5 Tips for My Career-Clueless College Self
Like many, I struggled to find my way in college. I entered not knowing quite what I wanted to do. I exited in much the same way.
So I did what any non-liberal-arts student does — I got a business degree. My goal was to keep open as many employment opportunities as possible upon graduation. Most people need "business people," or so my theory went.
The strategy didn't work so well. It took about 10 months and 300 customized resumes and cover letters for me to land my first job. And it wasn't even a job that required a college degree! (See also: Standout Stuff for Your Resume and LinkedIn Profile)
Fast forward two jobs. I'm proud of the work I've done, I've challenged myself, and I've found a niche that I can be successful in. I've also seen a lot of recent grads end up working for a year, maybe two, and then decide to head off to business school to get their MBA, because they don't really like what they're doing and don't really know what they want to do next. They view the MBA as a step forward, but ultimately don't know towards what. You have to appreciate their optimism...but I'll put an end to the mini-rant before it goes too far; this post is about undergraduate degrees, not advanced.
If I could go back to my high school senior year and give myself five tips about college and launching my career, they would be...
1. Don't Get Down on Yourself
Very few people legitimately know what they want to do with their lives when they enter college and very few even know when they exit. You're not alone. Even if you graduate with a degree that does not seem like a perfect fit, all is not lost.
Many employers are flexible on your degree. I've worked for a medium sized company, a non-profit, and a Fortune 500 company, and I have seen all three hire good people regardless of their degrees.
Of course, there are many jobs out there where you need a very specific degree, but that's what second bachelors are for, or graduate/MBA degrees (once you have some professional experience behind you and know what you really want to do with your career).
2. Coursework Will Only Take You So Far
There are really only a few things that can help you for figure your career out, and coursework is usually not one of them. In a way, a professor's job is to make his course material as interesting and inspiring as possible. Just because you love a particular class does not mean you will love that career. However, if you really hate a particular class that is central to your career (math if you're considering being an engineer, for example), then you might want to look elsewhere.
3. Challenge Yourself During the Summer
If you really want to challenge yourself to figure it out while in school, take as many classes as possible and do a wide range of internships every summer. I regret not having done more than one internship while in school. Why is it so important? Employers looking at new grads are definitely interested in how much they challenged themselves over the summer, and the ones with real-world work experience through internships are going to stand out. In a tough job market, you need every advantage that you can get once you graduate. If your internships are broad and diverse in nature, they can also really help you get a feel for what's out there. Look at them as trial and error if you're unsure about a particular career. College is not a time to seek out a comfort zone. The school of hard knocks is going to teach you more than any class will.
4. GPA Is Important
...particularly in this economy. Perhaps at a peak in the economic cycle, an employer who is hiring like gangbusters is not going to eliminate you from consideration when your GPA is 3.4, but in this economy, employers can be very discriminating. I've been on a few hiring committees and have seen a number of great candidates get turned down automatically because their GPAs were below a certain bar. It's not what most college students want to hear, but it's the truth.
5. Have Fun, but Don't Be (Too) Stupid
College is a time of exploration, and most of us only get one shot at it. Have fun. Soak in the extracurriculars. And don't worry so much. I took my GPA seriously, which ultimately landed me a great job. But I worried about it way more than was healthy, and as a result I regret not having more fun while in school. Just don't do anything that will put you in jail, a hospital, or at risk for long-term health consequences.
What would you tell your college self if you could go back, Marty McFly style?