Getting Experience

Now that you have developed a career plan, gotten a handle on your interests, and done your industry research, it’s time to test the waters.

Experiential Learning Opportunities

As discussed earlier, a variety of activities and programs exist in which you can participate to confirm not only that your career plan is on track, but also gain valuable skills. Gaining experience in your field while in college can help you meet people who may later serve as important references for graduate school or employment. It can also teach you things you won’t learn in the classroom!

Here are a number of ways to pursue this experience:

  • Service learning and volunteer activities. Service learning allows you to apply academic theories and ideas to actual practice. Some instructors build service learning into their courses, but if this option isn’t available, consider volunteering. Volunteering is also a valuable way to encounter different life situations and gain knowledge in areas such as teaching, health services, counseling, and tax preparation. A little time spent each week can provide immense personal and professional rewards and allow you continued self-exploration.

  • Study abroad. Awareness of other cultures expands your diversity of thought and exposure to people different than you. If possible, take courses in another country so that you can learn about a different culture, experience new traditions, and practice a different pace of life. Many colleges provide short- and long-term options, so find an opportunity that works best for your class and work schedule. Some study-abroad programs also include options for both work and service-learning experiences. If that interests you, find out how financial aid applies to study abroad.

  • Internships and co-ops. The knowledge and skills that students acquire in the classroom are taken to the real world through internships and co-operative (co-op) education, giving students an opportunity to gain relevant work experience. Employers want to see that you have experience in the professional workplace and have gained an understanding of the skills and competencies necessary to succeed. As an added bonus, many majors offer academic credit for internships. Check with your academic department and your career center to find out what internships are available in your major. Remember that with one or more internships on your résumé, you’ll be a step ahead of students who ignore this valuable experience.

  • Student projects and competitions. In many fields students engage in competitions based on what they have learned in the classroom. For example, civil engineering students build concrete canoes, and marketing majors develop campaign strategies. They might compete against teams from other colleges or universities. In the process they learn teamwork, communication, and applied problem-solving skills.

  • Research. An excellent way to extend your academic learning is to work with a faculty member on a directed research project. Research extends your critical-thinking skills and provides insight into a subject above and beyond your books and class notes. This experience also allows you greater exposure to faculty members who become mentors and professional advocates.

Working In College

Paid opportunities for getting experience are also beneficial because they can support the attainment of your college goals, provide you with the financial means to complete college, and help you structure your time so that you are a much better time manager. Overextending yourself, however, can potentially interfere with your college success, your ability to attend class, your homework, and your participation in many other valuable parts of college life, such as group study or academic preparation. Take some time to determine how involved you are able to be, and stay within reasonable limits. If you want or need to work, explore on-campus opportunities as soon as you can after arriving at college. By working while in college, you can

  • Gain professional experience

  • Earn money

  • Network and make connections

  • Learn more about yourself and others

  • Develop key skills, such as communication, teamwork, problem solving, work ethics, and time management

Your career center can tell you how to access your college’s online employment system. College employment systems generally channel all paid and unpaid opportunities into one database so that it is convenient for you to identify jobs you are looking for.

Many campuses also offer an on-campus job fair early in the fall term. Even if you might not be interested at the time, a visit to the job fair will give you a great idea of the range and type of jobs available. You might be pleasantly surprised to learn about the varied opportunities, such as working as a tutor for the writing or math center, fitness center attendant, or student ambassador for your admissions office or career center. Job fairs usually include off-campus community employers as well, in part because your institution must spend some of the work-study funds it receives in supporting off-campus work by students.

Holding a job while in college has many benefits; but be mindful of the hours spent working, particularly off-campus. Stated very simply, students who work more than fifteen hours a week especially off campus have a lower chance of success than students who work fewer hours. Many campus and off-campus options allow you to gain work experience and a little cash. For example:

co-operative (co-op) education Paid work assignments that provide students with an opportunity to use their education and apply it to the workplace. In co-operative education a term of work alternates with a term of school.

  • Work-study award. A work-study award is a form of federal financial aid that provides part-time employment to help with college expenses. Positions can be either on-campus or off-campus. Work-study encourages employment in community service and in fields related to your major, and most off-campus positions will be at private nonprofit agencies or public agencies and will be in the public interest. For most colleges and universities, once you accept the work-study award on your award notification, you will be sent information regarding the steps you should take for securing a job. Usually, you will have to interview for a position. Check with your college or university’s financial aid office to get a list of available jobs and visit your career center to get help preparing your application materials and getting ready for the interview.

  • On-campus employment. Often you will see students on campus who are studying while they work, which can be one benefit of on-campus employment. You might make more money working for a local business or industry, but an on-campus job will give you a chance to practice good work habits in environments connected to campus. These positions generally provide flexibility and the understanding that you occasionally need time off to study or take exams as well as opportunities to connect with instructors and administrators whom you can later consult as mentors or ask for those all-important reference letters. Students who work on campus are also more likely to graduate from college than are students who work off campus, which in itself is the most rewarding outcome of all!

  • Off-campus employment. The best places to start looking for off-campus jobs are your campus career center and occasionally your financial aid office. They might have listings or Web sites with off-campus employment opportunities. Feel free to speak to a career counselor for suggestions.

Paid work can support the attainment of your college goals, provide you with the financial means to complete college, and help you structure your time. Working too much, however, can interfere with your college success, your ability to attend class, your homework, and your participation in many other valuable college activities. Take time to determine how much you need to work and make decisions that contribute to your overall success.

work-study award A form of federal financial aid that covers a portion of college costs in return for on-campus employment.