College Students: 12 Tips to Start Building Your Career
Or, advice I would share with my 20-year-old self if I had the opportunity to do it all over again.
By Stephen Dupont, APR, vice president, Pocket Hercules
Whether you’re a freshman or a senior in college, it’s critical to set aside some time from your studies, activities and part-time jobs to plan for life after school.
That time is now. The sooner you make time to plan and take specific action, the better positioned you will be to land a job that fits your career goals.
Some students think that they don’t need to worry about resumes and internships until they hit their senior year. I know this because I have done informational interviews with seniors who ask me for career advice as I stare at a resume with little to no experience related to their studies.
But here’s the truth: If you want a job right out of school, you need to start building a career track record from the moment you enter college. Those who get the best jobs are not necessarily those with great connections or incredible grade point averages, but those who have invested the time to get work experience outside of the classroom.
If you want to know what you’re up against, it is not uncommon for some students to have two to three internships by the time they graduate. I have, in recent years, even seen students who are seeking internships in their desired career field while still enrolled in high school.
Such experiences allow you to build a more compelling resume as well as a professional online presence through LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook.
Here are 12 tips that every college student should consider to increase the likelihood that he or she will have as many career options as possible immediately following the completion of college. Please keep in mind – it’s never too late to act. Even if you’re a semester away from graduating, it’s better to take action now, while you’re still in school and surrounded by many resources (professors, career services, etc.), than after.
1. Start now! Even if you’re a freshman, take the initiative – outside of the classroom – to gain work experience in the field of your choice. If you’re a marketing major, you should be seeking part-time work or internships in marketing. If your goal is to be a genetics engineer, you need experience in a genetics lab conducting research. Many college students struggle with paying college expenses, but it’s critical to bake time into your schedule to develop your own work product and to work side-by-side experienced professionals. These experiences will comprise the story you tell to a future employer.
The most important part is just getting started. That may mean getting creative. For example, there are many nonprofits and faith communities that are dying for young people to help with everything from their marketing to their accounting systems. Even a small business, such as a start-up consulting firm, could use some extra help in setting up a website, writing a newsletter, or building a database.
You don’t need to apply to a Fortune 100 corporation to start getting experience. What you need is experience, even just a little, that’s related to your studies and career goals.
2. Share Your Goals. Do you remember when you were in high school and everyone, including your Great Grandma Trudi, asked you: “Where are you going to go to college?”
As you go through college, that question becomes: “What do you want to be after you graduate?”
Think about this answer carefully and don’t be afraid to share your dreams and goals with everyone you know. Why? Because those closest to you – family members, close friends, etc. – may know of someone who might be looking for a person just like you for an internship, a part-time job, or even a full-time job. Connecting with those people is important from another angle: it helps you discern if a certain job is right for you.
Here’s a story from my experience: Although, when I was in college, I wasn’t very clear about what I wanted to do for a living, my parents heard the word “writing.” They connected me with a friend of theirs who was a technical writer at 3M. This gentleman wrote technical manuals and instruction manuals for 3M products. We met in his office, which gave me my first inside look at a corporation. In talking with him, I learned that I definitely did not want to write technical manuals, but I did like the idea of working with technology products.
3. Take control of your personal brand. Yes, eventually you’ll need to prepare a resume to apply for a job, but think bigger. Think about how you want to write the story of your career (and life) and how you want others to see and understand it. You’re writing that story now, with every post on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest, in presentations in class or involvement with a college club.
Who is the person you want to present to the career world? Don’t let others (your parents, friends, professors) write the story for you. Take control of that narrative. Do this: Take some time to write a 250-word description of the person you want to be in your career. Describe your goals, your values, and why you want to work in a particular career field. Is there a specific problem that you want to solve? Are you driven by a passion, such as writing stories or developing statistical models? Use this story to frame up your resume and LinkedIn profile.
4. Ask. Throughout most of your career you will need to persuade others to do something you need, or buy something from you or your employer. You’ve been asking for things you’re entire life, but when it comes to asking someone you don’t know very well, it can sometimes feel quite scary. Learning to ask people for things is an art in of itself.
How can you learn? Ask a professor to connect you with an alum for an informational interview. Ask to write for the student newspaper. Ask to volunteer for a cause you believe in. Ask if you can lead a project. Ask someone you admire for a cup of coffee and a conversation. Just ask. There are many opportunities you will never experience if you don’t ask.
5. Learn to accept “no” graciously. Asking can lead to the elation of hearing “yes” or the depressing sound of hearing “no.” In my work as a marketing communications professional, I have had literally thousands of ideas and suggestions rejected by reporters and clients over the course of my career. Don’t argue with the decision. I have learned to accept rejection with grace. More important, I’ve learned to ask those who said “no” to share why they made their decision, so that I might learn from it and improve what I’m asking for in the future.
