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How to Make a Stand-Out Resume (Even Without Professional Experience)

Starting college brings a host of new and unusual expectations. I, for one, was shocked when every club and committee to which I applied asked for my resume. Less than two weeks into college, I was barely figuring out how to navigate the dining hall lines. Was I already supposed to have a resume ready to go? 

The honest answer is yes. Taking some time early in your college experience to craft a resume (and LinkedIn profile to match) is a worthwhile exercise. Clubs and employers will want to see them right off the bat. Furthermore, knowing how to advocate for yourself and the unique abilities you bring to the table is an unsung life skill—you’ll do it constantly throughout your college and professional careers. 

But if you’re questioning how the heck to build a resume or whether you even have compelling work experience to put on one, I’m here to help. Without further ado (because those 11:59 pm application deadlines are looming) here are five straightforward tips to craft a stand-out resume.

Realize that you have all the experience you need

While many students hold part-time gigs or babysit throughout high school, few first-years are entering the college scene with an extensive professional background. We were already swamped with our nonstop extracurricular commitments.

But model UN, mock trial, community activism, or any other activities you did prior to getting here can all count as resume-worthy experiences. Make a list of everything you led, coordinated, and participated in during high school. Next, write down the specific tasks you completed in each role, noting any niche skills you honed in the position. Chances are, you’ll be shocked by how much you already bring to the table.

Take out the high school context as you market your skills

What do former club presidents and professor’s assistants have in common? Organization, people skills, facilitation abilities, reliability, time management, leadership… the list goes on. Focus on what you learned and accomplished in your high school roles—not the demographic you served. Avoid language that emphasizes “high school” and demonstrate your maturity by highlighting where you collaborated with adults and community organizations. This will further legitimize your ability to be successful in the workforce. Here’s what I mean:

A) I served as treasurer on my high school’s student government; I budgeted and fundraised for dances and Senior Sunset. 

B) I spearheaded creative fundraising efforts for four major school-wide events, tripling our funds during my tenure. I collaborated with the administration and the entire student government to execute all events below budget. I built strategic partnerships with local restaurants to implement five “Lincoln High” nights, where 20% of the night’s proceeds went back to our school.

If you were an adult employer, would you hire candidate A or B?

Resumes are argumentative writing, so make a case for yourself

Fundamentally, a resume poses a clear, concise argument as to why you’re the best candidate for the job. Your past job experiences function as stacked argumentative claims and you must substantiate those claims with evidence: what you did in a role that prepares you for this job and any notable outcomes. And just as you’d use statistics to support an argument, employers scan for numbers that reinforce your success in a position. 

Every resume is built on facts, but how you present those facts makes all the difference, which brings me to my next point…

Word choice, especially verb choice, is everything

Good arguments are well-written. They avoid passive voice, engage the reader with lively descriptions, and inspire belief in an individual or cause. Take a second to look back on position description B in tip #2. 

“I spearheaded creative fundraising efforts for four major school-wide events, tripling our funds during my tenure.”

This sentence uses strong verbs, describes events with compelling adjectives, and quantifies accomplishments as often as possible. Because you have limited space, you should select your language carefully. Strong resume sentences or bullets begin with an active verb and end with a clear, descriptive noun. 

No two jobs are the same, so don’t submit the same resume to two jobs

To prove yourself the best candidate for a particular role, you must mold your resume to the position description. Make a list of the specific skills and qualifications the listing mentions and edit your resume to emphasize how you’ve utilized those skills in your past jobs. You may want to omit non-relevant skills and positions from the resume you submit. 

To avoid rewriting your resume for every position, create a master resume with all your experiences. As you apply to jobs, you can make copies of this document—editing, adding, and omitting information as you match your background to the job listing. 

Remember, most employers only want to read a single page. Be selective about what you share and focus on answering that prompt. 

If you’re still wondering how to format your resume according to standard convention, look to online resume builders and ask your school career center for successful examples. Speaking from (my bad) experience, avoid the Google Docs-generated resume templates at all costs. Not only do they look unprofessional, but they’re downright difficult to use. Finally, ask parents or other trusted adults in the workforce for copies of resumes they loved. Employers can be cagey about what they’re looking for, but successful resumes provide the best insight. 

I wish you tremendous success as you embark on this process!

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Dahlia Soussan

Columbia Barnard '25

Dahlia is a first-year at Barnard College in the Double-Degree program with the Jewish Theological Seminary. When not (slightly) panicking about the number of credits she needs to graduate, she enjoys coffee walks, cooking, and reading the NYT Modern Love column. She doesn't know exactly what she wants to study yet, but she hopes her career will include writing and seeking justice for people who've been marginalized.
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