Which was a skill directly related to the job we were hiring for.

    1. themmases*

      I agree, I don’t think it hurts to talk about the skills you would have gotten out of your degree overall and to give examples. I came out of a writing-heavy program (history) and writing ability was actually a big selling point for the jobs I wanted at the time– student jobs and my first job after graduation. Journal research too, and just that related ability to get into an ongoing literature and start to make sense out of it.

      I almost never talked about the content of that stuff! People don’t care about the topics of my college research papers. But I did talk about coming out of a writing- and research-heavy concentration generally and that was quite valuable to me. Sometimes I would talk about doing my undergrad research in French and English, not because I expected to do that again but as an example of bringing in other skills and going above and beyond to do something the right way. I got my first real job in medical research because the department needed someone with good writing skills to make sure that completed work was getting written up, edited, and submitted.

      If there are skills the OP would refine and practice over and over, that someone couldn’t complete their program without being good at, that people with a different background might not offer, and they are plausible ones to someone who only knows their major, that doesn’t hurt.

      1. MindoverMoneyChick*

        “If there are skills the OP would refine and practice over and over, that someone couldn’t complete their program without being good at,” – YES! This is exactly what I was trying to say, but couldn’t figure out how to generalize beyond my specific background.

        “People don’t care about the topics of my college research papers” This too – we once hired a recent Ph. D. grad for an entry level job that only required a BA. We didn’t hold the the Ph.D against her because she seemed willing to jump into entry level work. But I remember her saying with surprise that I was her 4th interviewer of the day and no one had asked what her PhD. was in. I said “I’ll bite.” and asked, but then told her no one asked because it wouldn’t impact our decision in any way.

  13. Red*

    Yeah, no, because a lot of people (*waves*) do all that WHILE working part time. Or full time. Or full time AND part time. Currently finishing up my eighth school year, right here, of working full-time or more while also being a full-time-or-more college student, with two more to go. So you go right ahead and tell me how going to college was like a full-time job for you and see how far that gets you.

    1. Not a Real Giraffe*

      Yeah, I’m inclined to agree here. I was a full-time student, worked 25 hours a week at a part-time job, and was on the executive board of my student group (which required a LOT of time and work). I don’t find the “school is the same as a job” comparison particularly compelling here.

    2. Not the Droid You are Looking For*

      This was my first thought. Everyone one my team worked at least part-time in college (whether it was a library work study job or waiting tables) and I have some people that worked full-time.

      Seeing someone talk about college being the equivalent of working full-time would feel tone deaf at beast.

    3. Caledonia*

      As someone who has worked part time but mainly full time and studying for the past 6 years, I agree with you Red.

    4. AvonLady Barksdale*

      I agree with your overall point, but I think your tone is unnecessary. I get it– college is not a full-time job and shouldn’t be treated as such, which is what Alison said– but there’s no need to get sarcastic with the OP. I worked during college but I was very fortunate in that I didn’t put myself through college, and that doesn’t make me any less worthy of consideration or sympathy or instruction. The OP asked the question and got an answer; she doesn’t need to be patted condescendingly on the head and told how other people have it worse/harder/whatever.

      1. Laurel Gray*

        Sometimes I think tone like that of Red’s is helpful in this context because it is an honest reaction. This same reaction could be had by many a hiring manager or HR rep screening resumes and cover letters. Only the OP wouldn’t receive it directly, she would get the boilerplate rejection via email and no feedback. OP is still new in her career so it is very helpful to get an idea of various reactions people would have if those application materials came across their desk.

        1. Doodle*

          This is smart — I imagine a bunch of people had the same visceral reaction as Red even if they expressed it more sedately. Knowing that your cover letter might inspire frustration from the hiring manager is an important thing for the OP to understand about why it’s not a good idea.

        2. Diluted_TortoiseShell*

          I think in general being emotional lessens the impact of what you say and makes it easy to dismiss you.

      2. Rat in the Sugar*

        Yeah, I agree. I had people say stuff like that to me when I was complaining as a teenager/college student, “Just wait til you see what comes next! You have no idea how easy you have it now!” Now that I’m older, I see the truth of what they said and I still think it was supremely unhelpful. You can’t fully understand that until you live it, and when you’re going through what feels like that hardest time of your life, having someone tell you how much harder life can be (and will be) doesn’t provide any actual solutions.

        1. Merry and Bright*

          This is my thought. It is enough to work through the present and do the best you can with that, without getting so stressed or depressed about the future.

          Slightly different point but it also reminds me of Winston Churchill’s observation that people who said their schooldays were the happiest of their lives had his greatest sympathy.

        2. mazzy*

          I don’t look back on college as easy at all – always new classes, always having to deal with planning what to do during breaks and summer, money problems. I wouldn’t be able to handle it at this age. Now I work about the same as I “worked” in school, except I have a good salary, benefits, and some stability – not always applying for summer jobs

          1. Observer*

            The issue isn’t that school is so easy. It’s that it IS very different, for better or worse, and trying to tell people who are working how your schooling is the same as their work experience is not going to go over well.

          2. catsAreCool*

            I prefer work and being an adult to college and to my teenage years. College always required more studying and more studying I didn’t think I was ever really done. With work, I get to apply what I’ve learned, and they pay me.

          3. Tau*

            I hear you – college was pretty terrible for me. I am doing so much better and am overall a lot happier with a full-time job than I ever did/was in college. There’s a lot more structure which I really need, being accountable to other people makes it a lot easier to keep focused (I had a terrible time studying, and knowing that the only person I was hurting if I slacked off was myself was a huge part of the problem), and that’s not even getting into money stuff – it was fine at the time, but my standard of living has increased and now I have no earthly idea how I’d manage on the amount of money I had in college.

      3. themmases*

        I agree, and I think the OP’s misconception is probably common. I think it goes along with outdated beliefs that college will get you a job or that people will care about your GPA in the future: the idea that you should avoid working if you can and focus on being the best student you can be.

        I graduated in 2009 and my own parents didn’t want me to work for the first 1-2 semesters of my BA so I could just… get used to college I guess. They are highly educated but went to school during a time when you could pay your expenses off your summer job (waitressing, not interning) and it apparently wasn’t a huge expensive mistake to go get an MA in English literature just because you felt like it, which is what they both did. Others in my family have similar beliefs about whether and why you should go to school that are quite naive even though they all have advanced degrees themselves! These ideas about higher education are simply outdated.

        I stumbled into what I do now because I didn’t like not having a job, and university jobs paid better and involved office environments rather than customer service and cashiering. I can easily imagine having been encouraged to not work even longer if I’d had scholarships. That’s what would go on my resume at the end, right?

    5. TheBeetsMotel*

      Agreed; however, there’s no need to pile on. OP is demonstrating self-awareness by even asking this in the first place, rather than assuming that OF COURSE college is comparable to school. I’ve met many sweet, summer children who made that assumption right off the bat and never got a second opinion from anyone, and got the rude awakening you’d expect when they first dipped their toes into the world of work. At least we can help save OP from that, eh?

    6. I'm a Little Teapot*

      Eh, in my experience people who go to school full-time while working full-time jobs usually barely skate by in school, deliberately choose easy courses or schools, or cheat their way through. It’s a tradeoff; no one has infinite time and energy.

      1. Bend & Snap*

        No. I had a 40-hour-a-week internship and solid course load my senior year and I did fine, as did my friends who did double duty.

      2. Nova Terra*

        Not my experience either, especially not for older students who were studying in professional programs designed as a means to an end (i.e. a specific job/career). Course lists are often set too.

      3. Ham Sandwich*

        More often than not I’ve noticed this too, especially with group projects. Everyone has to schedule around the full-time worker and then they end up contributing the least amount of effort anyway because they’re so busy.

        1. KR*

          You clearly didn’t work with me in college, because I did the majority of the work in group projects while working full time.

          1. TowerofJoy*

            Yeah this is hilarious to me, because both when I was an undergrad working 50+ hours and when I was teaching undergrads it was always the kids living on parents’ money that never seemed to have time to get things done because Starbucks runs/frat party/weekend in warm destination was more important. Meanwhile I had to find a way to get the entire project done with zero help and much less time to do it. I was lucky enough to have professors that were sympathetic to things like this and let us “vote people off the island” – and frequently just chose to do the whole project alone.

      4. Foxtrot*

        I have to join in the disagreement on this one. Full-time workers in my program might have a 1/10 of a GPA point less, but they definitely don’t skate by. Actually, working and school at the same time stinks, so these people pile on 18-19 credit hour semesters just to get through. Everyone I know who didn’t *need* to work through school cut down to 14 or fewer credit hours to cut back on the stress in their life. I’m in engineering…most people wouldn’t say that it’s an easy program.

