Nearly 100 certificates are offered at this school, yet the message about what they actually are must have been lost on me during freshman orientation – I’d guess at some point between capstone courses and the Wisconsin Idea.

In preparing to write this column, I spoke to an academic adviser in the School of Journalism & Mass Communication, an advisor in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies who also worked in Cross College Advising Services for more than a decade, two coordinators with Letters & Science Career Services and a University of Wisconsin expert on higher education. Each one had his or her own unique take on what a certificate is, why the University of Wisconsin prefers them to minors and how an employer might perceive the word “certificate” on a resume. All were hazy in some regard.

My pursuit to find the answers behind this topic was partly motivated by my own nearly-completed certificate in environmental studies. My concerns echoed that of the two individuals from L&S: I do not want a potential employer to think a certificate is any less competitive than what other schools call a minor. “Certificate” sounds like something I could have completed in a weekend or online from an unaccredited college.

After hearing from these stars of academia, I have come to a few conclusions. It is not guaranteed every certificate program is created equal. It is not guaranteed each certificate will achieve its learning goals, no matter how careful its design. Most importantly, despite the fact certificates are hyped as a hip trend among top universities, employers who are not familiar with UW-Madison, even if they have crossed paths with other UW Schools, may very well have no idea what our certificates are or the type of work they require. 

Therefore, I emphasize to fellow students they ought not treat certificates as one more bullet point to batten down the edges of a resume. Certificates are not merely a label that will prove we are versed in yet another subject – one could argue the same for additional majors. Rather, the certificate programs at UW-Madison are an opportunity to provide a broad counterpoint to the narrow depth found in our majors. They are structured interdepartmentally, at least the good ones are, so students may enter the workforce having chosen courses that most aligned with their unique array of interests. Through a certificate, students will have gained skills in these areas as well.

My second plea to my peers is they try their utmost to accurately communicate to an employer how the chosen certificate has supplemented a well-balanced educational oeuvre. It is imperative to expound upon the certificate further in the resume, cover letter or interview. Describe a meaningful experience, or a new idea that presented itself. List the credits taken in a certain subject.

As a first-semester freshman, I participated in a “leadership certificate program” through Chadbourne Residential College on campus, which only required me to attend a few meetings. If I had chosen to pursue the similarly-named but much more in-depth UW-Madison leadership certificate, I would have found myself cataloging 100 hours of leadership work, as well as taking three online courses. One can easily imagine the frustration if an employer equated one experience to the other.

Another instance of this can be found right within my own Nelson Institute. For the past 10 years, a 26-credit certificate in environmental studies was the most popular certificate in the university, according to school records. With last year’s much-needed induction of UW’s first-ever environmental studies major, the certificate requirements were lowered to accommodate that change. Some students – especially juniors and seniors near to completing the requirements anyway – swiftly adapted from the certificate program to the new major, while others like myself opted for the 15-credit certificate. In retrospect, though, an unintended consequence is two students who both tout an ES certificate from UW as part of their degrees may have had entirely incomparable coursework.

Again, I must vehemently stress it is up to the student to accurately portray his or her experience when it matters most. A well-thought out certificate track can provide additional exposure to new ideas that employers seek, whereas minors have the connotation of a wimpy sidekick to one’s major – it is critical to prevent any confusion from taking place.

Above all, it is most important for a student to know why they have chosen a particular certificate than what it says in its title. This mental process gets the student in touch with their own talents, interests and values, which makes for a better interview. Employers do not want a secondary area of depth, rather they care that an applicant is able to be trained. As such, even pre-professional students who typically have less leeway on course choices should make a conscious effort to be academically well-rounded.

Students must be advocates for what they have achieved when the label alone is not enough. Not doing so risks under-representing the skills, attitudes and knowledge earned in those few extra semesters of coursework. Don’t let it happen to you.

Sarah Witman ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in journalism and getting a certificate in environmental studies.