Career and Resume Advice: Student Edition

by Ryan Choi8/11/2020

With the launch of YC’s list of startups hiring for fall 2020 interns, I’ve been getting a lot of requests for advice from students about their upcoming fall plans.

I provided some resume tips previously, and now I want to answer some frequently asked questions that are relevant to students.

Q: I’m considering taking an internship this fall but I don’t know how to weigh the pros/cons of taking a semester off. What should I do?

There are so many variables to consider, there’s no easy answer. That said, you’ll benefit by getting three key perspectives/pieces of information to help you navigate a decision:

  • Ask your college/university what their policy is for taking a leave of absence. Some universities have a policy that you cannot leave, others have a period by which you must return in order to graduate. Understand your situation, so you do not put your matriculation in jeopardy.
  • Understand the costs of taking a leave. This might include foregoing any pre-paid tuition or room and board at your university; it might also incur re-enrollment fees. Learn what a gap semester might cost you before making any big decisions.
  • Talk to your parents. This is not a decision to make in isolation, as your family has a vested interest in your graduation. They may likely be surprised, so expect lots of questions on whether this is in your best interest.

Nathan Leung faced a similar decision as a rising sophomore, and chose to take a leave from college to join Jupiter (YC S19). He wrote a great piece on his experience and how he thought about taking a gap year. You can read his post here.

Ultimately, many top companies — and startups as well — look favorably at candidates who have completed a 4-year university. So unless you really are the next Zuckerberg, finishing your degree eventually is probably the right move.

Q: How should I approach internships in expectation for starting a career after college?

When I was in college, I knew I wanted to be a software engineer, but didn’t know what kind of environment would be a good fit. So I tried working in different industries to learn more: I worked in big tech (writing Perl scripts at Lockheed), consulting (Java applets at Sapient) and startups (at an incubator, using whatever it took to get the job done). Ultimately, the process helped me learn that I enjoyed smaller teams and shipping more frequently, and have mostly worked at startups ever since.

If you’re still trying to figure out what you like/don’t like, treat each internship as an opportunity to advance your skillset and learn about a particular industry. And even if you really liked a place but are curious about what else is out there, here’s a tip: stay friends with the manager, recruiter and rest of the team. If they’re still there, they’ll always vouch for you to return. (And the company might even keep notes on your performance, in case your former contacts leave.)

Q: I eventually want to start my own startup. What are some key things I should be considering in choosing an internship opportunity?

At small startups, you get more exposure to how to operate a business and even start your own startup. You’re closer to the founders and can often ask questions directly about their decisionmaking. And I’ve also found that startups value employees/interns who take initiative to help out in other areas (so long as you’re fulfilling your primary responsibilities).

So think critically about which skillset you might want to develop during your internship — product management, customer support, business, etc — and be proactive about asking questions or proposing projects that might move the needle for the company.

Q: I’ve never had an internship before. Should I take classes, work on more projects, study more or something else to prepare?

One of the primary reasons that larger companies offer internships is to train and hire a future workforce. So there’s an expectation that you might not know everything on day one, but that you’re bright enough to learn quickly on the job. (Startups are also looking longer-term to hire you, but there’s not as much structure or resources to get you up to speed. So they might want to see a little more fit in terms of skill set or familiarity with their stack.)

In either case, it’s worth applying and seeing what you’re able to land. And if you can’t get an internship that matches your dream role or skillset, try to find other adjacent roles that might give you domain experience. This is at least a step in the right direction. For example, if you’re an engineer, you might be able to find an analyst role where you can hone in on your SQL skills. Or if you’re in an ops role, you can possibly write some simple Python scripts to parse/clean data before getting better insights.

Lastly, here are some quick tips for student resumes:

  • Keep it to one page. In most cases, you can cover all your experiences in a single sheet.
  • If you have work experience, put that at the top — either first or right after your education. If you come from a lesser-known school, having work experience first might help.
  • Avoid a section listing skills/proficiencies. For example, putting list “Python, C++, SQL, Typescript”. Instead, include those skills as part of each bullet point in your experience, e.g. “Wrote Perl scripts to integrate SQL database with search engine SDK and indexed 10K pages of internal Markdown documentation.”
  • Add a “Projects” section sparingly. There’s not enough signal to determine if it helped you develop applicable skills, especially if it’s a side project or a hackathon. One caveat is if you’re applying for a role that requires Python and you have it — then it could be a good indicator of your fit. But don’t have a section purely listing Projects at the expense of other relevant experience.
  • If you’re a designer, make your portfolio or Dribbble page clearly visible. Put it alongside your name, and even consider not having other links there.

And if you missed it, read out general resume advice, which talks more about impact, your story and how to best reach out.


  • Ryan Choi

    Ryan works with YC companies to find great engineers — from 2-person startups to larger ones like Airbnb, Stripe and Instacart.