      5. JaneB*

        It’s a big concern – at the Uni I work at, students are specifically told that they should NOT work more than 15-20 hours a week during semester, and are advised to aim for 8-12, because those who work more than that do worse in their classes. If you need to work full time, do uni part time, is the advice to the vast majority of students – and also, if you choose that route, be aware that it will be hard.

        Are there some stars who can do both superbly? Yes, but they are outliers. And also, often not people I actually want to work with – people with huge reserves of energy and workaholism tend to be very unsympathetic to mere mortals who get sick, or tired, or just want to do other stuff with their lives.

        As Alison says when people write in saying they’re doing the work of two, three or four people – that’s not possible in the vast majority of cases. You might cover the key duties, but it’s unsustainable, and things will be sliding. At least OP is aware enough to ask!

        1. I'm a Little Teapot*

          Soooo much yes to your second paragraph – speaking as someone with a learning disability and mental health issues that would absolutely preclude that kind of schedule.

        2. TowerofJoy*

          You understand those that its a privilege to be able to choose to work less, or go part time – because part time attendance means you have to pay back your student loans, which means you have to work more. And working less means you can’t put a roof over your head.

        3. Clewgarnet*

          At my old university, you were only allowed to do paid work in term-time if you were attending university part-time. As soon as you were at uni full-time, paid work was restricted to a few hours a week at (much sought-after) jobs within the university itself.

      6. Velociraptor Attack*

        A lot of times, like for me, the tradeoff comes in terms of other things. You make sacrifices where they can be made and that is different for everyone. I went to school full time while serving full time and doing various internships, there were times I didn’t get out much and that was okay because it wasn’t a priority for me.

        Also, I highly recommend infinite Red Bull, it certainly helped me through my senior year in terms of helping with that energy issue.

        1. JaneB*

          Watch those caffeinated beverages! I triggered caffeine intolerance by overindulging in my final year at uni (I just always had a diet coke (other brands also available) or a coffee on the go to keep on top of study, work, societies etc.), and believe me in my late 40s I am REALLY regretting it, I would love to be able to get a coffee buzz some mornings, but the trade-off of headaches, nausea, hives, extreme irritability and the jitters are just not worth it!

          The things we do when we’re young…

          1. KR*

            That happened to me my senior year of high school! Lattes are kind enough on my stomach but I can’t drink energy drinks or drip coffee anymore without getting sick.

          2. Velociraptor Attack*

            Should have thrown in a winking face. I obviously do NOT recommend infinite Red Bull. The point is that if someone wants to get someone done, they’ll get it done.

      7. Diluted_TortoiseShell*

        I knew plenty of cheaters who were “traditional” students as well as non-traditional so I disagree with that!

        However there was friction between non-traditional students and traditional students at my school. The main reason being non-trads typically returned to school after a break and were working full time. So by the time they got to their 400 level coursework it had been 5 – 8 years since they had taken the 100 and 200 level courses. Naturally some of the nuance from those courses had left their thoughts and it tended to slow down the entire class as these students asked questions about materials everyone else was more recently familiar with. Some professors put their foots down and refused to answer these sorts of questions during class and asked for these students to schedule time with them during their open office. However that upset the non-traditional student union whose stance was that these students did not have the time to meet with professors outside of class due to family and work commitments.

        1. catsAreCool*

          When I was in college, the non-traditional students usually were some of the people who put the most effort into it and did well. They also got irritated when the professor treated us all like kids though.

      8. PeachTea*

        I’m not sure where this “experience” is coming from but it’s no where near the ‘norm.’ I have a full time professional job, often working 50 hours a week and am also attending school full time for my MBA. Oh, and I have a 4.0 GPA.

        I, as well as many other people I know, simply work hard and make trade offs in our personal life to get it done. So I’ve used all my vacation days for finals? When I graduate, I can take a real vacation. It’s about priorities, not cheating and skating through.

      9. Catabouda*

        That wasn’t my experience for my BA, but it sure was for my MBA.

        Particularly when it came to group projects. They were quite happy to be the person who stood in front of the class and do all the talking, but couldn’t be assed to show up for the meetings everyone else went to to work on said group project. And generally didn’t contribute anything useful even if they did.

      10. AK*

        I’ll admit there’s a smidge of truth to this statement, but not much. I was a non-traditional student who had to work through school to keep the bills paid, and I really resent the implication that I “skated” through. I’ll admit, I did make some tradeoffs – when my course schedules were heavier I only worked 30 hour weeks (I chose part time jobs to allow for flexibility – of course the trade off there was weird hours and low pay) and when I needed to work 40 hours later in my college years I cut back to 12 credit hours instead of the 15-16 the school recommended. My other trade off was that I graduated in 5 1/2 years instead of the standard four.
        But I did not “skate by,” nor did I cheat or choose an easy school. I worked really, really hard during those years and graduated with good grades and work experience that transferred really well into my chosen field. My choices were “work while going to college” or “don’t go.” Not everyone has the luxury of not being able to work while attending college.

      11. TowerofJoy*

        I worked two jobs while going to school full time (one full, one part). I had a 3.8 GPA and I worked very hard. The less than 4.0 is because yes, occasionally I blew off classes to go to work because I needed the money more than I needed an English class. It took me longer. I finished in 4.5 years instead of 4. I got no sleep and was a miserable person all those years, but when you don’t have a choice you do what you have to do.

    7. mazzy*

      On the other hand, saying you work FT and go to school FT or more than FT may devalue the difficulty of either. You obviously are limited in hours/effort at either job or school, or not sleeping, which doesn’t make you an attractive candidate either? There simply aren’t enough hours per day. I do about 50 hours per week at work. I did more hours many weeks in college at an upper mid-level school. It was just very time consuming. To do school and work at the same time, I would have had to cut corners at school and take a lower level job. When I see “ft school and ft work” all I can do is think of past coworkers doing MBAs who would sneak out early to go to school and never pitch in to help with anything extra, especially if it might keep them around past five.

      1. Rusty Shackelford*

        That might be the difference – the people I knew who worked and went to school full-time didn’t have 50+ hour jobs.

        1. JaneB*

          There was some post here recently about how for the vast majority of people it is NOT POSSIBLE to work 80 hours a week consistently. Yet FT college and FT job is 80 hours… I would find it hard, given all the studies out there on declining returns for longer hours, to believe that that was really what was going on.

          Some students don’t really need to do 40 hours a week to do well in their studies. Some workers don’t really need to work 40 hours to complete all their full time duties, or choose FT work at jobs where they need to use minimal “study-like brain power” (as in, analytical thinking – waiting tables and bar work etc. are proper jobs and hard work, require strong people skills, and may be what these mythical employers will look for in terms of ‘familiarity with a workplace’, but they use a very different set of skills than school work, so can double up more easily than working an intellectually demanding office role alongside full time study).

          Efficiency, multi-tasking (e.g. using commute time as study time), etc. all make it possible to work at that sort of pitch for a while, and maybe it’s easier when you’re younger to do it (it’s never been possible for me, but I need a lot of sleep, a lot of solitary time, and I’ve never been that healthy), but it’s not healthy in the long term. Look at the studies on the poverty trap, on the effects of sleep deprivation on the working poor who juggle multiple jobs, or antisocial hours, shift work etc. with family care and often long commutes – it seems like a very ‘American’ thing to regard this sort of self-brutality as a virtue, looking from the outside.

          1. Chickaletta*

            Full time college doesn’t equal 40 hours per week, you’re thinking work. I can’t remember how many hours a week I spent in class, studying, and writing papers but it sure didn’t take 40 hours. Then again, I was a business major and some of my science major friends would probably argue that they did spend 40+ hours a week doing all that stuff (and you’re right that a lot of people think that more time = more prestige, implying that because they had to study longer that their subject matter was more important). How much time out of your day it takes just depends on the major and what kind of student you are. I can see someone spending 20 hours a week taking a full course load and doing fine.

          2. TowerofJoy*

            What Chickaletta said. I worked full time plus and went to school full time. Classes were anywhere from 12-18 hours a week. Homework was typically only a few hours a week unless I was studying for a test or writing a final paper. I found undergrad to be a breeze for the most part. There were a few difficult quarters/classes, but there were also plenty where all I had to do was show up for the requisite percentage of classes and the tests to get an A. I went to a college prep for HS, so the first two years of college were basically repeats for me and I had always been the kind of student that could breeze through classes (again for the most part – we all have our kryptonite).

