What I wish I knew back in college…advice from the “real world”

Come this fall, many of you will embark upon on a much awaited chapter of your lives: the college experience. There will be anxiety-filled moments as you contemplate what classes to enroll in and what major to choose as this will provide the springboard for your professional and personal development. These four years of college will seem never-ending during the much-dreaded midterms and finals weeks, but overall, the whole experience will seem like a brief, hazy dream. Towards the end, you will be noticing the increasing frequency with which those around you speak of the “real world.”  Suddenly, you are thrown into shark-infested waters, known as the job market, where you encounter your first practical applicability of Darwin’s survival of the fittest theory. While I have presented a somewhat daunting picture of the post-college world, if you prepare adequately during those four years, it really becomes a manageable and enthralling journey. Having worked in career services prior to pursuing my Master’s degree, I have had the opportunity to interact with numerous employers in various industries, spanning from the medical field to law and finance. Based on my personal experiences both from undergraduate and graduate schools, as well as my professional background, the following is the advice I would have given to my freshman self  about to begin my studies at Occidental College.

1)      Be open-minded about your course selection.  As a political science major, I was not obligated to take economics courses, although my politics adviser attempted to convince me time and time again to take a class or two in the field. Initially intent at pursuing law school after my undergraduate studies, I kept insisting to my adviser that I would never be mandated to take economics in law school.  Eventually, I chose not to attend law school and instead applied for a Master’s degree, concentrating my graduate studies (ironically) on International Economics, the subject I avoided like the plague. Not only did I falsely misjudge my level of interest in the field but also its valuable practicality and complementary nature to politics. While I developed a strong affinity for the study of economics in graduate school, I do wish I had built a foundation during my undergraduate years.  Lesson learned:  take classes outside of your comfort zone with an open-mind, take them very seriously, and do not dismiss taking classes from outside your current major believing that you will never need them in your future career as you will probably change your mind several times before and after your graduate from college.

2)      A well-rounded coursework that includes both qualitative and quantitative skills sets is a MUST!  This is the one advice I always make sure to drive home when talking to a recent high school graduate or current college student. Regardless of what you choose as your major, make sure to take classes where you can obtain valuable quantitative skills sets, such as a course on statistics, research methods, or a computer software program.  By having both qualitative and quantitative classes under your belt, you can better prepare yourself to stand-out from future applicants to jobs and/or fellowships.  Lastly, you want to take a combination of these courses because you never know what opportunities will present themselves in the future that may lead you down an entirely different career path than what you had previously imagined for yourself. While a student at Occidental, I would have laughed if anyone suggested that in graduate school I would be working in the International Banking industry…the thought never even crossed my mind. While I am taking quantitative courses in graduate school to assist me in preparing for my new career plans, a few quantitative courses in undergraduate school would have been extremely resourceful.

3)      Write, write, and write some more!! I cannot emphasize enough how important writing is to any future career. Many employers complain about their employees’ lack of ability to write and articulate their thoughts effectively. I was fortunate enough to attend a liberal arts school where writing was one of the central principles of our education; this has helped me tremendously in graduate school where I have had to condense hundreds of pages of information into a 2-page memo. Having the ability to write concisely and effectively in a short time span will serve you well in any job position.  College professors are particularly harsh on the first essay you’ll write for their class. Do not get discouraged!! Instead, take the opportunity to attend office hours and discuss with them how you can improve your writing. Learning to ask for positive criticism is one of best things you can do for yourself—no joke!

4)      Develop and enhance your soft skills.  While your technical or “hard skills” may get you through the door, your “soft skills” (presentation style, communication and interpersonal skills) can either make or break any interview. I have both read studies and have personally heard from numerous employers that one of the major weaknesses of employees are their lack of soft skills, including effective communication with co-workers and clients.  It is very important for people to be able to “connect” with you. While some individuals inherently have a better grasp of soft skills, this skill set can also be learned and perfected over time.  Many college career services departments offer mock interviews for fellowships, internships and jobs; take advantage of this opportunity and schedule such a mock interview session with a counselor. Also, if you’re shy about public speaking, take a class or join your school’s speech and debate association (if it has one). The point is practice with others and again be prepared to take positive criticism. Focusing on soft skills during your college years will save you a lot of time and pressure in the future.

5)      Soak-up your college experience like a sponge. Best advice my freshman-year writing professor gave to our class. Make sure to take advantage of events/activities on your college campus.  This is a great way for you to learn about various topics of interest in the world and to also meet new people.  Moreover, these events will allow you to network (another magical word in the “real world”) and make friends with others.  Be curious, ask a lot of questions, and do not be afraid to change course and explore new possibilities!

6)      Maintain strong relationships with your professors, classmates, and school alumni.  I hate to mention that word “networking” again, but alas, you will find yourself doing a lot of it once you graduate and need a job to pay back those loans or to simply live. Utilize your school’s vast community to learn about various fellowships, internships and/or job opportunities.  Take advantage of office hours to get to know your professors on a more personal level because when they’ll be writing letters of recommendations for you in the future, they need to be able to speak to your character and not just your grades. Your professors will also be able to give you invaluable insights and advice about your professional plans, especially if they teach in a field you’re interested in pursuing.  Make time to arrange for informational interviews with alumni; they are a great resource for learning about potential careers (or even specific jobs) you might be interested in pursuing. Now , I know how hard it can be for current students to reach out to alumni because there’s that uncomfortable feeling that a) alumni are “too busy” to care about some “unimportant” undergraduate student  b) alumni already know why you’re approaching them, which makes the whole thing seem a bit cheesy and forced. However, you would be shocked to find out how many alumni love talking to current students at their alma mater!  Most individuals are proud of the schools they graduated from and are happy to give back in one way or another.  Members of the alumni communities at both my undergraduate and graduate schools have been extremely approachable and responsive to my requests for informational interviews.  Furthermore, I have known numerous individuals (including myself) who have received job offers due to an alumni connection. Finally, as mentioned earlier, you’re going to meet a ton of people in college, who will go on to pursue quite interesting endeavors.  Stay in touch with them as they too can help connect you or inform you of wonderful opportunities.

While this may all seem like common-sense and readily available in various self-help books or online articles, sometimes it helps to hear it once again from someone who has already walked in your shoes=) I wish you all an amazing journey of both scholarly and personal discoveries!!

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