what resume advice do high school students need?

A reader writes:

I am an AP Spanish teacher, which provides me the opportunity to teach a wide variety of topics to students who are generally very motivated. Right now, we’re talking about jobs, and we’re moving into our “mock interview” phase, where the students get to play both the interviewer and interviewee. To prepare for this, I have the students write resumes. I show them my own (picking out the areas where I could improve, too), and then have them prepare their own, which they have to tailor to match the “job” for which they’re interviewing.

I’m wondering about what information I should ask for them, because many of them have so little experience actually working. Generally, they’re writing functional resumes, since they may only have had one job in the past, if that. I’ve told them to jettison the objectives (which I’m sure will spark a riot in the English department, where they also work on resumes), and we’ve talked about avoiding photos (even though they see them on the Spanish examples). We’re working on vocabulary that is dynamic and makes their responsibilities stand out. Is there any information that I’m not providing that I should? Even though these resumes are in Spanish, I’d like to think that these skills will be applicable later on in life.

I love that you’re doing this. There needs to be a lot more of this happening, especially from people who know to say no to objectives.

Now, as for advice … In general, like most hiring managers, I’m not a fan of functional resumes … but I think it could make sense for an exercise with high school students, since it’ll get them thinking about what skills and achievements they have to offer, in a way that a more restrictive chronological resume format might not.

More than anything, I’d emphasize the importance of listing not just duties but accomplishments — talking about what they brought to a job (or a school project, or volunteer work, or whatever) that someone else in their role might not have. In a field of roughly equally qualified candidates, why should an employer choose them? What is about their work ethic or their efficiency or how they’ve used their intelligence or their initiative that makes them a good choice? At at this age, you’ll also probably need to tell them how to figure that out, since it’s one of those things that isn’t clear at all until you’ve had enough work experience to understand what separates a good performance from a bad one, and a great performance from a good one. The more you can help them understand that, the better — especially because it might shape not only their resumes, but their actions on the job.

You could also talk to them about what a hiring manager looks for when evaluating a resume — emphasizing that we don’t care about creative designs or fancy fonts; we care about having a clearly organized, concise, easy-to-scan document that puts the information we want in the places we expect to find it.

And if lack of content is a problem, since they have little to no work experience, you could suggest that they create a resume for their future selves — for instance, the resume they’d like to have by the time they graduate from college. Not only would that give them some content to work with, but it might get them thinking about how they want to be spending their time between now and then, as well.

What other advice do people have? What do you wish someone had taught you about job-hunting when you were still in high school?

{ 41 comments… read them below }

  1. Josh S*

    Yes yes yes!

    I’m assuming these are Junior/Senior students, since it’s an AP class. So they could conceivably have some work experience, even if it’s babysitting, mowing lawns, or lifeguarding at the local pool over summer. Doesn’t matter what the job is–tell them that the ACHIEVEMENTS are more important than the JOB DESCRIPTION.

    Have them interview each other. Not just once, but multiple times. Afterwards, have them write a paper telling you who they would hire and why they’d hire that person. (And tell them it’s confidential so they don’t all just pick their friend.) Then you could discuss the reasons that make people seem like a better option, so they could hopefully mimic that in the future.

    As in: James showed that he can get stuff done–he got a promotion after 3 months in his summer job, and had great item-per-minute scores at his checkout job. John had some cool jobs, but I don’t really get an idea of what he got done–just that he was a customer service guy. I don’t even know if he was any good.

    Oh, and if you want to pacify the English Department, tell them that you’ve had the students come up with an ‘objective,’ but that you’ve framed it as a summary of skills-that-will-benefit-the-employer rather than an objective-of-what-I-want-out-of-life. And have the kids do this, too. Just don’t put it on the resume. Have them use that as their ‘hidden’ thesis sentence (language that should resonate with the English Dep’t and be familiar to the kids). All the stuff on their resume should point to and support that summary statement of “This is why I would benefit your company.” But you never have to actually write out the thesis.