  14. Anonymous Educator*

    This reminds me a bit of a conversation I had with someone a few years ago with someone I knew only professionally, in which I was talking about what a smart aleck I had been when I was a student. This person couldn’t believe I was, because I was such a good worker, and asked me what the difference was. I said almost exactly what Alison said above—when you’re a student, you’re mainly concerned about yourself and your own learning; when you’re a worker, you’re concerned about the organization/company/school. Your own enrichment, fulfillment, learning is secondary or even tertiary, and the org/com/sch’s mission or bottom line is your primary goal. It isn’t about you. More importantly, if you are smart in school and don’t do a ton of work, you can probably scrape by with a B or C. If you are “smart” at work but don’t do a ton of work (and your workplace is reasonable), you’re likely to get PIP’ed or fired.

  15. Diluted_TortoiseShell*

    Don’t discount doing an internship at this stage. Several organizations offer professional internships for recent graduates.

    1. Anonymous Educator*

      Yes, I know someone who just graduated college last year who landed a (nicely paid) two-year internship with a large company, and she had zero experience in that field.

        1. Anonymous Educator*

          I mean, I’m not going to argue semantics with you. The company calls it an internship. They can call it an entry-level job, too, but they don’t.

          1. Diluted_TortoiseShell*

            I think one reason is that they are looking for fresh graduates with no prior experience. I remember when I was looking for my first corporate job out of college I did not qualify for any of their internships because I had been out of school for 2 years (sort of). It was a real downer being told that I am overqualified for their internships and under-qualified for their entry level jobs. : <

        2. College Career Counselor*

          Probably because it comes with an end date where you leave the organization and do not get promoted. Although I agree, this sounds more like a full-time, term-limited job.

        3. Not the Droid You are Looking For*

          For my friends who did this, it was usually on a rotation basis. So every 3 months they would move to a different part of the company and learn about a different part of the business.

        4. Juli G.*

          Sometimes it can be a creative way to avoid paying benefits to entry level employees.

          1. Anonymous Educator*

            It can be. In this particular case, she’s getting full benefits and very nice pay. Also a bonus if she stays the full two years.

          2. Diluted_TortoiseShell*

            I never inquired if interns got benefits, but they often did the rotation through our departments and many then started “real” full time jobs. It was a valuable experience for those fresh graduates who messed up and did not do internships in college.

        5. Astor*

          A friend of mine did a two-year post-school internship, and the main difference between that an an entry-level job was that the internship was specifically designed to give you additional experience and support. You were on rotation with other interns, so that you spent x months in one department before moving to another, and you spend y days spread throughout the year shadowing people in specific areas. I can’t remember the actual specifics, but it was something like spending 8 months in each of HR, accounting, and marketing, and two days a month in different areas of the factory.

          My understanding was that the internship was intended for people who they felt had the potential to move quickly into middle-management positions, and so it was intended to give them experience in multiple areas of the company. They didn’t get the same kind of long-term hands-on projects that other entry level positions might have an opportunity to do, but they had lots of other advantages for securing a more senior-position next. And if they instead moved on to another company, calling it an internship was a good short-hand for explaining why they worked in multiple positions over the period.

          And, actually, another friend did a different post-school internship. It was an internship and not an entry level position because they specifically filled it with a different graduate each year, and again: spent time specifically on developing that graduate’s skills. In addition to the time spent doing the assigned tasks, you were expected to gain additional breadth and depth of understanding the field as a whole, and you were sent to conferences, workshops, etc, that normally someone doing similar entry-level tasks wouldn’t be sent to.

          If I recall correctly, in both of those cases, the pay was a lower than that of other jobs that classmates with more work experience could get, but was definitely higher than an entry-level position. It was reflective of the fact that it was an internship, but also that it was intended to be a prestigious internship.

        6. SL #2*

          I did something similar, but it was called a fellowship; they were looking specifically for recent grads with little to no work experience, and along the way, the grad would be given professional development opportunities and clear training in a variety of skills needed to succeed in that field. The distinction was that it was for a finite amount of time; I got an extension while I looked for a full-time position, but it was very clear that the higher-ups allowed it because my managers went to bat for me and pointed out that I was the highest-performing fellow of the lot (and shouldn’t have any trouble finding a full-time job anyway, so the extension would be a short one).

        7. AVP*

          I worked at a company like this – calling it an “internship” meant that it didn’t offer any benefits and you had to move up or out when your two years were over, even if everyone liked you and they wanted to keep you in the position.

    2. Anonymous Educator*

      I will say, though, most post-college internships I know of (corporate or teaching) have long since finished hiring. They don’t wait until college seniors graduate in order to hire. They usually hire anywhere between October and December (for corporate) or between January and April (for teaching).

      1. Diluted_TortoiseShell*

        This depends on the field and the internship. There are internships designed be more like entry level jobs for fresh graduates, and “summer internships” designed for students still in school. The latter has already been filled but the former are often open year round.

    3. Kate M*

      Yeah, during the school year (and even sometimes in the summer), we actually almost only hire recent grads. We need interns (who are paid) Mondays – Thursdays from 9-5, which precludes a lot of current students who have classes during those hours. So it could be a great time to get a fulltime internship if you have more availability than those who are still in school.

    4. Triceratops*

      This is a great suggestion! I had an internship while in college, but I still started out at a (paid) internship after I graduated.

  16. junipergreen*

    Alison, I think in the second sentence of your first bullet, you might have meant “At work…”

    Great post! This strategy is not going to be effective, not just because the comparison doesn’t hold up, but because it misses an opportunity to connect the applicant’s skills directly to the specific posting.

  17. NK*

    Alison touched on this a bit, but one of the things that is really problematic with this approach is that any hiring manager with a college degree is going to be already familiar with exactly what being a full-time student entails, so you’re telling them nothing unique about the experience. And for those of us who found college to not be particularly challenging, you risk coming across as a bit of a joke, to be perfectly blunt. Also, many people have part-time jobs – even full-time jobs – while attending school (I did not, so no judgment on that), so this approach wouldn’t go over all that well with those hiring managers either.

  18. Erin*

    Volunteer work, helped to organize a school function, wrote on the school paper…something…you can use…?

    If not, or even if it was a one-time thing, use it as a jumping off point to start now and emphasize that in your cover letter.

    Example: “My sophomore year, I helped to organize a fundraiser for an animal shelter. It made me realize I’m passionate about animals and have been volunteering with the local humane society for the past few weeks. I’ve gained valuable managerial experience as I’ve already been assigned to training other volunteers and…” add in stuff that translates to how you could use these skills at the particular job you’re applying for.

    1. Erin*

      Just want to add – don’t worry if your “passion” isn’t in line with your career path. It will still look good that you’re passionate about *something* and are committed to serving your local community.

      Could also let people know at the place you’re volunteering that you’re job searching if they could keep an eye out for you, ask your direct supervisor to be a reference for you, etc.

  19. KR*

    I agree with the others that many people work full time while going to school full time (right here), so comparing college to a full time job just isn’t going to work. Talk about projects, internships, clubs, volunteering, that sort of thing if you have no other work experience but don’t compare it to a full time job. I would also consider applying to internships now to give yourself some work experience.

  20. Artemesia*

    Alison is spot on here. If you sent that cover letter to me, I wouldn’t even look at your resume; it reminds me of the housewives who try to write about being ‘CEO’ of their family. It comes across as hopelessly out of touch.

    But what did you do in school that WAS a test of your efficiency and effectiveness? Did you write for the newspaper, where you can demonstrate ability to be effective and meet deadlines? Did you organize some charity event? Were there community based class projects or internships where you can talk about delivering a project useful for others. Sometimes classes have service-learning projects where teams of students develop a marketing plan for a non-profit or small business, or conduct a survey for an agency, or otherwise deliver something useful; although these are class projects they might be something to mention in a cover letter.

    But bog standard going to school. No, no, no.

    1. Rusty Shackelford*

      If you sent that cover letter to me, I wouldn’t even look at your resume; it reminds me of the housewives who try to write about being ‘CEO’ of their family. It comes across as hopelessly out of touch.

      That’s a really good comparison. Your claim to have experience isn’t simply going to fail at being positive, it’s actually negative.

    2. Kate M*

      Oh man. I had a Facebook friend the other day (who is currently a SAHM) post about how hard it is to put a positive spin on taking 5 years out of the workforce in her resume. She had so many people post “you’re a mom, you can totally count that as being a planner/executive assistant/activities manager.” And one suggested framing it as a “domestic engineer.” All I could do was cringe and post a link to this site and hope she read through pertinent articles.

