No unpaid internship? No problem

May 22, 2012, 4:41 PM UTC

FORTUNE — Dan Black worked at the same gas station, D&F Getty in Staten Island, for seven of his high school-to college summers and holidays. No, he wasn’t interning at the White House, nor was he fetching coffee at The New Yorker, but the job paid well, and the longer he worked there, the more responsibilities he was given. He was assigned the busiest shifts and began training new gas attendants.

After graduating from Binghamton University in New York in 1994, Black got a position as an auditor in the financial services office at Ernst & Young. Today, he is the Americas director of campus recruiting at the firm.

For many rising seniors and recent graduates entering a sluggish job market, Black’s story is a cause for hope: you can actually land a solid job without spending your summers at unpaid internships.

According to recently published research from Rutgers University, only 51% of 444 surveyed graduates from 2006-2011 were employed, 20% were in graduate or professional school, and 12% were unemployed or looking for full-time work.

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Numbers such as these scare current students into accepting unpaid internships in the hopes that the experiences will strengthen their resumes — or get their foot in the door at employers’ offices — before graduation. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers 2011 Student Survey, 48% of internships held by seniors from that year were unpaid. The question that’s on plenty of young minds is “Are unpaid internships really worth it?”

With more than $1 trillion in outstanding student loan debt weighing down on graduates’ pockets, working without pay isn’t always an option. For students who had to work their way through college — logging hours at a local restaurant, school bookstore, or corner bodega after class and throughout the summer — it can be intimidating to compete against applicants with a slew of professional experience decorating their resumes.

But a bit of resume savvy may sooth these applicants’ worries.

Showcase your skills

Marie Artim, vice president of talent acquisition at Enterprise Holdings, says a lack of corporate experience may not be a deal breaker. “Students are so focused on having ‘fancy’ jobs on their resumes.” Having a solid work background with skills that can be used in all sorts of jobs is much more important; and a resume that shows results is more compelling than one that explains your job responsibilities.

Black agrees. Working with customers at a place like a gas station can actually translate pretty well to managing a client’s needs at a place like an auditing firm. “Don’t just tell me that you worked the lunch shift. If you were a waiter, how many customers were in your section? Did people request to sit in your area? Was your section busy?” He also suggests listing any recognition you received on the job, from becoming a shift supervisor to training new employees. Those kinds of things signal your leadership potential.

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Adrienne Alberts, lead associate of university relations at Booz Allen Hamilton, says leadership comes in all forms and from all different environments, but it’s on students to highlight their ability to get work done and work well with others. “I don’t want to see an example of a project you did in a class. I want to learn about the skill set you developed while working on that project.”

Get in front of the company

“Internships are about making a connection with a company,” says Black. If the opportunity doesn’t present itself to you in that form, be creative and find a new way to make that connection. “In today’s market, without a perfect GPA or resume,” networking is a solid way to make yourself seen, says Artim.

Though networking doesn’t come easy. “It’s all about the six degrees of Kevin Bacon,” Black notes. “It takes legwork, but look hard and think about how to network into a company of interest. Use LinkedIn — where do alums from your university work?”

Campus career fairs and career services centers are obvious — but often overlooked — ways to get your name into a company’s ether.

Booz Allen’s recruiters take its employee referral program very seriously, Alberts says. For applicants who may have weaker resumes, this is a great way to boost their chances of nailing a job, or at least a foot in the door.

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“There’s nothing wrong with cold-emailing an alum from your school to set up an informational interview,” Black says.

Include a bit of background and express your interest in the company, but keep it brief. The worst that could happen? They don’t respond. And Black says a response indicates how they treat future talent. “Did they take the time to call back? That’s important to note about a company’s culture.”

Avoid the classic resume pitfalls

If you don’t list your GPA on your resume, Black says you won’t be taken seriously. For students who struggled to balance work and school (or partied a bit too hard in their early years on campus), note that you worked 20 hours a week to pay off a loan, made dean’s list in certain semesters, or list your major GPA if it’s higher than your cumulative one.

Another issue Black complains about? Over-executization, a term he coined himself. “Students often write about things that are bigger and better than what they were. When I ask them about the activity or responsibility in an interview, they freeze.”

Keep an open mind

Alberts says it’s going to be tough for those without several internships to compete against those who have many. “Don’t lose excitement or motivation; leverage the skills you do have.”

Finding your dream job immediately after graduation might be a stretch, in any economy. As a CPA-turned-recruiter, Black can attest to that. “The area you start out in is not where you’ll end up,” he says.

Artim suggests keeping your options open: “Believing you have to work for X or Y will make your search harder. You never know where a different job will lead you.”