Pre-University Homework

For those who just finished high school and are starting university in September, here is some homework to complete over the summer.  It’s specifically for those starting Waterloo Engineering, but might be useful for other programs and universities too.  It’s not compulsory, and you won’t get any marks for it.  But if you do it, you’ll find yourself ahead of the class and much less stressed in September/October and beyond.

Assignment 1:  Get Experience

Waterloo Engineering is all co-op (alternating 4 months of academic and work experience) starting in first year, and some are going to be starting job search and interviews in October (that’s only about 3 months from today).  You don’t want to be applying for jobs with a blank resumé, so get some experience doing something.  Get a job for the summer.  If you can’t get a job, find some volunteer work to do.  Anything is good as long as it’s significant, not just a few hours one day or a week.  You want to do something that takes 20 to 40 hours a week for 6 to 8 weeks if possible.  You want to have some significant stories that you can relate to prospective employers about the things you did, what you learned, how you handled adversity, how reliable you were, etc.  The more experience you have at doing something for a sustained period of time, the more willing an employer will be to take a chance and hire you.

Assignment 2:  Prepare a Resumé

You’re going to have to do this in September anyways, so get started now.  It will take some pressure off later, and you’ll probably have a better result than rushing through something later.  There are lots of online suggestions for preparing resumés, so just use Google and pick some to look at.  The particular format doesn’t matter at this point; you can change it later if necessary.  You just need to start thinking and putting down the things that help define you and your experiences, and that might be of interest and importance to an employer.  Maybe try to get some feedback on your efforts from parents or others who frequently look at resumés.  Don’t worry if you get conflicting feedback; there are a lot of different views on resumé formats and you can finalize it with our assistance when you get started at Waterloo .

Assignment 3:  Manage Your Online Profile

Some employers apparently search online for information about applicants.  If there is anything online that may be embarrassing or offensive for potential employers, try to get rid of it (although you may be out of luck if it’s been cached).

Start a LinkedIn profile, where you can elaborate on your background and experience.  Make it as professional as you can.  If you post a picture of yourself, try to get a good quality headshot like CEOs and executives have, not a silly or blurry photo.  Don’t accept invitations for connections from anyone and everyone.  Make sure they are meaningful connections (i.e. people you’ve actually met and know), and help to build-up the professional quality of your profile and network.

Assignment 4:  Practise Interviewing

If you haven’t had much experience in job interviews, this can be the most scary part of the co-op program process (it certainly was for me!).  Check with Google or YouTube for some tips and advice on what to expect during job interviews.  Try to get a parent, family friend, or neighbour to give you a mock interview for a job (especially someone who regularly does interviews if possible).  Ask them for feedback and ways to improve your interview performance.  Get a suit (or other suitable business attire) and wear it during your mock interview so you can associate those clothes with your interview skills.

Assignment 5:  Improve Office Software Skills

Most people can use a word processor, but if your skills are not very good it’s better to work on them now then later.  Perhaps more importantly, make sure you can use a spreadsheet program like Microsoft Excel because you’re going to need it a lot.  You should know how to use built-in functions, and how to create charts of various sorts with proper axis labels and formatting.  There are lots of lessons online that you can look at or work through.

If you don’t have a copy of Microsoft Office, no need to run out and buy it yet (you can get a cheap student version at Waterloo:  The Open Office software is free and has similar functionality to Microsoft’s Office, so good enough to practise with.

Assignment 6:  Learn Some Programming Language

If you’ve already done a computer science course in high school or some other programming experience, you can skip this assignment.  This is for people who have never had any programming experience at all and wouldn’t recognize a do-while loop if they tripped over it.

The point here is to get some familiarity with common programming logic and structures so it won’t be so completely new and foreign when you take your programming course in first year engineering (which will be September for Electrical, Computer, Mechatronics, Nanotechnology, and January or May for the rest).  The specific language doesn’t matter so much, whether it’s Java, Pascal, one of the C variants, BASIC, whatever…?  Look around online and try to find some good (free) tutorials or introductions.  Or perhaps a book at the library, or a friend that knows something and can teach you.


So there it is, your summer/pre-university homework.  You can go ahead and get started.  Or, take the summer off and relax, and try to do all of that in the last couple of weeks of September (in addition to the work of 5 engineering courses).  Lots of students do leave it all until September, and as an added bonus they get to learn the true meaning of the words “panic” and “stress” at a whole new post-secondary level.

17 thoughts on “Pre-University Homework

  1. Hi! Thank you for this informative post but I still have a couple of questions and I hope you don’t mind me asking.
    I’ve worked a retail job for two years now, been a volunteer organization’s supervisor, and have received school service awards. Unfortunately, it’s not all relevant work experience, but it’s certainly significant. Would it be a good idea to mention all of this experience in my resumé even though it’s not all relevant to my major?
    Also, I’m in ECE and I have programming experience. I would prefer to not do a software related co-op job but I’ve heard that most ECE students end up with software related, especially those with programming experience. Is that true and do you have any tips on getting a more hardware related co-op job? I’m in stream 4, by the way.
    Thank you for all your help!

    • Yes, definitely mention that experience! Co-op employers don’t expect first year students to have engineering experience. But your experience is “relevant” in the sense that it shows you can work with people, you’re used to a structured work environment and taking direction from a supervisor, you’re probably reliable and can contribute to the organization, and you probably have good initiative and some leadership skills. Those are all positive attributes that companies would look for in a candidate and you’ve got the experience to prove it, so certainly leverage that for your resume. From an employer’s point of view, it’s a much safer bet that someone with experience like yours will be a reasonable “fit” for the company and turn out OK, than someone without much or any experience of any kind.