    What a cool lesson…

  2. Anonymous*

    I would’ve loved having the OP as a teacher in high school. The resumes we wrote were all old-fashioned and too long, complete with a list of references (eek…)

  3. Brett*

    A high school student is totally justified in listing volunteer work, team sports, clubs, etc as “experience” and particularly their accomplishments. Organizing the team’s spaghetti dinner, writing for the school newspaper, etc are all perfect job-like activities to put on a resume for someone that may have 0 or 1 job. And most of those types of activities will have easily stated accomplishments (Wrote 13 articles, raised $500, mentored junior teammates, etc).

  4. JessA*

    This is so cool. I took AP Spanish in High School and I wish we had done this. I think it would have been a great exercise. This sounds like something my Spanish teacher would do though. She also taught a Virtual High School class (which I took and totally loved) on Explorando Culturas Hispanas a Traves de Internet, which was a regional exploration of different aspects of Hispanic Culture.

    OP, are you sure you’re not my old high school Spanish teacher? :-P

  5. L.A.*

    I love this and wish more high school teachers would do something like this.

    I work retail, so we get students and recent grads (both high school and college) who turn in a resume with their application because they were told that that was something they were supposed to do. As someone who helps screen applicants for the store manager, its clear that even those who know that they are supposed to turn in a resume, they don’t know what is supposed to go into one (or how to format them).

    I also agree that volunteer work, after school activities, baby-sitting, etc. should definitely be included if they have no prior work experience – on both a resume and a job app. It helps show reliability, commitment, etc. and makes them more appealing then the person who turns in a blank app and shrugs at you saying they have no past experience.

  6. Brian*

    This is great. The only thing I’d add — and this may mollify your English colleagues — is to make sure the resume is flawless in terms of spelling, grammar, typography, etc. If they’re not capable of making it that way on their own, get help from a friend who is, and repeat every time they change something.

    When I get a resume with typos, bad spelling, randomly mixed fonts from copy/paste, etc., I conclude that the candidate both does sloppy work and can’t recognize when something is important enough to get another pair of eyes on it, and 95% of the time the resume goes straight to the “no” pile.

    1. ECH*

      Amen! Last week I received a letter from a high school student who wanted me to buy an ad in her school yearbook. It was so full of mistakes I wondered how she got to that grade level. I hope someone helps the poor girl before she ends up applying for jobs. I didn’t know her personally or maybe I’d do it myself … maybe I’ll try …

  7. dangitmegan*

    When I was in high school we once did a dream job resume project as part of our ITP program. We had to pick our ultimate dream job and write a fake resume as if we were applying for it. We had to map out an ideal and realistic career path to get to the point of our dream job and really research what the jobs on the way would require and what skills we would gain. Even though most people didn’t know exactly what they wanted to be at that point in their lives they were able to explore a career path of interest while gaining resume and cover letter skills for the future. We also had to interview someone in said career field (or as close as you could find) to learn about the steps they took and let them review our fake resumes.

    1. Anonymous*

      I really like this idea. Students can also give peer evaluations without feeling like they’re passing judgment on the person rather than the content of the resume.

    2. Ivy*

      I like this idea too… While it’s unlikely for anyone to end up where they think they will, it’s good to get people thinking and planning ahead. There are definite times where I look back and think “GAH! Why didn’t I do x, y, z” because it would help me land a job now (x, y, z being volunteering, networking, practice interview, etc.). Maybe I would have been more likely to do those things if I was more forward looking?

      The only thing I don’t like about it, is the getting someone to interview bit. Growing up (as an immigrant), I didn’t know very many professional people, or people that had similar jobs to those I would have been interested in. Knowing my lazy high school self, I would have picked a job that I had no interest in, but that I had access to someone for the interview. I do think it would be a good way to get a realistic perspective on a career field, but I also think it would hinder someone such as myself.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        This is a really good point, and goes back to the recent discussion about how your preparation for the work world is really influenced by your family’s socioeconomic position. To combat this, if a teacher does this, they should provide contacts that the students can talk to, so they’re not dependent on their own contacts.

      2. dangitmegan*

        The teacher had a big list of people who had agreed to be interviewed if you couldn’t find your own. There were doctors, lawyers, engineers, and several other career types to chose from. She was very helpful in finding people to interview and/or helping us find a creative way to meet that part of the assignment. I did my project on becoming a costume designer and ended up just speaking with my college counselor for that part of it because I had no contacts.

