The start of the school year is an exciting time. But the first couple weeks, before the full grind of the semester sets in, is also the time to set yourself on a trajectory for a great internship next summer, or job after graduation.
There are things more important than grades when it comes to landing a job.
In my own experience (and that of almost everyone I’ve talked to), college grades — especially grades in specific classes — had less of an impact in the “real world,” and in securing a job than we expected.
Some job listings may have a minimum GPA, especially at ultra-competitive consulting or finance gigs, but for the most part, at least four things will matter more than your class-specific grades: what you studied, what else you did, what you’re passionate about, and who’s vouching for you. Choosing what to study is another issue for another time, but here’s what you can do to own the latter three.
Join clubs and activities
Extracurriculars are not only a creative, recreational, or athletic release from the monotony of studies; they can be valuable resume builders and great networking devices. Many teams and clubs have alumni boards of former members who are eager to mentor and/or hire current members. Clubs and activities are also where you’ll find some of your strongest and long-lasting friendships in college. Personal networks are much better for securing employment than blind job listing and applications.
The first couple weeks of school are the easiest and the best times to meet people and try out new things. The flow of meetings, activities and schoolwork has not started yet, so groups and activities are eager to welcome new members. Whether you’re a freshman just getting started, or an upperclassman looking for a new set of extracurriculars, or just want to get involved for the first time, it’s easiest to do it early.
Don’t be afraid to switch it up if you’re an upperclassman. Student groups and activities are always looking for new like-minded individuals. If there’s a particular group you’d like to join, just find out when they’re meeting and go check it out.
Get out of your comfort zone. Try something involving writing; something athletic; something advocacy or service-related. If you’ve always wondered what it’s like to jump on stage, try some sort of performance group (music, dance, comedy). Quit the groups you like the least, and stay involved with as many as you can reasonably fit in your schedule.
Take initiative in those groups
While a wide range of activities is great for making friends, developing personally, and accumulating resume bullet points, you also need to go deep in one or two extracurriculars and gain experience running projects, managing people, raising money, marketing and publicizing events, or leading in other ways. Having an activity or club on a resume doesn’t do much if you aren’t able to discuss what you actually did and how it developed or exhibited your strengths and skills.
You’ll also learn what types of work or projects you really love doing or are really good at — maybe blitz marketing campaigns for a dance show turns into a passion for creative marketing, or serving as treasurer of an a capella group develops a love for accounting and finance, or finding advertisers for a publication shows you you’re a fit for business development or sales.
Even if you can’t land an important officer title, you can surely find meaningful work to do. Employers will ultimately care more about what you did within your groups, and what that says about you as a worker, than what your title was.
Get tight with your professors
Introduce yourself to your professors. You don’t have to be that guy that drives the whole class crazy with over-the-top participation the first day, but it’s still good to let your professors (or in a large lecture class, at least one of the TAs) know who you are early in the semester. Even if it’s just a menial question after class about the first assignment or reading, it’s important to make direct contact early, because it will make it less intimidating for you to approach them later in the semester when you have real needs and questions.
Realize that professors want these relationships with students. They all have office hours — they’re usually required to — and would love to use that time for some quality teaching or conversation with students. You just have to show up. Even without specific questions, it’s perfectly acceptable to ask them about their background, about opportunities in the field, or about crossover opportunities between their field and another that you are more interested in.
Developing a close relationship with a couple professors also gives you access to someone who is hugely important for the purpose of writing potential recommendation letters down the road. I don’t mean you should make superficial contacts for this purpose alone; I just mean that it can be hugely beneficial to have close relationships with 2–3 professors in your college career that you can ask for advice and for possible recommendations as you graduate.
Set a schedule early, and stick to it (and include time for career thinking)
Studying and social life — the two biggest parts of college — also happen to be two things than can easily expand to consume all unbudgeted time. I like to think of them like gasses — expanding to fill any container.
You can schedule and budget time to other things without really hindering the effectiveness of those two, but if you don’t schedule and budget, you won’t really just get around to doing other less pressing tasks.
I always found that I was much more productive studying or doing schoolwork when I had to get it done in a shorter time due to other scheduled commitments. If I had a day with nothing else scheduled, that same amount of work could take all day.
At the beginning of the semester, brainstorm all the things you want to do on a weekly basis. Then schedule weekly time for all of them. Career reflection and planning should be one of those activities. As the year goes on, this scheduled time can change into active job or internship searching and application-writing. Find a friend to schedule the time with you so you have an accountability partner if you have trouble sticking to it yourself. The longer you wait into the year, the harder it will be to find time to do it; your time will seem to evaporate if you haven’t forced it into a schedule.
Learn where your career services office is
Some colleges have terrible career services departments. Many have excellent departments. One thing that most have in common is that they don’t do enough to make their presence known and get students in the door. Once you get through that door, you’ll likely find that they can help you write a solid resume, talk through your future plans, and tell you about recruitment activities happening on-campus. It’s completely on you (for better or worse) to seek out and make use of this resource, despite all of the other things going on in your life. But you’ll be glad you did.
Get ahead of your classes
Most classes don’t have mandatory “work” to do for the first couple lectures. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be doing anything. It’s an opportunity to get ahead of the work. If you never fall behind on learning the material, you won’t have to catch up. A few hours of preparation before and after the first couple classes (reading the text, looking over the notes) can save you weeks of stress, make all of the previous points easier, and free up time to focus on your plans for the summer or after graduation.
Get a campus job
Everyone has a unique situation when it comes to course load, activities, and finances that affects their ability to, or need to work during the semester, but having a part-time job during college definitely has positive effects. Even if it seems like an unimpressive job, it can still help fill a resume, build work ethic, and develop relationships with supervisors who can recommend you to future employers. Having an adult supervisor who can vouch for your non-academic work ethic can give you a leg up on your peers. Furthermore, students with jobs have been shown to perform better academically, and the additional income will reduce the debt load you’ll have to carry (or just pay for your spring break trip!).