      About ECE hardware jobs, I don’t really know much (because I’m a chemical engineer and am not involved in the ECE co-op side of things). Perhaps there are some ECE readers out there that can comment?

      • Excellent, excellent post, Prof. Anderson! I say that as someone who studied in Waterloo Engineering, watched his brother and son study in Waterloo Engineering, and has taught here in first year for twenty-five years. I wouldn’t change a word. If all students follow this advice, there will be far fewer having trouble adjusting in their first term.
        WS, to try to answer your last question, it matters what you mean by “hardware.” In the digital part of ECE, the distinction between software and hardware is quite blurred. In the rest of ECE, the computer is a component in the system somewhere, either embedded in the hardware itself or used in the design process. Why I say this is you might find a significant difference between software used for something like serving up a database-driven web page and software used for something like running a device driver which directly attaches to hardware. These are vastly different types of programming (and just two of many types).
        As in all job searches, I’d say if you want a hardware job, then (a) highlight that strength or interest in hardware in your cover letter, and (b) apply to hardware jobs – or jobs where the software component is “close” to hardware. I think there are a lot of programming jobs among the junior co-op positions because that’s one of the few marketable skills which first-year engineering students often have or gain quickly in courses. In later work terms, you will see many more job opportunities that are specific to your area of interest within ECE. In the first work term, I’d probably focus on just getting a good job leveraging whatever skills you have, i.e., look for the jobs which you think most match your current abilities. Those abilities will grow at an incredible pace as you progress through the program.
        If your interest in hardware comes from some kind of experience, make sure that shows somewhere in your resume. I could be from courses in school, clubs, exposure to the job of a parent/guardian, science-project type kits, taking things apart, reading, or whatever. I think employers like to see that you did, or were exposed to, something which justifies/verifies your hardware interest. Once you get to university, check out the hardware-related student clubs to gain further exposure. ECE has an ASIC (application-specific integrated circuits) club and many students involved in things like the solar car, the alternative-fuels team, aerial robotics, etc. All can be quickly found on the web.
        Best of luck in your preparations for first year!

      • Thank you to both of you for your replies!
        As of right now, my most valuable skills are programming in Java and C++, and I’m currently learning C# and Python. I am also familiar with web design languages. I know all of this because I’ve always had an interest in it, I’ve taken courses in high school for it, and I’ve also been a TA for those courses.
        However, I have also worked with hardware because I was given the opportunity to build and rebuild computers around my school. My knowledge and experience with hardware comes from my uncle who is a prof for Tron courses and I’ve been exposed to it at a young age. I guess what I mean by knowledge and experience with “hardware” is working with the chips and understanding how they work. Ideally, I would like to focus on integrated circuits or automated systems and controls in the future which was why I was recommended to major in EE.
        I was mainly concerned about co-op jobs because I was afraid that the more experience I have based around software, the harder it will be for me to shift towards jobs that offer what I’m truly interested in in the future. I will most definitely look into the hardware-related student clubs.
        Thanks again!

    • There is nothing in particular that’s “best”. Anything you can find online or in a book is fine. Becoming proficient with Excel would be good too. In 1B Chemical Engineering the computing course primarily uses Matlab, but there I don’t suggest buying it. I suppose you could look at some online tutorials for Matlab, for interest.

  2. Thanks for the informative professor! I was worried that I might not be ready for University but after reading your post, I feel a lot better.

    Quick question for you; I was working on Step 2 and was wondering, how long should a typical Intern/Co-op student resume be. I have enough information to fill 2-2.5 letter sized pages but I can change that to 1-1.5 pages if I streamline it. I don’t want to make it too long and boring or too short and missing details. I’ve read various different opinions on the internet and am confused. I’d appreciate it if you can clarify on this.

    Thanks again for all your posts throughout the year; they’re of immense help!

    • Yes there are various theories about how long a resume should be, so this is just my personal opinion. But for someone just out of high school, I wouldn’t expect to see more than 1 to 2 pages maximum. Employers don’t expect to see a lot of experience, so anything too long might come across as being insincere and fluffed-up. There will be chances to get feedback on your draft, so don’t worry about it too much.

  3. Thank you for this informative website Prof Bill Anderson. I wish I had this resource to look at when I was going to my post secondary studies.

    Advice for future students, if you want to learn computer science and programming for free check out the website called . This website will get you far ahead of your peers and the skills you will learn will help you get a co-op job. You can learn anything from intro to computer science with Java or python, web development, all the way to programming a self driving car to theoretical computer science.

    You can basically learn the core courses in a computer science curriculum taught by professors from MIT and Stanford through video lectures and hands on quizzes, projects and tests. The approach of the courses is learning by doing. So you are actually coding constantly and creating something while learning computer science concepts, not just reading from a book.

    Good luck!

      • The courses are hard and the quality is high that is the reason why these MOOCs have such as low completion rate. Millions of people sign up but only a few thousand finish.

  4. Hello professor, during this summer, I was unable to get a summer job or long term volunteering opportunities. I did participate in short term and irregular volunteering however, and I was wondering if this severely hurts my chances of getting a co-op job, or if I can somehow make up for it during the school year. Thank you for your help in advance!

  5. Hi professor, thanks for the insightful posts. In reference to what you mentioned above about Chemical Engineering, is there any programming background I should have other than MatLab? And will I be doing any type of programming in my first term? Thank you for your help!

  6. Hello Prof, I accepted my offer to SYDE and I can’t wait to start :).

    What things are critical to buy before university?
    For example:
    Which model of calculator should I buy?
    Mac vs PC?
    Tablets recommended for saving textbook pdfs?



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