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?

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Andrea Karim's picture

I would tell my clueless self that a degree from an East Coast semi-elite college wasn't worth a thing, ultimately, and that I would be better off taking a year off from school to do some emotional maturing!

Guest's picture

"that's what second bachelors are for" ???

Surely you jest. Most of us have a hard enough time paying for one college degree per kid (or for ourselves).

I agree with Andrea. A year or two doing an apprenticeship or some volunteer work while exploring career options would make the college years much more productive. Especially now that the new health care law makes keeping an adult child on health insurance easier, there's no reason for most kids not to take a (productive) gap year and do some soul searching *before* shelling out the big tuition dollars.

Guest's picture

Looking back, I wouldn't change a thing. Perhaps most high school grads just need growing up time. I worked and saved two years before starting college. It enabled me to zero in on what I wanted (and didn't want) in an education. The second career students in my major felt the same way, sucking the marrow out of their experiences.

A younger sister got help from home and started out fresh from high school, switching majors three times before graduating with an english degree. It took her five years. She became a social worker.

Guest's picture

I was one of the unusual students who went into college knowing my major, graduated with that degree and am now working at a job in that field which definitely requires that major (or a similar major). Making me even more unusual, through my school's co-op program, I was able to graduate debt free and with 18 months experience in my field, having a pretty good idea what subarea of my field I wanted to work in.

What I would tell my clueless early college self would be to get to better know the professors, especially those in my major. I knew and chatted with a few on a semi-regular basis and one or two I considered friends/mentors. But those I knew best were not in my major. And that relationship and their advice and experience would have been helpful at times, especially when I was looking for a job. Ultimately it was through relationships with engineers at my co-op job as well as a church Sunday school teacher which contributed to my first job out of college.

One similarly related thing I did get right was getting to know the secretaries in my major department. These relationships, particularly with the head secretary, was able to get me around a lot of red tape, help me schedule classes and even, on occasion, have things influenced in the department in ways that were beneficial for me. Plus the ladies were nice and I could tell that they enjoyed getting to interact with students.

Guest's picture

Good point. Networking and acquiring mentors (formal and informal) are among the most important things to do at school. I think Philip Brewer talked about this in one of his posts. The real value of a name-brand education is the network of people it exposes you to. Priceless.

(And your last point about befriending the secretaries is true anywhere. Befriend the secretaries and the custodians: they are the people you want on your side when things break at inconvenient times, when you need to meet a deadline, etc.)

Guest's picture

Wow! I can't thank you enough for this post. I currently a college senior with just a year until I enter the real world. Its nice to read about the view of some one who has already experienced what I'm currently going though. I agree that internships are really helpful, I've had one every semester and they've let me figure out exactly what I enjoy doing, not to mention that they've taught me more than my actual classes have! Thanks so much for the tips, they are VERY helpful!

Guest's picture

As an engineer, I am constantly telling people that they don't need to be good at Math, or even enjoy Math to be a fantastic engineer. You do end up doing a fair amount in college, but since graduating in 2007 I haven't worked a single position that has required me to do the math I learned in college. Anything I do end up calculating is done using spreadsheets and other tools. The idea of not liking math equaling not liking engineering is leading to a great dearth of engineers in our colleges.

Guest's picture

I dislike math, so do I dislike engineering! -Because I dislike math. But we do need to do quite a lot of math to get our GPA up and also to get a good job right? At least the first job....

Guest's picture

If anything, college is about building character. It should be viewed as an opportunity to become mentally prepared for what comes after graduation.

Guest's picture

Along the lines of point 2, if you really love the material in a class that is central to a career despite the teacher (some of my teachers have been truly awful), that can be a good indicator that you will enjoy the career anyway.