        1. Rusty Shackelford*

          That wouldn’t bother me on FB – it seems kind of tongue-in-cheek in that context. But trying to frame it that way as job experience is a whole nother story.

      1. Catabouda*

        Oh dear. I had a friend who tried to get back into the working world after a horrible surprise divorce and she was going that.

        I told her to knock it off, that she as just coming off as naive at best or a joke at worst. I had a huge pile on from her network telling me how wrong I was. It was sort of amazing (and so very sad) to see.

          1. Catabodua*

            If you meant me, no. She finally hooked up with a temp agency and got hired by a company she temped with.

        1. Katie the Fed*

          There was a good Vox article this last weekend about 8 things a woman wished she knew before she left her job to stay at home, and a big one was how you never get a chance to catch up on the work years you’ve missed, and how that can really hurt your earning capacity when you return to work. I obviously don’t plan to get divorced, but it’s something to keep in mind – you might really be up a creek if you lose that income.

          1. Catabodua*

            Also good to remember how fast skill sets get stale. If you are only able to show you were a Lotus123 (dating myself) expert user because Excel wasn’t a thing when you worked you’ll be in deep doo doo.

            1. Collarbone High*

              Damn I miss Lotus123. I was a freaking *wizard* at Lotus.

              Agree with your point — when I hired newspaper designers we had one repeat applicant who would mail us 30-40 pages of hand-drawn layouts. Not only did that waste paper and not follow directions for applying, he might as well have written “I haven’t set foot in a newsroom in 20 years” in big red block letters across his cover letter.

              1. Catabodua*

                I LOVED Lotus123. I was also a wizard. I was so freaking fast at it.

                Then I had to learn to use a mouse. It still makes me sad.

                And seriously – Excel still hasn’t gotten the control c, end, down arrow, enter, arrow to where you want to be, control v. Come on Excel – get it together. It’s been 15 years now, this is getting embarrassing.

      2. Murphy*

        That also bugs the hell out of me, not in the least because it wildly devalues those real professions. You’re a mum, not a nurse. Nurses have specialized training. You have a box of bandaids. Not the same.

        Ditto for “I was a teacher”. No, you were a parent with a glue stick and an internet connection. Teachers are highly trained professionals.

        Drives. Me. Batty. /rant

        1. aebhel*

          I can sort of get where it comes from, because parenting (at least, parenting well) is a skill-set, it is widely devalued in our society, and it does involve skills that are transferable, broadly speaking: scheduling, conflict management, flexibility, et cetera. The problem is, the only people who can really attest to those skills are one’s kids, and they’re neither objective nor, generally speaking, capable of giving a nuanced reference.

  21. Diluted_TortoiseShell*

    Here are some other ways I found college to be different than Full-Time work:

    You have far less freedom and control at work. At college you can choose your own schedule. You can decide to take a nap between your first two morning classes. You can decide that you will spend 8 hours on that awesome honeybee project and only 2 hours on the boring ancient Slavic languages project.

    At work – you need to be on from 8am – 5pm Monday – Friday. You work on what your boss wants you to prioritize, no matter how boring it is.

    Interpersonal relationships at college don’t really matter. Sure, it’s boring if you have no friends and it would be nice if your professors loved you, but ultimately your GPA won’t be impacted by these much.

    It’s the polar opposite at work. As much as I hate to admit and wish it were not so – relationships matter as much, if not more, at work than your skill set.

    1. Nova Terra*

      I also found there are less shortcuts at work. At school you are all learning the material alongside your cohort, so all the students’ “duties” for the class are the same; at work, you’re specialized into various positions, and the number of people doing the same duties as you are much, much smaller. Thus, the number of people you can lean on to bail you out at the last minute is much smaller (and the price is often much higher).

    2. Shannon*

      Not to mention a full-time course load at most colleges is 12-18 credit hours a week, and a full-time job is 40-50 hours a week.

      Some people would argue “but you’ll spend as much or more time on schoolwork outside of class than you’ll spend at the classes themselves!!!”, and they may be right… but that’s still a very different experience than being AT WORK the whole time.

      1. Shannon*

        Forgot to add that plenty of people work full time while attending school full time, so a full-time course load on its own isn’t really that impressive.

        1. JJtheDoc*

          Adding my $0.02 to all of the above. I am admittedly something of an over-achiever; that caveat aside, I earned an undergraduate degree, two master’s degrees and a Ph.D., working full-time and going to school full-time. Work and school are not equivalent!

      2. Diluted_TortoiseShell*

        I actually worked more hours overall in college than I do in the corporate world but it was in small chunks so it was hard for me to be there from 8am – 5pm consistently. I do love having weekends again though. Weekends are so nice. There was also more studying to be done in college. Always.

      3. Ivy*


        This difference makes work so much easier for me than school. OP, hope these differences aren’t making you nervous. Some are pretty great.

      4. JaneB*

        12-18 credit hours is supposedly 36-54 hours though, right? 2 hours outside class for every hour in?

        1. Rena*

          That’s how my school calculates it, but I find that I’m regularly putting in far more than that.

          My partner works full time and I’m in school full time (again, after working full time for several years). We’re at school/work for the same number of hours – generally 7:30 am – 4:30 pm, but the difference is when he gets home he’s done. He turns off his laptop and plays video games for the rest of the night. I’m frequently working on homework/projects/research all night, and most of the weekends too. If I’m not doing that, I’m at networking events or volunteering so there’s a chance that someone looks at my resume when I graduate.

          Work and school are different things, but I’ve been far more stressed in school than I ever was at work.

      5. Rey*

        I agree with the general sentiment–work and school are not equivalent, and school experience can’t be used the way the LW is trying to in her cover letter. Bad idea all around.

        That said, I think trying to compare *difficulty* between full-time work and full-time school is more complicated and depends on the specific job and study program you’re talking about. Credit hours mostly measure the time you spend in the classroom. Sure, there are some majors and class loads that don’t require too much outside of class, but there are just as many that add up to just as many hours of homework and study as a 40+ hour workweek. On the other hand, there are certainly some full-time jobs that don’t take all that much work, either. I think it’s dismissive, not just of full-time students but also of the people who managed to balance a job and school together, to claim that their schoolwork couldn’t have been that hard.

        1. Shannon*

          Oh, I wasn’t trying to imply working full time is harder/easier than going to school full time, I’m saying that they’re so different that they aren’t really comparable.

  22. Allison*

    As someone who reads resumes all day, one of my biggest pet peeves is when someone lists their 4 years in school in their job history, or claims to have 4 years of experience with Java when they just graduated and their only professional experience was a 3 month internship and occasional freelance projects. Don’t get me wrong, stuff like internships, freelance work, even personal projects or major projects you did in your senior year of college, can serve to make you competitive with *other recent grads*, but having been in school for 4 years doesn’t qualify you for mid-level jobs that require a few years of full-time, professional work, no matter how much homework you did.

    1. Diluted_TortoiseShell*

      What if they worked at the school while they attended though? That’s pretty common. I worked as a TA, Tutor, and Research assistant during my 4 years at Uni so I list uni as a job like I would any other part-time role.

      1. Foxtrot*

        I read the first comment wrong too…I think these people are trying to apply for jobs that require 3-5 years’ experience straight out of school. They aren’t really seasoned programmers yet. It’s like being a tutor or research assistant would be awesome to talk about in an interview and help you land a job, but you wouldn’t apply for an editor-in-chief position 6 months after graduation.

        1. Allison*

          Yes, exactly. Having part-time jobs in school means you do have some professional experience and some professional skills, and could say you have a few years’ worth of those skills specifically. But you still shouldn’t expect to be considered for a mid-level programmer job just because you were a computer science TA for a few years.

          And Foxtrot, you’d be surprised. We often get people fresh out of college applying for director-level roles.

          1. Diluted_TortoiseShell*

            Fresh undergraduates???? I had some older friends who got their masters and/or PHDs and tried to jump directly into director and middle-management roles and I thought they were crazy!

          2. Foxtrot*

            That’s crazy! I’m guessing they didn’t have much work experience either. All I’m learning in my internships, it seems, is how much I still have left to learn and don’t know yet. Director-level roles might be attainable far down the road, but I’m still going to be learning long after graduation. :/

          3. Katie the Fed*

            Ahhahaha that’s awesome. The older I get the more I realize how little I know. I miss recent-grad me who thought I knew everything! The world was my oyster!

    2. ElectricTeapots*

      Yeah, my friend and I both recruit for tech jobs at our alma mater and see a lot of this. “X semesters of Java experience” is a much clearer way to phrase it, ideally followed by some explanation of what was done those semesters– actively taking classes that use Java or TAing a class or something. Ditto to listing class projects on resumes, especially ones that you hand to alumni– there’s certainly relevant experience in assignments, but framing an assignment, where you have support code, TAs and professors at hand, in the same way as a personal or professional project shows a certain lack of understanding of the workplace.