    3. Anonymous*

      We did something like this in a middle school math class. We had to choose a career, and then look it up in the Occupational Outlook Handbook to learn more jobs in that field and what sort of education/experience was needed. We had to look in the classified ads and find a car and an apartment that we could afford with our salary. They even gave us bills and made us practice writing checks to pay them!

      I chose astronaut as my career and found that, though odds of getting a job were low, the best education path was math and computer science. I did end up majoring in those, and it turns out those can also lead to being a librarian!

      1. Anonymous*

        (I’m a day late, but I hope the Anonymous above will see this…)

        As someone currently majoring in math and CS, can you tell me more about the road that led you down to librarianship? What did you like about the field?

        1. zemkat*

          Sure! (I hope you see the response!)

          I didn’t have particular career goals in math and CS (besides “professor maybe?”) and was inspired to go to library school after touring the technical services department of a university library. (I didn’t really know what librarians did before that.) I started with an interest in ebooks, which led me to digital book/newspaper preservation. There is so much data that needs to be sanity-checked, crosswalked, and otherwise organized that I found I was always coding up something to do the work effectively.

          I now work in technical services, doing cataloging and metadata. Again, there is a massive amount of information to be organized, modified and kept current, and I still find myself doing some programming most days. The work is endlessly fascinating and I am always learning something new. (“We just got a big Hebrew gift? I guess I’ll go review that alphabet…”) There is also a big push for librarians to learn to code now, so those skills (and willingness to teach them) are definitely valued here.

  8. SAGirl*

    I love this! And I agree that you should be helping them with interview technique as well as CV drafting. For high school students who have never worked before, no knowledge of the workforce can be assumed. I mentor some high school students from a poor area in my city, and also helped them to draft CVs. Once they had nice, polished CVs that would get them an interview, they started asking about interview technique. One wanted to know how she knows whether to sit down when she enters the room. The other asked whether an appropriate response to the question “tell me about yourself” would be to respond (in the words of a play she had recently auditioned for) “I am an emotional creature”! The crazy part was that this girl was level-headed and diligent, and had she not tested this response on me she would have been turned down for every job she interviewed for.

  9. Angela*

    OMG…I love this! I wish I would have had a teacher like this in high school. We were required to create a ‘portfolio’ of sorts to graduate and part of the portfolio was a resume. Mine was TERRIBLE and could have fit on about half a page.
    It would be great to include interviewing skills and basic workplace rules (i.e. calling if you’re going to be late, etc.) in the lessons. Maybe a local business would be willing to have the students visit/job shadow for a day.

  10. Anlyn*

    One of my classes in high school did this, though I can’t for the life of me remember which one. The teacher selected a student who would be the “hiring manager”, and the rest of us had to turn in our resumes to the student. The student then had to go through and pick out which students to interview. The “job” was a typical fast-food type job.

    We could make up whatever skills we wanted–one student put down she knew five languages–and the student hiring manager had to determine who had the best application.

    It was an interesting exercise, but the teacher didn’t do a very good job explaining to the student hiring manager exactly what to look for. She (the student) said she “interviewed” the applicants, and the teacher asked if she called them. The student was surprised and said “no, I pretended to”. The rules weren’t made very clear.

    The rest of us also didn’t really get to participate, other than writing out the resumes.

    So I guess this is a long-winded way of saying, make it realistic, make sure everyone can participate, and make sure the rules of the lesson are clear.

    However, I did use that resume I created for school to land my own job at a fast-food place later, so lesson learned! :)

  11. Jubilance*

    If these students haven’t starting working yet but will be looking for jobs soon, the best thing they can do is start volunteering. I started volunteering at a hospital at 15 & when I applied for my first “real” job at McDonald’s at 16, I had relevent examples I could reference during my interview (my volunteer position was essentially customer service, so I had direct transferable experiences).

    Beyond the resumes, I agree that having the students actually practice interviewing may be a better skill. Instead of having students play interview, can you partner with a local organization, company or university to provide volunteers to mock interview students? I’ve done this via several groups & it helps a lot more to have an actual professional doing the mock interview, as they know what interviews are really like & aren’t a peer of the student.

