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How to Bridge Your College Experience and Your Career

by | Feb 23, 2021 | Internships, Paychex, Student Life

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A common question we often ask ourselves in college is “how will any of the things I am learning apply to the real world?” At the time, it may seem as though the endless tests and papers couldn’t possibly help us to succeed later on in our professional lives. It is important to realize that your college experience is extremely beneficial for helping you to develop the necessary skills, discipline, and practices to help you succeed in a career post-graduation

Learning doesn’t only apply to the classroom, many of the skills we carry along with us and gain professionally are interpersonal and communication skills — all of which are skills commonly picked up throughout your college experience. Follow along to see how you can take your classroom, interpersonal, and professionally skills gained in college and apply them to your first job. 

Start by Asking Yourself 5 Questions

Throughout college, we often learn so much both academically and about ourselves, that it can feel like an information overload. When it’s time to apply what we have learned throughout these four years to our future career, it can be difficult to figure what knowledge to use, when to use it, and HOW to use this knowledge. A helpful way to start, is to ask yourself some important, self-reflecting questions. 

1. What are you passionate about/motivates you?

2. What really interests you?

3.. What environments suit you?

4. What are your strengths/weaknesses?

5. What are your personality traits?

Reflecting on the things, activities, or subjects in school that you are studying and whether or not these align with your passions is crucial in figuring out what career path is right for you. If you really dislike research and numbers, maybe an analytical role isn’t for you, and if you really enjoy reading and writing, a career in journalism or communications could be a great fit. Thinking about not only your passions, but your interests and motivators is key. Chances are, there’s a career path out there that fits both your passions and interests — you just need to know what those are before you start searching. 

Another important question to ask yourself often is about your preferred work environment. Are you somebody who works best independently? You’d probably thrive at an office that operates under a work from home or hybrid schedule. If you prefer to work collaboratively with others, a profession that requires constant contact (virtually or in-person) in order to execute plans or draft creative content could be a great fit for you. Luckily, most colleges offer a wide range of learning environments at the current moment — from virtual classes to group projects, it’s important to understand which environment you work most efficiently in so that you can better understand the direction of your future career.

Lastly, thinking about your strengths, weaknesses and personality traits can be another great indicator for the type of job that’s right for you. If you are someone that typically leads every class project, a career that involves project management might suit you. Or, if you tend to enjoy working solo, and have a knack for time management — you might be someone who could thrive working remotely or as a freelancer. It’s important to notice your strengths as a student and see how you can use those to your advantage in your chosen career. 

Applying College Experiences to Your Career 

As a student, chances are you have created a network of peers, mentors, faculty, and employers. Whether you realize it or not—these are the people that are going to be the biggest advocates for you as you first start out, professionally. Especially, if you don’t have a ton of formal work experience, you can easily equate your experiences in college, both inside and outside of the classroom to any experience inside an office. 

For example, communication and teamwork – these are major components to any successful business. Students, regardless of their work experience, spend a majority of their time working on group projects and know how it feels when someone doesn’t stay accountable for their end of the assignment. The same holds true in student organizations or clubs. Be mindful of the many personality styles you’ll work with and the role you play within a team — these can be very helpful indicators as for the kind of work environment that will and won’t suit you. 

Additionally, some of the textbook knowledge that has been gained can also be similar to what you will learn in an office — even if the mode for which you are gaining this knowledge looks different. You’ve listened to countless hours of lectures and read through case studies but it’s hard to understand how it applies until you make the real-life on the job connection. In the workforce, you will find yourself on business calls or in countless meetings, as well as being able to be attentive and an active listener — these are all skills you pick up as a student in a classroom.  Similarly, once you start working, try to think back to the theories you’ve learned in the classroom and relate them to your day to day work. For example, most management classes cover leadership theories. Even as an intern or entry-level employee we all have an ability to influence and ‘manage up’.

Overall, think about your experiences living on your own as a college student — these are very relevant to life as a young adult post-graduation. You’ve learned about independence– money management, time management, and prioritization. Life only gets busier as a young professional, so these skills are vital to develop and master in college. 

Participating in Student Organizations is Key

Taking part in student organizations is a fantastic way to bridge the distance between being a college student and becoming a working professional. In most cases, you can even count your experience working, leading, or taking part in student organizations towards work experience on your resume and during interviews. Many colleges have student organizations for just about any passion, interest, or career path — and if they don’t, you can usually start one of your own. 

By taking part in these organizations, you are not only gaining valuable experience, you are continuing to build a network and staying close to your interests/passions, both of which will help you to answer those questions posed earlier, which can help guide you towards your career. Being a part of a student organization will give you an opportunity to learn new things along the way that you wouldn’t gain in a classroom. For example, your school might not offer a course in poetry but joining a poetry club will give you that experience. 

Finally, students that join organizations can develop time-management and work-life balance — a crucial part of what makes a successful working adult. It is important to learn early on that there is more to life than just work, so any recruiter or employer would love to see the types of things you are passionate about outside of work on your resume and student organization are a great place to start.

The Importance of Internships

One of the best places to start your professional career is with an internship. Internships are built to not only provide you with real-world experience, but help you develop as a professional through workshops about resume advice, your cover letter, application tips, and interview do’s and don’ts. As you go into college, you have surely heard all the buzz around internships and may have even already done one while in high-school. Don’t feel like it is the end of the world if you don’t land an internship every summer in college, but you should seek them out at least twice during your undergrad. They are great places to form lasting professional connections that will propel you beyond your academic years.

It’s never too early to explore your school’s alumni office as a destination to network for internships. Even as a freshman, you can utilize this office to help land your first internship or even just your first conversation with a potential mentor that may be the one person to offer you a full-time job post-college. Internships allow you to practice what you are learning in the classroom to a professional setting as well as help with career exploration. For example, you may find you have an interest in a field or role and intern in that field and realize it’s not for you — in fact, that’s very normal and important to learn early on in college. 

Experiencing office life and different careers as an intern will help you to have honest conversations with yourself and answer those self-reflecting questions as you get closer to graduation. It is important to note that internships are sometimes unpaid — or strictly for academic credit, so not all students can and will land an internship based on other commitments or paid experiences, and that’s perfectly acceptable as well. If you are a student paying your way through college and work full time, that shows a lot about your character and dedication. Additionally, not all work experiences in a professional environment will be formal programs. Some internships are self-initiated in the form of shadowing a professional or working alongside a mentor.  

As you grow professionally, academically, and socially as a college student your interests and passions could change, and the same can happen once you enter the working world. It’s common for students to select a major and then switch and end up in a totally different career path from their major, just as it’s common for someone to change fields and switch professions early on or later on in their professional career. What’s important to understand is that learning is continuous — especially throughout college and beyond. The act of learning doesn’t stop when we leave an academic setting. Even the most senior employees at a company are learning every day. Since the world is constantly evolving, this requires employees to constantly upskill the foundational skills that they have in order to meet new industry demands. The classroom space might be where we are most comfortable learning, but as you embark on a career, you’ve only just begun to learn what’s out there. 

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