  23. ElectricTeapots*

    Going to join in the chorus of “nos” here–people know that college involves attending classes and doing assignments. That is general knowledge, and does nothing to distinguish you as a candidate beyond simply saying that you attended and received a degree. As other people have pointed out, if you can talk about extracurriculars or volunteering or the work that you did do, include that. And if you really did nothing in college except attend classes and hand in assignments, talk about the specifics of what you learned in those classes and how they relate to the job you’re applying to– not just that you attended classes in general.

    Also echoing some other comments: post-grad internships are increasingly common, so don’t limit yourself to only applying to full-time positions if you really think the lack of experience is what’s keeping you from finding success.

  24. Paris*

    I had a high school teacher who didn’t think students should work. School should be their full-time job. Her thought process was that in high school, you focus on school exclusively, get straight As and then get academic full-paid scholarships to college. Then in college, you focus on school exclusively, get straight As and then get work based on your grades.

    I’m not sure what planet she was from, but it wasn’t earth.

    1. Anonymous Educator*

      Not only is work valuable for your résumé, but it can be good for students to just gain that experience for their own personal growth, and earn money to save up for college and/or extra spending money. Even if you’re a trust fund baby, it can be helpful. I assure you most super rich people who even have connections and a safety net / golden parachute are doing summer internships during college.

      1. Shannon*

        Working a McJob as a teenager also gives you some valuable lessons in How Work Works, and lets you make rookie mistakes while you’re still young enough to legitimately not know any better.

        1. B*

          Exactly. I firmly believe everyone should do a stint in retail or service so they know how being employed works. Also to appreciate a good job when you finally earn one.

        2. Diluted_TortoiseShell*

          Meh. I did not learn how the corporate world works from McJob.

          I still struggled to adjust to the corporate culture in my office and came across as a narcissist and all the problems that young people new to the professional workforce struggle with.

          McJob and JobKing aren’t the Millennial cold medicine to cure professional awkwardness everyone thinks it is.

          1. catsAreCool*

            A McJob can give one experience in dealing with angry/mean customers, finding things to do during the slow times, listening to managers, learning on the job, and that taxes take away part of your paycheck.

            It’s also nice to be able to look back and say “At least I don’t have to do that anymore.” on a tough work day.

    2. brightstar*

      This reminds me of the professor I had in college (I went to a state school, worked 30 + hours a week and was a full time student) who told us we should quit our jobs, move home, and focus on our studies. It just isn’t realistic for a lot of people. I lived at home and worked because I still had bills to pay, just a lesser amount. But I still didn’t have an option not to work.

    3. Kate M*

      I mean, when my parents graduated high school and college it was probably like that. But today, everyone has 98273087248 extracurriculars (in which they all had a leadership role) listed, plus work and internships at least in the summer, if not all year long, plus volunteer work. You have to be able to stand out in today’s job market in ways you didn’t used to have to.

      1. Paris*

        Not to mention that if EVERYBODY suddenly got straight As, it’s not like they’d all get academic scholarships. The scholarships would start adding on other parameters to weed kids out.

    4. Allison*

      My parents didn’t want me working during the school year in high school, they wanted me to focus on my studies and extracurriculars and knew that if I tried to add a part-time job onto all of that, it might be too much. But they were all for me getting a summer job, and wanted me to work part-time in college as well.

      1. I'm a Little Teapot*

        It took me at least 3-4 hours a night to do my math homework in high school – and that was just my math homework, and my school day was 8 hours. No way could I have held down a job as well.

        1. KR*

          As someone who held the job down while having a stupid amount of homework a night, I can assure you it was impossible. I don’t know how I survived on so little sleep – we’re talking three or four all nighters a week.

          1. Paris*

            I worked during my junior and senior years, but only on Friday nights, Saturdays and Sundays. I was able to get my homework done during the week, but this schedule didn’t allow much time to do anything fun. But my parents weren’t interested in my having fun, they were interested in me getting straight As and earning money.

  25. Navy Vet*

    As someone who was privy* to the discussions held by HR and the President and VP at my last job, I once overheard the HR director jump to the following conclusion.

    “She/he didn’t have a job the entire time they were in school, they did not have too many extracurricular activities and their GPA was only 3.00 (I don’t recall the actual number). You have to ask yourself what this person was doing all this time they were in college, their GPA is not that great and they were not working or anything…”

    Not taking into account that some people can focus super hard on something and work wicked hard and get a “C”, while others can show up on test day, barely crack the book open and get an “A”.

    Be careful on trying to sell college as a full time job, as Alison said…it’s not the same. And, some less charitable people will read waaaaay too much into it.

    * (Privy only because there was no sound proofing, volume of the HR director’s voice and the refusal to move my desk even though there were several empty ones…)

    1. Anonymous Educator*

      Not taking into account that some people can focus super hard on something and work wicked hard and get a “C”, while others can show up on test day, barely crack the book open and get an “A”.

      So you’re saying they should hire someone who, without outside work or impressive extracurriculars, had to work extra hard to get a C? I’m hoping, in that case, the candidate has other outstanding qualities HR, Pres., and VP need.

    2. Diluted_TortoiseShell*

      Ah yes. I remember those students. They use to tease me (3.8 GPA, several extra-curriculars, volunteering, honors program, worked part-time, involved in conferences for my field) saying that I was wasting college and would regret it later. This was just before the economic downturn and I remember telling them that if they honestly believed that hiring managers would not see a 2.8 GPA, no-extra curriculars, and a low course work-load as positive evidence they were hiring an unreliable budding alcoholic then they were dumber than I thought.

      Of course I was a brilliant jerk college. Something Alison has helped me grow out of. ^^

    3. Allison*

      I’d probably be a little more forgiving, but I kinda get where they’re coming from. Nearly everyone I knew in college either worked a part-time job, got heavily involved in a student organization or sport, or worked as a resident assistant, while they were in classes. While I know there are people who only go to class and just chill in their spare time, if they applied to jobs where they were up against people with the same GPA and same degree and course history but also had something going on outside of classes, they’d have a really hard time competing against those other applicants. Especially if you had a job or were an athlete, it shows employers you’re able to be accountable to someone other than yourself.

    4. Navy Vet*

      Maybe I didn’t word this well….I’m not implying anything other than be careful of how you represent the fact you didn’t work in college. Because, there are some people who will always create their own story (Often unflattering) in place of facts if there are no facts given.

  26. AnonAnalyst*

    OP, I can sympathize a bit with you because I didn’t work while I was in college. I worked during the summers, but I was lucky enough to not have to work to support myself during the school year, so I didn’t. I actually took an internship directly after graduating, which was more uncommon when I graduated 10+ years ago than it is now, so I would definitely look into that. Really, what got the internship for me was my excitement about the opportunity and some of the projects I’d done in college, so see if you can leverage any of the work or other activities you may have participated in where possible.

    Depending on where you’re located and what’s in your area, I’d also look into temporary work/staffing services. I worked for a staffing agency during the summers when I was in college, and it was a good avenue to get some work experience when I didn’t have much since the bar to getting hired is a lot lower – if you turn out to be a terrible employee, the client the agency sends you to can get rid of you and get another temp pretty easily, instead of the lengthy hiring/onboarding process for direct hires (coupled with the risk of potentially having to fire the person if they don’t work out and having to start the process over again). That often means that if you demonstrate that you’re available and flexible, the agency is more willing to take a chance on you to let you prove yourself.

    I think things may have changed some since I last worked with one of these agencies 7 or 8 years ago, but my current employer uses a staffing agency when we need temporary help and we’ve gotten some people in with more unconventional backgrounds or limited experience that have been great – some we’ve even hired on as full time employees – but are people that we probably wouldn’t have brought in if we just received their resumes in a large applicant pool.

    Good luck!

    1. KR*

      +1 on the staffing agencies! Even if it’s not the work you want to be doing, you can use it to get some office experience.

  27. Anonymous Educator*

    I’m a bit curious about this:

    I did not work very much during college due to having scholarships.
    I view my college years as my main job for the last four years.

    OP, can I ask what you did during your summers? Most people I know in college either work (retail, service industry) during their summers or do some kind of internship (research, teaching assisting) during their summers.

    1. Snarkus Aurelius*

      Which is why I was so confused at the lack of internships. Rare is the college student who has enough resources that she doesn’t have to work during school. But if this is the case, I expect some sort of internship.

