As I've been updating my resume the last couple of weeks, I've been thinking a lot about where I am versus where I thought I'd be by now. Outside of my internships and my final semester, I wasn't very productive in college and I feel like I’m paying for that now. I did what I had to do to get by and pretty much kept to myself outside of that. Knowing what I know now, if I could go back and do college over again, here are some of the things I'd do differently.
Join a club or organization.
I know, I know. This is the most overstated piece of advice you get. You hear it in high school, you hear it at orientation, you hear it at the beginning of every semester and from all your professors and advisors. It seems like such an outdated cliche, but I assure you, it’s a cliche for a reason. Clubs and organizations give you like-minded people to interact with, productive projects to work on, networking events to attend, and at the very least, it’s something to put on your resume. Even better, start your own club or organization and you will learn truly valuable skills in leadership, budgeting, networking, recruiting, marketing/public relations, and so much more. I recommend checking out the OrgSync for your campus first to see what is and isn’t available. Most universities will also have lists of affiliated clubs.
Attend networking events.
Speaking of networking, always be doing it. Networking events put you in the shared space with peers and/or top-level professionals in your field. They can be anything from a meet and greet with a CEO speaking at your college to an ice cream social with the Chess Club to a block party hosted by your campus events committee. They are important because they keep you connected and let you practice your professional interaction skills, both of which are critical to success in the career world. Meetup.com is a great place to start, and be sure to keep an eye on your university’s calendar, news page, and social media for upcoming events.
Utilize the incredible amount of resources available to students.
Students get a lot of perks for being students, many of which are rarely advertised: discounts on things like software and event tickets, career advisement and recruitment services, academic coaching, technical training and workshops, access to all kinds of digital equipment—the list goes on. Any decent college or university will have at least some useful resources available and I highly suggest you take advantage of them while you can.
Arrange informational interviews.
Informational interviews are the opposite of job interviews. You pick a professional you respect and interview them about the different aspects of their industry, company, and job. Arranging informational interviews with people you admire not only connects you with those individuals and shows ambition, but it also gives you deeper insight into your ideal profession or industry. It’s also a great way to put a face to an application you’ve put in or are considering putting in.
Do your research, find some companies you would like to work for, and send a shout out to the head of whatever department you'd want to work in. Prepare 10-20 worthwhile questions that will get you honest answers and let your interviewee know you're serious about your future. If you need ideas for questions, here's a start.
Pick better internships.
I talked about the importance of interning in my last post, On Being an Intern, but this is worth reiterating. I interned every semester while I was at Georgia State and it did wonders for my career path. I learned some things, met some people, built a little portfolio. But I could have done more. I did the same thing at nearly every internship: social media. Write a blog post, tweet about it. Sometimes I was tweeting about posts I didn’t even write. Needless to say, it got pretty redundant and I sacrificed so much actual learning for the familiarity of doing what I knew. I wish I had chosen internships that were competitive, challenging, and meaningful so that I would have more solid knowledge under my belt and feel more confident in my abilities as I enter the workforce.
Don't be afraid of going somewhat blind into a field as an intern. You are supposed to be inexperienced and you're there to learn. Keep a list of things you've learned and things you still want to learn and apply for internships that incorporate a little bit of both.
Find a mentor.
This one is less something I wish I had done and more something I just want to encourage others to do. I sort of accidentally stumbled upon the two women I now call my mentors, but boy was I lucky to have found them. They inspire me, push me, correct me, recommend me, inform me, and provide me with a sense of direction.
Choosing a mentor can feel a little awkward, but just ask. If there's someone you respect in your field who you're even vaguely acquainted with (maybe someone from your informational interviews), ask them if they'd be willing to mentor you. Let them know that you would value their advice and expertise. You could even just start with asking them to look over your resume or if they’d be willing to let you pick their brain. You'd be surprised how people react when they feel they are valued or looked up to, and how much they actually want to share their knowledge.
The important thing to take away from this post, if anything, is that college is the best time in your life to start building your career. I *know* that college is difficult and messy, and that trying to intern and be in a club and attend events and still do well in your classes is not easy. But the fact is that it’s an important step to take. Do as much as you can, but don’t spread yourself too thin. Take lighter semesters whenever possible so you can free up time for yourself and your future career. Try not to stress about graduating early or even in the four years it’s *supposed* to take. I know this isn’t an option for everyone, especially with the ever-increasing cost of education, but if you have great experiences under your belt, recruiters and hiring managers won’t mind that it took you six years to finish your undergrad (*ahem* me).