The value of online classes—more specifically, MOOCs—has been proven. In a study done last year by Coursera on people who have taken its classes, 72% of survey respondents reported career benefits, with 43% reporting improved candidacy for a new job and 26% actually landing a new gig.
And it makes sense: Besides helping you learn new skills, the fact that you’ve taken MOOCs tells hiring managers something about you. “When everyone else is using all the same old tactics to land their next job, you have to do something different. Self-directed learning shows potential employers that you take initiative and are curious about things beyond your 9-to-5,” shares Muse Career Coach Martin McGovern.
So the question for job seekers or career changers considering online education should not be whether it’ll work, but how to make it work best for you. How can you choose the right classes based on your career goals? How can you get the most out of the class—and then incorporate it into your resume and job search materials?
If you’ve got all these questions and more swimming around your head, read on for the ultimate guide to using online courses to help you land your dream job.
Choose the Right Class
There are a lot of online courses out there—so the first step toward success is sifting through them and finding the best ones for you.
Start by considering the industry you’re looking to gain skills in, and whether MOOCs will be the best option. “Our learners tell us that online courses are particularly useful for learning and demonstrating proficiency in skills in relatively fast growing fields like data science, software engineering, digital marketing, and interaction design, that have changed significantly or maybe didn’t even exist when they were in school,” shares Julia Stiglitz, Director of Business Development for Coursera. Alternatively, if you’re looking to get a leg up in a more traditional field like medicine, law, or finance, online courses can be great for verifying your interest in the field, but you’ll likely ultimately need to explore more traditional educational options for verifying your credentials.
Next, consider your goals. Is there a specific skill you’re looking to learn to top off your existing knowledge base, like SEO or a new coding language? These courses are pretty easy to search for, so look at whether the instructor has a background that you can learn from, whether the syllabus covers topics you’re especially interested in, and whether the class’ schedule aligns with your availability.
Alternatively, if you’re looking to change careers and gain broad knowledge in your new field, it can be a little overwhelming figuring out where to start. Instead of searching for individual classes and trying to piece them together, look for organizations that offer learning tracks comprised of a curated set of classes designed to get you up to speed. Coursera Specializations, for example, offer tracks for some of the most in-demand careers: digital marketing, data science, mobile development, web development, machine learning engineering, financial analysis, and management.
Go Beyond the Coursework
Once you do find the perfect course for you, don’t take the approach of your college self in that econ class you hated, doing just enough to get by so you can put the certificate on your LinkedIn profile. The value in these courses, after all, is in the actual learning of new skills or integrating yourself into a new industry.
In other words, you’ll want to go above and beyond when participating in an online course. One of the most obvious ways to do this is through completing projects that allow you to show rather than tell that you’ve gained new skills. “Online courses and programs increasingly are designed to leave the learner with a tangible project that can be added to a portfolio or resume,” shares Stiglitz. “For example, every Coursera Specialization ends with a capstone project meant to demonstrate the learner's new skills in a way that can easily be shared with employers.”
So if your class includes projects, make sure to truly dedicate yourself to them, doing your best work that you’d be proud to include in your application materials. If your class isn’t project based, it could be worth doing work on the side or even seeing if there’s an organization or project at work you can apply your new skills to pro bono.
The other often forgotten (and incredibly valuable) resource is the other people in your class. “Remember how you’re taking this class to be the next kickass [enter your dream profession here]?” asks Muse Career Coach Elena Berezovsky. “Well so is everyone else in the class. Network, network, network with your fellow students and your instructor! By building a bond in class, you can continue to help each other in the future, get a jump start on building your network in a new industry, and learn from each other’s job search strategies, challenges, and successes.”
Even though you’re not sitting in the classroom together, make an effort to connect with the people in class with you. Email your professor or guest speakers additional questions, or set up a phone call to learn a more about their career paths. Start a Facebook group for others in the course, or organize a weekly meetup for students in your city to work on assignments together. At the very least, creating a community will help motivate you—at the most, one of the people you meet could lead to your next job.
Use it to Benefit Your Job Search
Now that you’ve completed the class—congratulations, by the way!—it’s time to make sure potential employers know about it.
Sure, you could list it under the “education” section of your resume, but especially if you’re using this class as a catalyst for a career change, there are even better options. “If this is one of the most relevant experiences you have to offer, make sure you treat it that way by having it live front and center on your resume,” says Berezovsky. Her suggestion? “Instead of having a ‘work experience’ section, call it an ‘industry experience’ section—this way, you can list the class, work effort, and any project work coming out of your course.” You could even consider adding a personal website to your job search repertoire, where you can go into more depth about the results you saw in the class and share examples of projects.
In your cover letter and during the interview, highlight your experience in the class by telling a good story about how it fits into your career goals. “If you can’t explain why you are took the online class, outside of thinking the certificate would look good on your resume, you are missing out on the opportunity to tell a great story that might land you your next job,” says McGovern.
Finally, anywhere you’re talking about the class in your job search materials, make sure to lead with results! “What did you really get out of this class?” asks Berezovky. “Speak to those new skills and how they translate into what you can now offer your future employer.” In other words, don’t just say “I took a class on X”—explain what you learned and achieved and how you’ll bring that to your new potential employer on day one.
With a clear vision, dedication, and some smart job search strategies, online courses could be the best thing you’ve ever done for your career. Time to get learning!