    2. OP*

      During summers, I worked in a small factory completing customer orders per their specifications. I also did internships, mostly unpaid, for local non-profits.

      1. Snarkus Aurelius*

        Aha! That’s what you focus on in the cover letter. Tie the job description requirements to specific tasks you completed during these experiences. Doesn’t matter if the factory job is relevant.

      2. Anonymous Educator*

        Then those are the things you should put on your résumé as work experience.

      3. One of the Sarahs*

        That totally counts as “working during college”! You absolutely have to re-frame how you’re describing yourself, because as a hiring manager, I’d read your initial letter as you did nothing, and probably were supported by your parents to spend the vacation periods lazing around, which would give me a really bad impression of you.

        There is nothing at all wrong with choosing to work only over the summers, especially if it brings you in the same total amount that an evening pub shift or two during term time would (I did that, and friends did – I worked (relatively for students) high-paying holiday childcare) – especially if you had to keep up your grades for your scholarship – and doubly so if you have some extra-curriculars. Focus on all this great experience in your letter!

      4. SL #2*

        Oh! This is definitely work experience, as everyone’s pointing out.

        I think where you got tripped up was that “work experience during college” sounded like it had to be a part-time/full-time job during the academic school year or during the summer, which it doesn’t! When you’re in college, cobbling together short-term jobs/internships is probably the one time it’s acceptable.

      5. Engineer Woman*

        Were there deadlines for completing the orders and did you consistently meet and/or exceed them? Any time there was a large number of orders that had to be completed in a short period of time and how did you manage it? Any accolades from your supervisor on how you well you did your job? These are the things you should emphasise in your cover letter. I think you should have gotten the point by now (but I’ll reiterate with my agreement): please do not try to indicate going to college full-time is comparable to having a job.

  28. twbb*

    On a related note, how long can one include leadership experience from college in job search materials? I graduated in 2010 and have worked in direct care for 6 years. Now that I am looking to transition to leadership I’m wondering if I can include the only supervisory experiences I have even though they were 6-8 years ago in undergrad as part of an club.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I’d take it off at this point. (It also won’t really count as supervisory experience in the way employers are looking for, so I don’t think you’ll be losing a ton by removing it.)

  29. Tired of Single Mindedness*

    I am a recent college graduate and I feel that if you can apply your college experience in your cover letter then go for it. I feel that employers want you to be perfect in every way possible right when you graduate college. They want you to be an expert in everything, even before they hire you for an entry level position. I agree that the stakes between college and a job are different. However, for me, the stakes were the same. I graduated with a perfect GPA. I worked the long hours that it took to get the A’s in all my courses. I made the commitment to do everything that I possible could to succeed at the highest level in all of my courses because that was my job at the time. Because of this commitment and the fact I chose to focus on just my courses during the semester I was able to keep my scholarships and even earn more scholarships. With all this hard work, I have won several academic awards and I have only one student loan that is less than $5,000.

    For me, college was my job. It was my job to complete all the projects I faced and to do my part of any project correctly so my team’s grade didn’t suffer. Most group projects are graded on group effort not individual effort. So if I didn’t do my part of the project well enough then it was my entire team’s grade at stake, not just mine. Taking exams is just like a working situation where you are expected to know the correct solution and/or information in order to get the task at hand done. It truly was you and you alone when it came to exams and even individual projects.

    I didn’t work much during college, this means I only worked during the summers and other breaks, but I did partake in volunteer opportunities that I felt would help build upon what I was learning in my courses. Not all personalities can handle being a full time student with a full/part time job. Some personalities prefer volunteering because it still gives them the experience they desire but doesn’t come with all the strings attached. Every one is not the same when it comes to trying to balance college life with working life and there is more than one path to get to the same end result.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Well, you’re saying “it’s just like a working situation,” but you have lots of people here with lots of work experience (who also went to school and so can compare the two) who are telling you that it’s not. Hopefully you can recognize that as a recent grad, you probably don’t have a great vantage point for understanding whether or not it’s the same as work, and whether employers will see it that way, right?

    2. Anonymous Educator*

      I know I’m going to sound like a curmudgeon, but just no. No. You worked hard academically. You succeeded. You got good grades. You won scholarships. That’s all good stuff. That isn’t work experience, though, unless your workplace is grad school.

    3. BananaPants*

      Sorry, but as someone who’s actually involved in hiring new grads right out of school, a candidate with a perfect 4.0 GPA and no work experience is going to lose out to a candidate with a 3.1 and several relevant internships or work experience. Plenty of people manage to graduate with a high GPA and worked part time or full time. Getting good grades is not the equivalent of working.

      1. Snarkus Aurelius*

        Plus getting good grades is all about you. Professors don’t usually care about that stuff. Doing well at work involves so many other people and elements. It’s quite a different beast!

        1. BananaPants*

          And at some universities/programs, grade inflation is rampant, and I have no way of knowing if that’s the case for any given candidate. A 3.0 at State U might be the same as a 3.7 at U of State. GPA is a consideration but far from the only thing I take into account when reviewing resumes of new grads.

      2. One of the Sarahs*

        This has always been the case too – in the ’70s and ’80s, my dad was high up in recruitment for a major bank’s very prestigious graduate training scheme, and was adamant that he’d always pick someone with a 2.1 or 2.2 and good university extra-curriculars/work experience, over someone with a First and nothing else. Of course a perfect grade point average is good for academic jobs, but there are lots of fields where having perfect grades with nothing else is a big disadvantage, especially those that involve inter-personal skills.

        (British uni degree rankings go First, 2.1, 2.2, 3rd, pass, fail)

    4. Allison*

      I do agree that when you’re a student, being a student is your job. Going to class, doing your homework, completing your projects on time is your job in that you should take it seriously and it should take priority over all the other things in your life. But having graduated 4 years ago, being in school and working full-time are two very different things. When you’re working, it’s your whole day. You get up, go to work, you’re there all day (unless you work from home, in which case you’re still expected to dedicate pretty much your whole day to the job), then you get your life back when you leave for the day.

      At school you’re there for your own development. You’re accountable to you. If you fail, it impacts you. You’re paying the institution to teach you and turn you into a productive member of society. At work you’re there to do something that’s primarily for the company or organization’s benefit, and they give you money in return for that work. If you fail at work, it can impact others – your team, your boss, your customers, your company’s image could be harmed depending on how badly you screwed up.

    5. catsAreCool*

      “Taking exams is just like a working situation where you are expected to know the correct solution and/or information in order to get the task at hand done.” – actually I like work better because you don’t have to have the correct answers memorized – it’s OK to look them up or (if you don’t ask too many questions) ask someone who knows.

    6. Joanna*

      One of my first jobs out of college involved assisting with recruitment, mostly screening resumes sent to my company to identify ones that should be looked at more closely by senior recruiters. At an emotional level I had SO much genuine empathy for the applicants who were mostly focused on their course work. I’d graduated with work experience that was okay but not ideal both in quantity and quality so I could vividly remember how awful that experience felt.

      But even with all that understanding and goodwill, I progressed almost none of the applications that focused mostly/all on coursework. I wanted to help them but I couldn’t disobey my boss’s instructions to seek out the applicants with highest odds of being very good at the job. It was hard to justify giving one of the very limited spots in the next round to someone whose tangentially related college experience may or may not develop with the help of extra training into what we needed at the expense of someone who already has solid experience doing what we need in a workplace similar to ours.

      When I did try to work out what might be relevant from their studies, it was difficult because I didn’t usually know how things worked in their degree program. Group project could mean anything from “we worked together for a couple of hours” to “we conducted a major piece of research over 6 months that was published in an academic journal”. Same could be said for a lot of elements of college.

    7. Joanna*

      This might be nitpicking a little, but I think your reference to people preferring to get certain types of experience over others is worth considering a bit further. A recruiter’s criteria isn’t going to be “did this person get their most preferred, enjoyable type of experience?” as though any experience works equally well. The question they are trying to answer is “Does this candidate have specific experience that demonstrates that they will be able to do a good job at the tasks we need done with minimum training or fuss?”. It doesn’t matter if getting the experience in question was the candidate’s favourite thing they’ve ever done if it doesn’t show the recruiter what they need to see to confidently move forward. Sometimes you have to do things you don’t enjoy or that are inconvenient to get the kind of experience that is most helpful.

  30. Isabel*

    Allison’s response should be handed out at every internship and entry-level position. Understanding the difference between school and work is essential and many people just do not get it at first.

    To the OP, I suggest that you reconsider not just your approach to cover letters but your attitude. I don’t mean to sound unkind! You have never held a full-time job. Why would you presume to enlighten potential employers who HAVE held jobs?