    As an aside, am I the only one surprised that an AP Spanish teacher is taking on this project? Granted I was in high school 10+yrs ago, but I remember AP teachers getting us prepared for our subject exams, not doing this kind of stuff.

  12. AnotherAlison*

    I think this is great, but I also think you can make this more “real life” rather than just an exercise. I was recently involved in helping a student who just started his sophomore year of college with the application process for an engineering intern position at my company. Like many high school students, her work history was short and not really relevant to the internship. Since these are A.P. students, I’m going to bet that most of them can get through the application process for a high school type job, but soon they will be submitting “real” resumes for scholarships, college programs, internships, etc. They need to know what’s important in the professional workforce.

    In our situation, the student led off with her job experience, which included some admin and grocery clerk work. The HM said that was no good. She should have led off with his course work. The hiring manager was interested in what courses relevant to the job she had taken. Club and leadership activities were important. We don’t really care that you were in National Honor Society or you were an honors scholar, but we do care that for your NHS hours you led a team to rebuild a fence for a local church. Demonstration of leadership and teamwork were very important to the HM. Additionally, showing interest in our industry through your experience and activities was important to the HM. Kids can show involvement in a future field whether they’re in 6th grade or seniors in college. If you didn’t do it, you didn’t do it, but kids today have an opportunity to join all kinds of clubs, do job shadowing, take special high school and college courses and summer camps. It’s a lot easier for a HM to be confident that you are the right person for his engineering internship if you’ve gone to engineering camp for 3 years than if you just say you are really into engineering.

    Another thing that is really important is the cover letter. Most of what I read from really young people is all about them, how it will be a great opportunity for them to learn & use their skills, etc. I know as a young person, it’s hard to figure out what you will bring to the company, but you have to. It can’t be all me, me, me.

    The student I was helping graduated high school with a 4.6, was a double major with a 3.87 GPA, and her first pass at her resume was so poor that the HM told me it would not have made it past the HR screen.

    I think the most important thing is for the student to put himself in the hiring manager’s shoes. What would they want to know about you to decide if you’re right for the job? (And, if there’s a reason you put your admin position first, say it! This is where those accomplishments come into play. The engineering HM is thinking “I don’t care that this person did this,” so you have to tell them that you learned something applicable to his or her job opening on that other job.)

  13. Not So NewReader*

    This is awesome, very impressive. My high school did not do any of this stuff. It would have made such a difference in so many lives if they had. I am really impressed by the comments here, too. I hope our schools make this type of training standard procedure.

  14. Bridgette*

    “…you could suggest that they create a resume for their future selves.”

    I love this idea. I think it’s a great way to get students to actually think about career paths and map out a plan. They should do some research on career paths and talk to people with those types of jobs, so they can see what is actually involved, before they jump into college or whatever. I really wish someone had sat me down and talked about the practicalities of the career paths I was interested in, or spurred me to investigate them for myself.

  15. Carolyn*

    Ever since I learned this mnemonic for interviewing, I’ve felt like I won the lottery. Just remember STARs, which stands for:
    S- Situation

    It is a great way to prep for those “Tell me about a time you…” questions.

    It can also be formatted as RATS: results, action, task, situation. Or TARS. You get the idea.

    It makes prepping for an interview easier, because it gives a format for talking points, which can be rehearsed, which builds confidence, which gives someone a better chance at “acing” an interview–especially those people who have limited or no job/professional experience and need to talk about behavioral situations from their life.

    I also appreciate that the OP is teaching this in an interdisciplinary fashion. We need more cross-training in instruction.

  16. New To AAM*

    I’m currently hiring interns who are fresh out of college or grad school and it’s clear that very few of them were ever taught how to write a resume. So kudos for doing this with your students!! I think it is also important to talk with them about choosing what jobs to apply to and addressing the required skills noted in the job posting either in their cover letter or resume. The job description for the intern position I’m hiring very clearly says that knowledge of 3 specific computer programs is required, and two of the three aren’t commonly used by students. So far out of 30 applicants, only 2 have bothered to mention those programs at all! Neither of the 2 know how to use all 3 programs, but they did address how they are familiar with two of them and outlined why they thought they could quickly learn the 3rd. This immediately put them on the top of my pile of applicants!

