By Lauren Porter
I was 19 years old and sitting in my first real interview. I was leaving behind my days as a babysitter, camp counselor, and cashier. I was applying for an entry-level administrative position in a civic engagement office. I had a lot of volunteer experience which I thought pointed to my character if nothing else. I highlighted skills from previous jobs to try to show I had some of the foundational skills for this new position. I spent hours laboring over my resume and finally made it into the interview. After glancing over it for a few seconds, she looked up and said, “You created and managed a Facebook page?” I forgot that was even on my resume. This was a task I took on for two years as part of a civil rights project in high school. Yet, that was the type of experience they were looking for. Someone who had created a social media presence. She skimmed my work experience, glossing over the things that I thought would’ve stood out more. I thank that one experience for being what moved me along in the hiring process (and eventually landing the job!). That was when I learned volunteer work can show just as many skills as paid work.
Have you put volunteer experience on your resume before? Many employers value individuals who give back to their community, but it goes further than that. Volunteer experiences can demonstrate transferable skills and professional accomplishments that can show your capabilities for a position you’re applying for.
Think about it: If you’ve volunteered in a soup kitchen, this shows your ability to work in a fast-paced environment, be part of a team, and follow protocol. Have you led a fundraiser for a nonprofit? That shows the ability to develop and execute a project, provide leadership, advertise and market an event, and work with donors.
The key is to think about volunteer experiences, especially long-term ones, as a professional experience with transferable skills. These are skills that are not specific to one type of job but rather skills that can be transferred to various occupations or roles. You develop these skills through jobs, internships, and volunteer work. Ask yourself what transferable skills you’ve learned in your volunteer experience(s). Review a list of skills to help you brainstorm.
Some of the most desired transferable skills are teamwork, leadership, adaptability, prioritization, time management, organization, verbal and written communication, critical thinking, and problem-solving. Some transferable skills are less abstract, such as typing, second language proficiency, setting and monitoring goals, managing conflict, and multi-tasking.
You might be quick to write-off your volunteer experience and think it doesn’t have any transferable skills or they’re insignificant to your career. Indeed, some volunteer experiences won’t be relevant or won’t be relevant to a specific job. But don’t be so quick to disregard what skills you may have learned and practiced without evening knowing it!
Before trying to identify which skills you’ve developed, start from square one: get out a piece of paper and write down your volunteer work and your activities, responsibilities, and roles for each, even if they’re simple or you’re not so sure they’ll match up with a skill. Once you’ve come up with as many things as you can for each, go back and see what you can make more specific. For example, instead of, “Filed client charts at a clinic” you could say “Filed 50-100 client charts per shift using the clinic’s patient management software and confidentiality protocols.” Look at a list of resume action words and try to utilize those kinds of words when describing what you did.
Go back and review a list of transferable skills to help you remember things you might be missing and to start to match up things on your list with specific skills. This has an added bonus of being helpful for writing your cover letter or answering interview questions, like if you were asked to describe a time you had to be adaptable or lead a team to a common goal. Most position descriptions show a desired skills section. This is where you take your detailed list of experiences and tasks and tailor it to the position. If they are looking for organization, time management, and leadership skills, highlight the volunteer experiences that speak to that. Some experiences and skills won’t be relevant for certain positions, and it is usually best to leave them out so that the skills you want to highlight really stand out.
Another big question is: where do I put it? If it’s directly relevant to your career field, such as you’re applying to be a nurse at a healthcare facility and you were a long-time hospital volunteer, you may want to put this in the same section as your work experience. You can name your section “Professional Experience” to cover both jobs and volunteer work.
You may want to have a separate section instead where you highlight a few of your most relevant experiences and title it “Community Involvement” or “Volunteer Work.” There’s many ways to do it and looking at examples online or getting guidance from a career center can help.
And don’t forget to pull skills out of positions and involvement you’ve had in student organizations, like Kappa!