  31. Tired of Single Mindedness*

    I don’t disagree that I have a limited perspective here but if you can find a way to make it work for you then go for. Maybe not go right for the comparison of college and work but some projects that college students face today are just like projects that they might one day face in their career. For example, I had a Compensation and Benefits project I worked on that required my team to use the Point Method to establish a pay schedule. It was our responsibility to review the job descriptions provided and match them up as best as we could to the survey data that was also provided. This helped us establish what our benchmark jobs were, what compensable factors to use, and how the pay grades would be formed. In a recent interview, I actually showed a copy, one that was free of comments made by the professor, of this project to the hiring managers and they commented that the level of work shown in this project is what they expect out of their teams.

    I think that figuring out how to use these experiences in a cover letter could help the applicant distinguish themselves from the masses

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      What I’m saying is that you should reconsider saying “it’s just like what you’d do at work” when you have so many people with more experience telling you that it’s not. For example, in the example of this project, it’s not like work in many different ways — you didn’t have a bunch of stakeholders outside of your team who you needed to please, you didn’t have to navigate internal company politics, you didn’t have someone coming in and throwing in new constraints at the last minute, the stakes if you got it wrong were lower, etc. It’s useful and interesting work that helped build your skills, absolutely. But it’s not just like what you’d do at work.

      1. One of the Sarahs*

        There’s also the fact that if everything goes wrong, there are all kinds of ways students can be supported – so if, eg, a health problem comes at a bad time, there are academic dispensations – and if the worst comes to the worst, there are possibilities to repeat modules etc, because universities have a duty of care to students. Not to mention all the (UK) stories of students who drink through the first year, only pull themselves together at end of second year, and can pull it all back and still get a good grade in the final year, which are clichés because they’re so common, which just wouldn’t fly in the work world.

      2. Anonymous Educator*

        the stakes if you got it wrong were lower

        If your whole grade depends on that project, that’s your grade and your classmates’ grades… on that project. That isn’t your entire GPA. That isn’t the entire student population’s GPA. The school itself won’t go into bankruptcy because you failed your group project.

        In many workplaces, if you “fail” your “group project,” your company goes under, or you get fired, or you and your co-workers don’t get your commissions (which you need to pay rent/mortgage and other bills). The stakes are much, much higher.

        Believe me—I’ve been both a teacher and a student, and when you’re a teacher, if you aren’t at 90-100%, the stakes are much higher and the adverse effects far wider-reaching than if you are a student who isn’t at 90-100%.

    2. Nova Terra*

      While I agree that getting a 4.0 GPA takes a lot of hard work and commitment, that’s not the same as a job. You are held far, far more accountable at work than at school.

      1) far less flexibility/autonomy in arranging your priorities

      Very rarely do entry-level (fresh graduates) jobs let you choose your own schedule. The hours required for the job are 8-5, 9-6, or whatever it is. You don’t get to decide “my brain works best after 2 pm, so I’m going to take all afternoon classes.” You don’t get to say “I have a calculus midterm in a week but a paper due in two days, but the midterm is worth more, so I’ll BS my paper because that’s only worth 5% and my grade can take the hit.” You don’t set your priorities. Maybe it’s easier to do well in school if you can arrange the priorities to play to your strengths, but an entry-level employee doesn’t have that flexibility; you have to adapt to the job (or find another one).

      2) your actions have a much wider impact

      I believe you when you say your group projects affect other people and it was a team effort. But you pay to be at school, which means doing a crappy job on one thing usually only affects you, can perhaps affect your group members (if it is a group project). And unless you spectacularly flame out–unlikely, given your academic record–you don’t get long-term consequences for mistakes past a dinged grade. I doubt your professors yell at you.

      At work, it’s often a chain, so you being late one a deliverable can cause a ripple effect down the chain so lots of people have delays. You screw up a piece of work, you get yelled at by your boss, your coworkers get yelled at by their boss (and their client). Maybe you lose a client, which screws up budgets and numbers for the next quarter (and bonuses!), and hey, bills still need to be paid. You break a software and cause the entire IT team four hours of extra work as they halt processes and revert to backups; they remember that the next time you ask for a favour, whereas you often have a fresh start and a new batch of classmates at the next class. Relationships at work are harder to cultivate and take more work to nurture.

      The things you learn can be applied to work–that’s the point of school, to give you the education and background and the foundations. You can absolutely bring up school projects in job interviews to show off your problem solving skills and demonstrate things you’ve learned. But the actual experience of working is not the same as being in school, and it’s folly to conflate the two.

    3. Observer*

      If you can figure out how to make it work for you, great. But making comparisons like this simply won’t work. I’m not going to repeat what the others have said, but I’ll point something out. The project you mention is a perfect example of how a school project is NOT quite the same as what would happen at work.

      For example, in a real world situation, you may very well not be given survey data – you’re going to need to find it. And it may not be so easy because maybe some of your benchmark jobs are not so common or standard. Oh, and there may be internal politics, regulatory issues, precedents and other things that could affect compensable factors to use or how to address them. What’s more, it’s unlikely that your assignment would be “use the point method to create this chart.” It’s more likely to be “review this chart and write a report. Indicate what changes we need to make.” And you need to figure out what methodology to use, figure out how “pure” you are going to be, and make sure that you cover all of the issues that your particular company has that are not built into whatever method you chose. And then you need to make sure that you’ve clearly explained why this works in a way that the person who is going to use your work product is confident that it’s not going to torpedo morale or expose them to legal issues.

      1. Nova Terra*

        This is a great point. I remember when I took a data analysis course (basically playing with Tableau) and we had our final term project that had to be a culmination of all the things we’ve learned, which required a big enough data set to showcase everything.

        The instructor flat-out told us “pick your topic off Stats Canada or one of the municipality data sets, which have the best chance of being big enough and granular enough for you to evaluate anything, and they’re likely to be ‘clean.'” But in the real world, it’s the other way around–you take data (hopefully already collected…otherwise you need to collect it first), clean it up, and hope you can find some patterns or trends in them. And that’s just raw data, without touching the regulations, politics, issues, and other miscellany.

        Theory (school) is the basis for reality (real-world jobs), but it certainly isn’t the same.

  32. BananaPants*

    OP, this is a pretty blunt statement but if I received that cover letter your resume would be immediately thrown in the “reject” pile. You wouldn’t even get an interview. There are a few reasons:

    1) The tone comes across as very naive at best, supercilious at worst – you just finished college and have little/no work experience and presume to tell an experienced professional that school and college are the same thing (which they aren’t). Yeah, not a good plan.

    2) You’re trying to sell yourself to working professionals, many of whom would have worked part time and in summers while they were in college themselves. They all know that going to school and working full time are not the same thing.

    3) Given that so many college students DO work part time during the school year or have some work or volunteering experience during summer vacation, your lack of such experience can imply that you lack the time management skills to have done so. It would certainly raise the question in my mind as a hiring manager.

    1. Rusty Shackelford*

      2) You’re trying to sell yourself to working professionals, many of whom would have worked part time and in summers while they were in college themselves.

      Or worked full-time all year long and attended school part-time. Trust me. We know the difference. And at some point, you will too.

  33. Brooke*

    Attending school can definitely be difficult and exhausting – I happen to be the first person with a BA in my family and have had to battle perceptions that it was four-year cakewalk – but no, it’s not really comparable to a job. I wouldn’t even necessarily one is always harder than the other but it’s an apples-to-oranges type of comparison.

  34. Sunshine Brite*

    If the scholarships had limitations placed on them that prevented work, should that be mentioned in cover letters? I see above the OP has more experience to draw on then what they initially thought through summer work and internships, but I’m thinking of the stories that come out from athletes who can’t work but can’t afford additional costs of living like books, snacks, etc.

    1. Anonymous Educator*

      I don’t think you should mention that in a cover letter. Most hiring managers don’t expect that you’ll be working during the school year (if you do, great; if you don’t, probably not a problem). I know plenty of folks who went to college, didn’t work at all during the school year, and then did work or internships during the summer, and those summers counted as (limited) work experience.

  35. Observer*

    I didn’t read all of the responses, so I may be repeating something that’s been beaten to death, but so far I haven’t seen it…

    Others have noted that they would prioritize relevant work / internship, then any work experience, then no work experience. If I got your letter, it would go after that last. In fact it’s a good be that your letter is going straight to the circular file. There are just so many issues here.

    For one thing, trying to explain to a hiring manager why your college experience is really like work experience is not going to go over well. Someone who is a graduate himself is not going to need you to explain what college is worth and what it can teach. And someone who has not been to college isn’t buy at all, especially if they have ever had to manage some “wet behind the ears” newly minted BA without work experience. It comes off as incredibly condescending in either case.