    1. New To AAM*

      Oh, and I forgot to add that a good half of the applicants have no experience or education in my field– it seems like they are just applying to every internship posting they can possibly find and not bothering to even state why they are interested in the position!

  17. Laura*

    I just think the teacher should note the difference between work resumes and college application resumes. They are absolutely different, and these students should not submit these resumes with their college apps.

    Resumes that students submit with college applications are very long and more like CVs (but not). My guidance department helped students write them, but they are probably good examples online. They are becoming increasingly important in college search and include almost all clubs/volunteer/sports activities for the four years. As you can imagine, some kids truly have enough for 4-5 pages. It is more “involvement focused” than “results focused”–although it includes both.

    I know that isn’t the point of your exercise–just dont want the kids to get confused!

  18. Anonymous*

    There is a huge divide between “jobs high school students have skills for” and “jobs that require a resume.” I think your assignment is an excellent one. However, I think it’s also important to keep some perspective when you do an assignment like this so that you identify the main goal and don’t get lost in details.

    What you might want to do is have the students write up a resume for someone else. A fictional person would probably be best, but you could use a colleague. Have this person talk about their career and their skills. Let the students ask this person for all the information they need to write up a resume. Then have each student write a resume for this person. Finally, pick out the best ones and show them off as examples.

    It’ll give them some meatier substance to work with, and help them differentiate “job description” from “accomplishment” better. It’ll give them a better idea of what a resume “ought” to look like than what they’ll write about their own accomplishments. After they make a proper adult resume, you could ask them to do their own resume.

    Frankly, most of your students won’t need a personal resume for several years. Jobs that would accept them now won’t take resumes – they take application forms and occasional tests. The ones that go to college probably won’t need a resume until they graduate. The ones that don’t go to college will likely be filling out job applications for a while, going to the military, or getting jobs through friends and family before they move on to jobs that ask for resumes. Many in both camps will, sadly but honestly, be unemployed and living with their parents for several years – they need more help with applying to volunteer positions than anything else.

  19. sab*

    I’m impressed. I don’t recall any of my high school teachers ever doing a lesson on resume writing. I wrote my very first resume during my senior year of college (jobs I had prior had never asked for a resume), and I recall it being very overwhelming. It ended up being a carbon-copy of one of the templates from my university career center’s website, and good lord, looking back on it, that thing was terrible. I had this very generic section of skills that were just vocabulary words picked out of the career center’s list (what their website recommended doing… sigh…) that was just so bland and boring,. I had used it for my grad school apps and wound up getting accepted at a decent program, so I guess it turned it ok…? Either way, it would have been nice to learn resume writing much, much sooner.

  20. Joey*

    I’d have them write a resume for a real life, dream entry level job at a real company and ask them to do some company research as part of their preparation for the interview. They can print the job advertisement and the interviewer can use it as a guide to ask more specific questions.

  21. some1*

    My only generic resume/job-seeking advice for high school students (and everyone), is the importance of doing things on your own.

    Don’t let your parents write your resume, don’t bring them to an interview (if you don’t drive and need them to drop you off have them go get a cup of coffee), don’t let them call about your application status, and when you get a job, don’t them call your boss, ever. Not about your raise, not about asking for vacation time so you can go visit Grandma for a week, not to get your schedule. (Unless you are sick and can’t talk.)

  22. Carrie*

    I need some ideas, maybe you all can help….?? I work in a non-profit community employment center. Occasionally I get young people in who have never worked, never volunteered, barely graduated/has GED/or didn’t graduate. Literally nothing I can figure to put on a resume. I feel so lost in my ability to assist them as they just don’t have anything to put on a resume….Help?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      The question they need to answer is: Why should an employer hire them over other candidates? If they can’t answer that, an employer won’t be able to answer it for them. If they can’t answer it, it probably points to a need to do some work before applying for jobs — volunteering, classes, etc.

  23. Kat*

    I’ve gotten several resumes from new high school grads, and it amazes me how LONG they are! I don’t need or want to see 3 pages of your “interests,” including but not limited to TV shows you like to watch or that you like reading and riding a bike.

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