6. Choose trust and kindness. All things being equal, people do business with those they know, like and trust. You may have experienced this yourself. If one of my trusted friends asks me to do an informational interview with a relative or bright college student whom she’s met, I’m more than likely to do so because I trust my friend. That’s what we call word-of-mouth, and it’s the most powerful form of sales and persuasion. It’s all based on trust. So, starting today, make a commitment to live a life of integrity, be kind to others, and be generous with your time. You can start working on this while attending college; for example, by showing up to classes and meetings on time, volunteering your time, and offering to help classmates with assignments or with coping with tough times.
7. Write every day. Whether you aspire to be the chief executive of a large corporation, or a specialized professional, communicating effectively is critical to being understood and persuading others to see things your way. Because employers and customers value those who know how to write well, it’s important to build your writing skills.
As a college student, you probably write a lot already, including papers, presentations and other projects. That’s good, but to build your skills you’ll need to get outside of the classroom. To start, go to the student newspaper/website on campus and ask if you can write an article. Go to any of the departments on campus and volunteer to write and edit a department newsletter. Volunteer to write promotional materials for a student event. Visit with the university’s communications department to see if you could write an article for the school’s internal newsletter or alumni magazine. College clubs and nearby nonprofits also may need writing help. For years, I have written articles for local magazines and newspapers as a freelancer. In the process, I’ve learned invaluable, real-life skills by researching, writing and editing stories about other people and organizations.
Writing well is not confined to those who study journalism or communications. Future career advancement will depend upon your ability to clearly communicate your ideas and persuade others to see and accept your point of view.
8. Build a team of mentors. One of the most valuable assets to cultivate in your life is the trust of a handful of people with whom you can exchange life lessons and career insights. You know these people as mentors. Even today, I seek the counsel of experienced, trusted people to help me make career decisions.
Your team should include someone who will tell it to you straight. It should also have someone who will be your cheerleader. And, another person who is great at generating new ideas for you. It’s not easy to find such people, and many of those who you think would be great mentors may not want the responsibility. Where to find them? Ask your professors to put you in touch with alumni who might be open to this possibility, or go to professional events and meetings (American Marketing Association, American Institute of CPAs, etc.) where you can meet working professionals.
9. Be a problem solver. If I’m looking at the resumes of two recent college graduates, I’m going to gravitate to the person who has some work experience in the field of their studies. Most employers would. While school is in session, during your holiday and spring breaks, and over the summer, seek opportunities to do independent research with a professor on campus or internships. During my junior year in college, I used a month-long break between semesters (J-term) to write for my hometown newspaper, The Prior Lake (Minn.) American. I offered my services for free. The problem I solved for the editor was providing additional talent to cover stories in the community that otherwise might not be covered due to the newspaper’s limited staff size. I ended that month with six published stories, an invitation to write more articles, and a positive job reference.
A list of great internships is definitely a door opener. But here’s a more important lesson: what a future employer really wants to know is, did you just shuffle some paper or did you learn how to solve problems for customers? If an employer continues to give you more and more challenging work to do, that’s a good sign that you’re being perceived as a problem solver.
Here’s another example: One of my friends, Tracy, shared the story of a college student who was among a dozen or so who applied for a full-time job with the consulting firm for whom Tracy worked. This student, in a previous marketing internship, heard her colleagues complain about the process of capturing and tracking new business leads, a critical process to a sales-driven organization. As the student learned about the organization, she identified a different way to use one of its data systems, which dramatically enhanced the tracking of new business leads.
That’s the kind of person any employer would be interested in learning more about.
10. Fuel your curiosity. In the years to come, technology will continue to transform the workplace. How can you stay ahead of the curve? By never getting behind it. The true value of your college education is learning how to learn quickly — absorbing new material and ideas and adapting them to new applications. You will need to continuously re-train yourself to obtain new skills to keep up with the advances in technology. That’s why you must stay curious. You must continuously exercise the most important organ in your body – your brain. Be a voracious reader. Travel often to meet new people and experience new cultures. Try the latest and greatest new technologies. Have fun; the learning has just begun.
11. Keep asking “Why?” I recently spoke to an executive recruiter about what she’s looking for in a job candidate. She said, “When I recommend a candidate to one of my clients for a position, I want them to be crystal clear as to why they do what they do.” In other words: Are you confident in the path you’ve taken? Sometimes we take jobs because it’s the only thing available, or a job just falls into your lap. But the most satisfying job is the job that you intentionally take (or create) because you want to learn from cool people, work on cool projects, or do good with your life. You’ll encounter many choices throughout your lifetime – choose to act with intention and keep asking yourself “why.”
12. Plan Ahead. If you imagine yourself one day being a vice president of marketing, a CFO, head of human resources, or in any other position, go online and study the job listings for those positions. What are listed as “qualifications” for those positions – an MBA, professional certificates, a minimum number of years of work experience? While you are young and relatively free of commitments such as a mortgage, children or even a steady relationship, pursue those “minimum” requirements that will allow you one day to apply for your dream job, and provide you more options, long-term.
Stephen Dupont, APR, is VP of Public Relations and Branded Content for Pocket Hercules (www.pockethercules.com), a brand marketing firm based in Minneapolis. Contact Stephen Dupont at www.linkedin.com/in/stephendupont or visit stephendupont.co.