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Career Advice and Encouragement for College Students

KEY POINTS

  • College students often focus on the wrong things as they worry about choosing a career.
  • Students overestimate the importance of having the “right” major and good grades but underestimate the importance of demonstrating skills.
  • One of the overlooked benefits of work experience is the opportunity to learn valuable things about yourself.

I have been teaching at a small liberal arts college for over 40 years. I get to know my students well as their adviser and instructor in several classes, and I spend a great deal of time discussing career choices and similar major life decisions with them.

Many former students have become lifelong friends, and I have proudly tracked the careers of hundreds of them as they make their way through life.

In this post, I would like to share some of the things I have learned from my years of working with students as they navigate through the exciting but scary time of life between college and career.

First of all, let me emphasize that finishing college matters a lot. On average, a person with a bachelor’s degree makes about $25,000 per year more than a high school graduate, and they usually get to do more interesting work.

Many employers use the college degree as a screening device because, at a minimum, it means that you had the tenacity to stick with something for four years and that you have gotten accustomed to working on things that you may not be particularly interested in on someone else’s deadline, which is a big part of most jobs.

So, getting that bachelor’s degree is important. But many of the things that students worry about the most matter the least.

Your Major Does Not Matter As Much as You Think

If you want a job where the name of the career and the name of the degree are the same – think accounting, electrical engineering, elementary education, nursing – then yes, the name of your major matters.

However, if your goal is to just get a foot-in-the-door in the business world, work for the government, or get into one of the helping professions, employers are not usually going to care very much about what your major was.

In fact, even the aforementioned majors are just a ticket into your first entry-level job ­– and most workers hope to move beyond that level before very long.

Like so many of my students, when I was in college I felt like I was essentially choosing life and a career when I picked a major. However, most of my graduating psychology majors do not end up being psychologists or even working in a psychology-related field.

Yes, we do produce therapists, social workers, and psychologists of various sorts, but we also have lots of bankers, lawyers, teachers, marketing executives, and almost anything else you can imagine.

Remember that you will have many different jobs throughout your career, and some will not even exist yet when you graduate from college.

Future employers are much more interested in the skills you possess than in the major you pursued. Are you a good writer? Are you good with data and statistics? Are you fluent in a second language? Can you write computer code? Do you have people skills? These are valuable assets that employers crave, and they do not care if you acquired these things by majoring in business or philosophy.

Most of what you will be doing at work will be picked up on the job when you are training. Employers are more interested in your flexibility and willingness to learn new things than in what you already know.

Your G.P.A. Does Not Matter As Much as You Think Either

Surprisingly enough, your G.P.A. is not going to matter nearly as much as you think. I see more tears in my office over grades (some of them are even student tears!) than anything else, and the importance of the grade is usually blown way out of proportion.

The distraught student seems to truly believe at the moment that getting a B+ instead of an A- in my class is actually going to derail his or her future and undermine any shot that they have at finding happiness. Clearly, at least some other things are going to come into play.

As I pointed out earlier, employers primarily care about what you can do, and grades do not necessarily tell them what they need to know. Demonstrating good social skills in an interview or leadership ability and a good work ethic through athletics and other extracurricular activities can be just as important.

To the extent that G.P.A. has any impact at all, it tends to be in getting hired for that first job, and its impact declines markedly after that. And yes, your grades matter if you are applying to graduate or professional school, but not in the fine-grained way that students imagine.

Of course, you would rather have a 3.5 than a 2.5 G.P.A. when you apply to graduate school, but whether you have a 3.8 or a 3.6 will seldom matter.

One of my former students, Allison O’Brien, is a recruiting/talent professional with more than fifteen years of experience. According to Allison, “It’s my job to do the hiring and I can confirm that most employers don’t care about GPA. But yes, we are looking for transferable skills – we do like to see that you completed your degree and accomplished a goal . . . . we want to see your passion for your work, your communication skills, your desire to make a difference.”

“Real World” Experience Through Part-Time Jobs or Internships Is a Big Plus

Having experience in a real-life employment setting is invaluable. It does not much matter if that experience is called an “internship” or just a part-time or summer job; in either case, you will be learning the ropes of the world of work.

You will not only acquire new skills, but you will also absorb the habits essential to being a good employee: being on time, how to deal with bosses and customers, how to juggle multiple tasks at once.

You will meet people who can help you. If you are good, they may offer you a permanent position when you finish college or write a good letter of reference for you or connect you with other people who will be great professional contacts.

One of the overlooked benefits of work experience is the opportunity to learn valuable things about yourself. It can help you truly recognize what you are good at and what is challenging for you.

You will learn how you manage stress and gain confidence from the small daily successes that can be experienced in any job, no matter how ordinary the job may seem to you at the time.

 

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