Average student, extracurricular ace: Get ahead with life experience

While some students excel at taking tests and getting good grades, others thrive in real-world situations and develop their skills through experience. If you belong to the latter group, there are several ways to make the most of your life experience and advance your education and career. After all, colleges and employers are looking for more than a high GPA — they appreciate well rounded individuals with unique experiences.

Using life experience to create memorable applications

If you’re applying to college or a degree program, drawing on life experience can help your application stand out from the herd. The personal statement (or admissions essay) is an opportunity for you to describe your experience to admissions officers and explain why you are a strong candidate for the degree program. A strong personal statement can make a big difference, especially if your grades aren’t as high as you would like.

Life experience is also important when filling out job applications. In addition to listing your work experience and education, be sure to mention any significant life experience that relates to the job you’re applying for. For example, if you’re applying for a job as a web developer, you might mention the experience you had launching a website for a friend’s company. Whether you’re an expert in a given field or dabble across disciplines, your experience is a valuable asset worth highlighting.

College credit for life experience

Some colleges and degree programs allow you to translate your prior experience into college credits through the College Board’s College-Level Examination Program (CLEP). CLEP offers tests in 33 subjects, from financial accounting to western civilization, that test your knowledge in a given subject area. Depending on your school, passing a CLEP exam may enable you to earn additional credits and/or skip introductory courses.

Similar to high school Advanced Placement (AP) tests, CLEP tests enable college students to get ahead in their degree programs and graduate sooner.

Let experience shine on your resume

Your resume is your biggest opportunity to impress employers with past experience. A well-crafted resume lists relevant experience and highlights your success in former roles. As an employer reads about your past experiences, he or she should be able to envision you bringing the same success to your new position.

On your resume, your relevant experience will fall into one of three categories: work history, education and additional information. The work history section should detail all relevant positions you’ve held and provide concrete examples of your success. Rather than writing a bland job description for each position, use action verbs to highlight specific tasks you accomplished. Brainstorm problems you faced, actions you took and results you achieved for each position. Then, include the most impressive achievements on your resume. Whenever possible, mention quantifiable results, such as, “Grew customer base by 18 percent.” A few quantifiable examples of your success will mean more to employers than a lengthy paragraph describing your job duties. If you’re not sure which jobs to include, stick with the most recent and the most relevant to the position you’re applying for.

The education and additional information sections of your resume are also important, especially if you are a recent graduate. Perhaps you volunteered through your college’s tutoring service, or you played a varsity sport — these experiences should be mentioned in the education section, along with any honors or awards you received. Avoid lengthy descriptions and opt for clear, concise bullet points. Highlighting your success in extracurricular activities is especially important if you need to offset a less-than-desirable GPA.

The additional information section is a perfect catchall for other life experiences you feel relate to the job you’re applying for. Employers want to know if you’re a marathon runner or a leading volunteer at your town’s food bank. Just make sure the information you include honestly represents you and your strengths.

Using experience to get ahead

Whether you are looking for college credit or a better paying job, tapping into your life experience can help you stand out to schools and employers. GPA is important, but employers also recognize experience as an indicator of success. By making the most of your unique experiences — from working to volunteering to athletics — you can create applications and resumes that reflect your true potential.

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