All about the “interests” section of your resume

Your entire resume is about showing why you are the right candidate for the job, which means tailoring your work experiences and bullet points to the job you’re applying for, selecting which undergrad and law school activities to include based on their relevance to the position, and crafting a carefully curated image of yourself using the job posting as your guide.

Until you get to the interests section.

When you write your interests section, you need to get in a totally different mindset from the mindset you were in when writing the rest of your resume. You are no longer tailoring your experience to the job you’re applying for. You’re simply explaining what your honest interests are so that the interviewer sees that you have a life outside of work and are an interesting person he or she would like to work with.

Another way of thinking about it is that your interests section is the only part of your resume that can remain identical regardless of where you are applying.

To help you understand why it is beneficial to include an interests section on your resume, let’s explore why employers like seeing interests in the first place using comments from real attorneys in my network who hire people…

Why do employers like the interests section?

Generally, employers like interests section so they can see you are well rounded, have things you like to do outside of work, and will be an interesting person to work with. Interests provide great conversation topics for interviews and asking about them is a great way for employers to get to know you.

Last week, I asked several attorneys I know who regularly hire young attorneys what they think about interests sections and the responses I received are below.

State court Judge: “I hire from the bottom of the resume. I like to see that someone has interests outside of work and is a well-rounded person. No interests section means no interview. ”

East Coast Big law senior associate: “I feel like I learn something about people by the activities they chose to pursue. It also can be a conversation starter. That doesn’t mean you should list everything you’ve dabbled in, but hiring people with interests other than The Law is important to me.”

West Coast in house counsel: “One line; max 3 interests. You can list food or travel but you cannot list both. I want one line of interests that have nothing to do with anything so I know you’re a human and can evaluate whether I want to work aside you once I’ve determined you can do the work. Random interests also allow me to gauge how good the person is at coherently making a point, which is a key skill for a lawyer that many lack. If someone lists “Travel” but can’t pick their favorite trip or concisely sell me on it, she’s losing points.”

West Coast Associate: “I agree with those who’ve said that it’s a good way to show ‘humanness.’ very unlikely that someone will be put off by a given interest, and decent chance an interviewer will be intrigued by one of them. can be a good low-stakes conversation topic either early or late in the interview.”

Federal government attorney: “Undervalued. Knowing you are somebody we want to work with is just as important as knowing you can do the work. I suppose it could be taken to an excess but rarely is.”

What are good interests to include?

I always tell students to get specific or unique. Logrolling, magic the gathering, and knitting are all examples of unique interests that are worth including. Examples of good specific interests include “backpacked through Asia for two months, french baking, and ran ten marathons in three different states.”

“Travel, cooking, and reading” are fairly universally maligned. Pretty much everyone puts those on their resume so they don’t serve as good conversation starters. If you like traveling and cooking, get specific. Where have you traveled? What kind of food do you like to cook? Did you ever enter a cooking competition? Note that sports fandom is a good interest to include too. You can state sports fandom on your resume simply as “Dallas Cowboys football” or “Chicago Cubs baseball.” But do not list Notre Dame sports fandom. Everyone will assume you are a Notre Dame fan based on the fact that you go to school here, and the sports junkies will want to talk with you about it regardless.

When I asked my network what types of interests they like to see, I got the following responses:

West Coast big law senior associate: One line of interests is good; two is too much. Interests should be interesting. Too many people generically are interested in food, travel, and outdoorsy stuff that they clearly are lying about. I interviewed a person recently who included welding and proficiency in some language I’d never heard of. That was interesting.

Big law senior associate on a hiring committee: “I like an interests section if they are interesting and specific. If you say you like reading and cooking, leave it off. If you say you play the digeridoo, I’m going to ask how you got into that. It’s always a fine line, though, because people can veer into coming across as pretentious.”

What not to say in an interests section:

Interests should be light, fun to talk about activities. So interests are not things like “Microsoft word, project management, political debate, analyzing the human condition, prison reform, labor and employment law,” etc. Employers want to know what your real interests are and how you spend your time when you get home from work. This is not the time to talk about your legal interests or career goals; you can do that in your cover letter. This is also not the time to try and shoe horn in some skill you didn’t have space to describe elsewhere. Again, you can do that in your cover letter.

Do not try to tailor your interests section to the job. The only exception is saying you are a fan of a sports team in the city you’re applying to work in.

And a note on including law school and undergrad activities on resumes.

I asked my network what they like to see with respect to including undergrad and law school activities on resumes and here were the responses:

Federal government attorney: “A few activities are good, but by a few I mean, list one or two. By that time, people should be focusing and investing time in a few meaningful things, not trying to spread themselves lightly across many things.”

Public interest attorney: “In my experience I only care if the clubs/activities are closely aligned with the type of work that my non-profit does. In that case, it signals actual interest in our mission. Otherwise it’s a waste of space, unless the candidate was in charge of something (like a large budget for a student organization).”

 Midwest big law senior associate: “There are certain activities that no one would find interesting and/or are rather meaningless, and I would leave those off (undergraduate honor societies). I would also leave anything off that you can’t talk about passionately and is not relevant to your identity. If you were president of the college knitting club but don’t knit anymore, we aren’t going to have a conversation about your knitting hobby. If you were a member of the Federalist Society but just showed up to hear speakers, it really doesn’t tell me much either.”

New York associate: “don’t generally care about massive amount of activities- like to see sports because i think it shows someone who’s competitive, can participate on a team, and can lose- like seeing study abroad because i think it shows some sense of understanding that they’re not the center of the universe- that said, I don’t decline from interviewing people who don’t have these things on their resume.”

New York associate: “More space devoted to legal experience. Club memberships don’t impress me they just tell me what this person is interested in (I see many applicants with membership in intellectual property or entertainment law clubs, and we do nothing in those fields and I think oh, they don’t really want to work at this job, this is just a job for them not a potential long term career)- honestly I’d even rather see a job as a waitress or bartender over club memberships if that’s the best they’ve got because that shows me work ethic, customer service skills, patience, etc.”

Federal government attorney: “Just as an anecdote, I had a couple law school clubs on my resume, and I remember an interviewer asked me a question about one of the clubs and I realized I had nothing, really, to say about it, other than that I was a member. So I took it off. IMHO if it’s on your resume you should be ready with a decent little elevator spiel on the topic, so that’s another reason to remove extra clubs.”

Big law partner: “Stop padding your resume.”

If you would like help on your interests section, reach out to the CDO. We’re here to help.

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