    It also come across as utterly clueless and, for lack of a better word, attitude-y. At least most college graduates know that they have a lot to learn about really being in the workplace. You, on the other hand, have declared that you have already learned what you need to know about the workplace from the (extremely different) classroom experience.

    The fact that you can seriously write this letter – that, for instance, you consider your classes on employment laws to be the equivalent of experience in actually dealing with law in the workplace – also makes me wonder what you actually did learn. Do you know enough to understand the types of situations that could actually trigger those laws in situations where there is no specific pointer to this, that or the other law? Or where it’s not clear that employment law is an issue altogether? It’s the kind of thing that would make a lot of prospective hiring managers wonder what you actually did learn, even though you passed all of your classes.

    Bottom line: Take all of the good advice and don’t do it. Furthermore, re-think your attitude. It’s not reflective of the real world and it’s not going to help you.

    1. Diluted_TortoiseShell*

      This is a workplace forum for posing questions. Calling out someone for their audacity to even pose such a question doesn’t fly with this community in general. Reaching out to industry experts to see if something gels is actually a great thing to do and shows the OP is open minded and willing to question if their line of thinking is accurate.

      Also if you had read some of the comments, the OP actually does have work experience and was just confused about “working during college” meaning to actually work during classes and was discounting all of their summer work and internships.

      1. Observer*

        I saw that later. And, to be honest, I really don’t understand why she (he?) would ask this question, having had some real world experience. I wasn’t blasting the OP for the audacity to ask the question. What I was trying to convey was two things. Firstly, a letter like the one in the original question is going to make a terrible impression. Secondly, the question, the way it was framed, actually highlights why school is NOT like experience.

        To the OP – you seem to have a serious disconnect between your work life and your schooling. That’s a shame. Both of these will be more useful to you, both in terms of what you get out of them and what you can present to a prospective employer, if you actually link them.

  36. One of the Sarahs*

    Hey OP, reading your updates, it sounds like you’re in an excellent position to get work, and I wonder if maybe your question comes from a case of Imposter Syndrome/anxiety? Your updates saying you worked over the vacations, and interned at non-profits, and did volunteering in term-time, AND kept up your grades so you could keep your scholarships? All that is absolute gold, and the things you learned and achieved there should be your focus.

    It is super-hard to get jobs straight out of uni, especially in this economy, and I definitely think you should volunteer, intern and/or temp (depending on your economic needs) while you look for a full-time job is something you should do, not just because it looks great on the resumé, but it will also keep you from over-thinking things. It sounds to me like you’re worrying too much about this ideal letter, which is leading you to ask Qs like this – and leaving out all your awesomeness, which is why people will have been a little harsh with you at the start. BUT! Look at you! You’ve done university right, it sounds like, and you’ve got all kinds of things that will help you SO much in your jobsearch, and your working life.

    Huge good luck, I hope we’re reading a happy good news update from you very soon.

    1. OP*

      I mostly volunteered or participated in service-learning projects during the semester as I needed to keep my grades up for the scholarships that I earned. However, during any break I worked to save money to help support myself during off work periods.

      Although I do not have Imposter Syndrome, I do have a severe anxiety disorder that has similar symptoms as the Imposter Syndrome. I have struggled with anxiety my entire life and I often hide it because most people view it as an excuse. This is just one reason why I focused only on my courses during the semesters; it helped me manage the level of anxiety that I had to handle.

      1. One of the Sarahs*

        I feel you, re the anxiety, as I’ve been through some really nasty anxious patches in my life, and it’s horrible – it sounds like you’ve dealt with that well too.

        It’s easy to say, but don’t be too hard on yourself in the job search. Alison’s book and articles on cover letters are super-useful (and post-uni job expectations), and have tons of excellent advice – make sure you’re doing things you enjoy, alongside job searching, and remember, it sounds like you’ve got pretty much everything hiring managers in the thread are saying they want. Of course you can’t apply to jobs with things like “3 years experience of…”, but you sound like you’re in an excellent position for graduate jobs.

  37. Stevenz*

    Once you have been in the work world for a few years you’ll understand how different work and school really are. It’s why so many of us wish we could be back in school.

    1. Observer*

      It’s also, as you may have noticed, why so many are glad never to see the inside of a classroom again, as well.

      1. RikiS*

        Yup, I was one of those who maintained a 3.8 in college while working about 35-40 hours a week, and I for one, do not miss those days at all! I like my weekends.

  38. OP*

    First, I would like to apologize for the miscommunication on my part. I should have stated that I had worked during any time off and that if I found a volunteer opportunity that worked with my class schedule then I went for it. Again, I apologize for this miscommunication. Second, the community’s comments have been extremely helpful, although some moved past constructive criticism. I was trying to find a way to distinguish myself, in a creative way, from everyone in the candidate pool. The way that I initially thought would be okay turned out to be an extremely bad idea to go with. The community’s comments, especially Allison’s reply to my question, has helped me find new ways to distinguish myself from the masses without coming off as, as many have commented, attitude-y and naive. Third, in my uni they describe working while going to college as working during the breaks AND the semester. Students who chose not to work during the semester are kinda of looked down upon unless you had good reasons for not working (i.e. disability, family, etc.). So, my initial confusion of what working while going to college meant comes from that. During the breaks, I worked to pay my bills and to save money so I could pay my bills during the semester. This way I could still be self reliant when I wasn’t working.

    I acknowledge the fact that I was extremely fortunate not to have to work during the semesters. I worked hard and went above and beyond what was expected of me in my courses because I didn’t want to let those who were supporting me down. I wanted to show them that their investment in me wasn’t going to waste.

    I appreciate all the feedback the community has given me and writing my cover letter is going to go more smoothly now. Again, I apologize for the miscommunication on my part. Thank you everyone for taking the time to reply to this question.

    1. One of the Sarahs*

      No need to apologise, OP – and never feel guilty about the “not working in-semester” thing, because although it was out-of-step with your college culture, tons of other places would see it as normal, especially when some vacation jobs pay the same as a semester of bar work etc.

    2. Observer*

      You have nothing to apologize for. On the other hand, you could use this experience as a learning moment in clear communications… Not just the error you made, but the one the school made. For them to make it seem like you didn’t work during school because you didn’t work during the semester seems rather opaque to me.

      I’m not terribly impressed with their attitude, to be honest. I think that working during your school career is a healthy thing. But, if you can limit it to the summers and inter-session holidays, there is good reason to do that. Especially since you did take the opportunity to volunteer. And, you don’t have a superior attitude towards the people who don’t have that choice.

      Lots of luck!

  39. Sam*

    It’s crazy to me that anyone can put themselves through college without working since it’s so expensive these days, even with scholarships. OP, if you had college completely paid for with scholarships then you must have done something to earn and keep them that set you apart from everyone else; it’s probably worth mentioning that in your cover letter.

  40. Nikki*

    OP, I was in a similar situation as you, I just went to college without working and I will say that college was hard. Extremely hard. it was the absolute hardest experience of my life, not because I was juggling college with work or other obligations, but because college itself was hard! I agree that work is much different than college, but I personally find work much easier than college. So while I agree with AAM that it doesn’t sound right to compare college to a job in your resume, don’t think for a second that you can’t be proud of the fact that you got through college. If getting through college was a huge deal for you, that’s fine. You can still be proud of that accomplishment even if it doesn’t go on your cover letter.

  41. KH*

    It is so true that results are judged, not effort. (At least that is the way it should be)
    At my current job I had serious anxiety for the first year because it felt like I wasn’t working as hard as I should. But at every turn, I would receive unsolicited praise for how great a job I was doing. I decided that this was one of those purple unicorn companies that does value results over effort. I use the extra time for professional development and to pick up the quality and look after my other team members. I think I’ll stay here a while.

  42. OP*

    I am the letter writer and after reading this post again, all I can say is “Ugh what was I thinking!?” Even re-reading it and knowing that I was the one who wrote, all I could do was cringe. Since writing this letter, I began to read more of Alison’s posts on how to write a decent cover letter. After some rough starts to it, I was finally able to come up with a cover letter that I felt really spoke to my abilities and experiences. It took me a couple of months after that to find a job, due to moving to another state. I have been at my new job a couple of months now and I absolutely love it! The position is an entry level one in my field and I am learning so much. I truly know now that work and school are too completely different experiences. Thank you everyone for your comments! And thank you so much Alison for choosing my letter! I believe your advice truly saved me from writing an embarrassing cover letter.

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