Building a résumé before university

Two student volunteers looking at each other.
Clare Written by Clare (she/her), student

Putting time and effort into creating a great résumé while you’re still in high school might seem pointless, but it’s actually a great way to get ahead of the game.

When it comes time to apply for a summer job, your first co-op job, or an internship, employers will nearly always require you to submit a résumé. The good news is the things you were involved with during high school can be the starting point for a great résumé.

If you’re involved in school activities and you’ve done some volunteering, you probably have more experience than you think. A lot of people think high school experiences are not interesting (or relevant) to employers, but the truth is, they can help make a résumé that sets you apart and give you an edge! And that's really your goal: to show employers how your qualifications can help them and their organization.

To make you feel better, in high school, my résumé looked something like this.

A horrible high school student resume

So even if yours looks like mine did, fear not! After working on my résumé for a few years now, I’ve pulled together some tips on how to beef up your résumé before heading to university.

If it’s relevant and true, include it

Lots of people with limited work experience end up creating a very empty résumé because they feel there’s nothing to write. But a résumé isn’t just about paid work experience!

A résumé should give an employer a good idea of who you are as a person (and as a future employee) – and this is definitely not limited to any previous jobs you’ve had. You should put anything on there that you feel represents you well. Volunteer experience is great, so is a school leadership position, but these aren’t the only experiences that can go on a résumé.

If you’re a member of a school club, team, or community group, this will give employers an idea of who you are. While it might feel silly to include "member of board game club" on your résumé, an employer reading this now knows that you’re a problem solver, are used to competitive environments, and are able to commit to weekly meetings. And maybe, if luck is on your side, your interviewer could have a passion that's similar to yours, allowing you to connect with them on a more personal level!

Make sure you can prove your points

Let’s say you have an interest in machine learning. Maybe you’ve never studied the topic in school, but you took a free online introductory course, and you feel like you have a good grasp on the general concepts. You can put this on your résumé! This goes back to what I said before: if what you’re saying is true, include it. A bullet point saying "interested in machine learning with a basic understanding of the subject" is true and will intrigue an employer, especially if it's something that shows you can take the initiative. 

On the flip side, make sure you have examples to go along with everything you include on your résumé. You don't want to risk having an employer ask about a task or hobby and you're not able to explain it.

Sections of a résumé

Depending on how old you are and the type of job you're applying for, your résumé will likely have several sections.

  • Your name and contact information (so employers can call you to set up an interview)
  • Skills and qualifications (which can be a great way of highlighting what you can do if you haven't had many/any previous jobs)
  • Previous work experience (if you haven't had a job, see previous point!)
  • Volunteer experience
  • Education

Some people highlight their career goals or include a quick summary of themselves, e.g., hard worker with an interest in learning, problem solver with creative thinking skills, and/or good communicator who likes working with people.

In your "skills and qualifications" section, brag a little! Maybe you don’t have any official qualifications, but you definitely have skills. You can include anything that’s true about yourself and that's relevant to the job.

Here's an extra tip, take a look at the job posting! The job posting will often list the skills that the employer is looking for, and then you can base your list of skills off of that.


Example of a 'skills and qualifications' section

  • Excellent verbal and written communication skills
  • Great attention to detail
  • Proficient with Microsoft Office, social media, and creating videos
  • Excellent time management and organizational skills
  • Fluent in French 

Keep in mind that once you’re on campus, you can meet with a career advisor to help identify your skills and qualifications. Remember, at the end of the day: if it is true, you can put it on your résumé. 

Student working on an ipad.

Explain why something is important

Remember when I said that when you write "member of board game club" on your résumé, the employer will know that you're a problem solver, you're used to competitive environments, and you're able to commit to weekly club meetings? Well, this might not always be true. There is a possibility that the employer has never played a board game in their life, and therefore, they don’t understand the level of commitment it takes to maintain your position in the club. This is why you have to tell them. 

Whenever you put something on your résumé, explain why it is important. Include the details on how this makes you a better employee: what skills you’ve gained, what you learned, what kind of commitment you made, and anything else you think is important. 

If you’re having trouble coming up with these details, go through this scenario in your head. Imagine I told you that you’ll no longer be able to attend your club meetings (or whatever else you are doing) unless you were able to convince me of how you are growing as a person because of it. What would you say to me? Write that down!

The format is more important than you think

To be blunt, if your résumé looks ugly, here’s what will happen. Best case scenario, the employer won’t care that much about its appearance, but will think you lack attention to detail. Worst case scenario, your résumé is so hard to read that the employer skips it after just one glance.

It never hurts to make your résumé look good. The employer will have an easier time finding the skills they’re looking for. And if your résumé looks amazing, you’ll stand out from the crowd. My roommate was once in an interview where the interviewer told her that her résumé was the nicest looking one out of all the other applicants. It made her stand out! I’m telling you – formatting is important!

Easy to use résumé templates

Here’s a pro tip: there are tons of websites where you can download a résumé template. This way, you don’t have to worry about formatting it yourself. There are even sites where you can type in your information and the site will build a résumé for you (although you should always double-check that everything is in the right spot once it's done).

Here are a few sites where you can find templates or build a résumé, but I strongly suggest you do your own search until you find something that you like best. 

There are also amazing A.I. inventions, such as ChatGPT, that you can use for generic résumé templates and to get ideas about how to word sentences!

Once your résumé is done, always get a friend to look over it for you. Does it look good to them? Would they hire you? Do they think anything is missing? Are there any mistakes? These are questions you should ask yourself and the person that's helping you proofread.

Student volunteer with a dog.

Customize, customize, customize!

Don’t think your résumé is set in stone once you've finished. It’s easier to update it a little bit every once in a while, than have to do a huge refresh every time you start applying to jobs.

Also, you don’t have to use the same résumé for every application! For example, if you’re applying to a graphic design firm, you'll definitely want to emphasize your creative skills (maybe link to a website that shows off your work).

However, if you’re applying for a financial position, your creative experiences are still important (and it shows the employer you’re well-rounded), but you’ll probably want to highlight your technical skills more. 

In either case, you'll want to use your résumé to highlight skills or knowledge that are relevant to the job you're applying to.

Know the rules, but don’t blindly follow them

There are certain things that should always be on a résumé: your name and contact information, for example. I firmly believe that a résumé should never ever be more than two pages. If it’s too long, no one will read it (but this does NOT mean to use a smaller font).

Of course, depending on the situation, you don’t have to follow all the typical résumé norms. If you’re applying through the Waterloo co-op program, you don’t have to put your education right at the top (which is a common practice) because the employer will already know what you study!

At the very least, you should at least be aware of common résumé must-haves, and you can easily find sample résumés online that will give you an idea of what those are.

However, you should definitely consider what works best for you and the job you’re applying for. 

So, I hope those tips help to get you started! Your first year of university can be very busy and will go by quickly, so you’ll be glad you’ve already started the process of creating a great résumé.

And remember, in building a résumé you'll definitely go through a trial and error process, but eventually you’ll have a shining document that shows off all your best qualities.

Now you're ready to find that summer job to get experience and to help save money for your university education.


Once you're a Waterloo student

Our on-campus Centre for Career Development offers workshops and events such as "Résumé Tips: Thinking Like an Employer" and "From Apps to Interviews: Your Crash Course to Employment" to help you perfect your résumé. You can also meet individually with a career advisor to review your résumé or work on your interview skills.

Ready to get started on that résumé? 

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