Okay, I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and there are a few things that I’d like to tell all you college students out there. Things that I wish people had told me when I was in college and why they were important.
1. The undergraduate major that you pick is nominal. Unless you want to become a doctor, engineer, or work in any other field in which the skill set is highly-specialized, it really boils down to the experiences that you have- the academic experiences, your extracurricular activities, jobs, or internships. When you’re in a job interview, you’re less likely to be quizzed on what you learned in school; rather, you’re marketing your ensemble of skills, showing what you can offer that company, and perhaps being presented with a case study to quiz you on work that you would do if hired.
So study what you love. Or study what you think will get you an easy 4.0. Whatever. I challenged myself while in college, taking multiple languages and rigorous economic courses for a demanding (& very fulfilling!) major before I realized I could have just as well done an easy major, effortlessly scored a higher GPA, and had more time to do paid work and intern.* Which brings me to point 2.
2. Intern. Intern! Intern! INTERN!!! I cannot stress this enough. I have been researching firms that I have an interest in working at, and one company expressly states on their website that 90% of interns are offered a full-time position at the end of their practical training. Another company openly states that the majority of people who were hired were previously referred by an employee who currently works there. Do you see a pattern here? Interning is crucial:
- You need to make contacts in the industry where you want to work. I did not intern while I was in school because I took out student loans, and I worked at jobs where I could earn money. Many of the intern opportunities were unpaid or underpaid. People who I knew that interned brought documents back to their dorm to work on or even skipped classes all together for the sake of their internship. I had a friend who skipped a midterm so he wouldn’t miss his internship, and later raised his grade by acing the final. At the time, I didn’t see the point of jeopardizing your grades for unpaid job experience. Now, looking back, I sincerely wish that I had sacrificed at least one summer to intern at a non-profit, a business, or a government office.** I could have saved money the previous academic year for 3 months’ worth of rent, and interned for a summer in DC. I’m certain that the financial loss would have been greatly compensated by the career advancement, contacts, and networking opportunities I would have gained after college.
- You need to get a feel for the industry where you want to work when you graduate. Even if you don’t know what interests you- intern wherever you get the opportunity! I’m serious. That way, even if you don’t love the experience, (1) you will nonetheless have something substantial to write on your résumé and (2) you learn what you’re not interested in so you can pursue something else. And when you’re in the 18-30 age bracket, more often than not, figuring out what you don’t like brings you closer to determining what you do like.
- This may be the last time you get a chance to intern at a major company, unless you plan to get a masters’ degree right away. I don’t know why it is, but companies very rarely offer internships to non-students, and that includes recent graduates. Once you get that diploma, the key to the internship funhouse is taken away.
3. You need to be able to network. Hard. Core. When I entered college, I was 17, very self-conscious of the fact that I still needed parental consent for certain things, wicked shy, and still slightly uncomfortable in my own skin. The last thing that I wanted to do was approach intimidating professors, alumni, and CEOs to promote myself. But that is exactly what you need to do if you want to succeed. And when I look back on my life, I can see that social networking- though I wasn’t sure of what it was at the time when I exercised it- has widened my opportunities. I applied to the university I graduated from after my piano teacher suggested it. I applied for the Fulbright scholarship because a friend informed me of it. I taught English in France after a coworker at my job my senior year told me about it.
If you want to do well in your academic career and beyond, business networking is paramount. The more contacts you have in a certain sector, the more well-informed you are about it, the more potential employers know about you, and the more likely you are to be hired! Think about it- will personnel in human resources looking to fill an available position be more likely to hire Candidate X whose résumé is one out of the 100 that they receive every day OR Amanda Jones, who interned at a similar financial institution the previous summer, networked effectively during those months, and introduced herself to the head of HR at a banking convention? People want to hire low-risk candidates that will yield high returns. Amanda Jones, the friendly undergrad with 3 months’ worth experience banking? Low-risk. Candidate X? Not so much.
Those are the 3 main points that have been revolving around in my head lately. If I think of more later, I’ll post them here.
Anything that you wish you had known as an undergrad? Why?
*Though having an easier major would have given me more time to do both of these things, I really enjoyed my major. Because I studied what I love! But I’m simply using this as a demonstrative example because doing a “harder” major won’t automatically score you “extra” points for a later job interview. It’s not like the AP History class you took in high school to enhance your college prospects.
**Just to clarify, I do not advocate skipping classes (or midterms) to go to an internship! But I do highly (highly!) recommend getting an internship that fits around your academic schedule, or interning over the summer 🙂