Job Advice for New College Grads

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Archive for January, 2009

What Should I Focus On To Help Make Me A Good Candidate (More Than A Year Before Graduation)?

Posted by James M on January 9, 2009

This post is dedicated to those students who have a year or more left before they graduate from university.  For those that have less than a year, I’ll be writing a post for you soon.

In this post I’ll rank the key areas of focus in order of importance.  These rankings are not absolute and we’ll talk about some of the exceptions as we move forward, but all things being equal this is how I would rank them.

  • GPA
  • Work Experience
  • Research
  • Volunteer Experiences
  • Study abroad opportunities

Let’s break this down a little further:

GPA

For better or worse your grades are the number one factor influencing employers (at least on paper).  That isn’t to say if you don’t have a 4.0, you can’t get a job.  You most assuredly can.  But if you have 1 year or more left in your college career, you have enough time to significantly alter your GPA.  More importantly you have the chance to establish a strong upward trend in your academic performance.  So although you may not be able to say “I have a 3.8 cumulative GPA.”  What you might be able to say is, “Although I struggled early on in college and only achieved a 2.8 GPA going into my last year and a half of college, I was able to focus and achieve an overall GPA of 3.4 in my final two years.”

It is also important to note that your GPA is the only piece of your application that has minimum requirements for some entry-level positions.  Often times I have seen companies who require a 3.0, 3.2, or 3.5 GPA to apply for a particular position. This is not true of work experience, volunteer experience, undergraduate research, etc.  So, while your lack of work experience or research may inhibit your application, your GPA can, in a very real way, completely exclude you from particular positions.

The final reason to focus on your GPA is more of a philosophical one.  You are going to college to learn and your GPA is as good a measure as is readily available of your success in learning the target subjects.  Volunteering is good for the planet and work experience provides professional self-enrichment, but you are not going to school to work.  You are in school to learn, so that later in life, namely after you graduate, then you can begin a career.  Someone is paying a lot for your education, maybe your parents or a family member, maybe the government, maybe yourself, but either way your time in class is being paid for.  Do your best to respect yourself and your personal academic pursuits and the parties that are paying for your education.

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Work Experience

Work experience is the next most beneficial item for boosting your application.  Although, a terrific research opportunity or volunteer experience may be worth giving up an internship or co-op for, work experience inherently offers something the other two options can not—a chance to work in the “real” world.  The chance to earn a paycheck.  The chance to be a legal member of a corporation or non-profit and have the responsibilities that go with that position.

Work experience is also the most practical of the areas I’m discussing here.  The reasons are obvious—if you are looking to work at a corporation or non-profit after graduation, what better way to prepare than working for one of those entities before graduation.  Make the most of your internships and co-ops, taking on extra responsibility when possible, turning in only the highest quality work, and doing as networking as possible.

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Volunteer Experience

I am a big fan of volunteer experience, and I think it only becomes more important and applicable as your time in university diminishes.  My belief is based on the wide array of so-called “soft skills” (leadership, teamwork, etc.) than can be gained while volunteering.  Many of these skills and experiences are highly sought after by employers and are one of the key components they look for in work experience that we discussed above.  Work experience often has the benefit of being more relevant, however volunteer experience has the advantage that it is often more accessible.  Given a year or more, it is not at all uncommon to be able to lead multiple major projects, one every few months or so, at one or more community organizations in your neighborhood.  These projects don’t have to be complex, leading a park cleanup, organizing a food drive, or helping to make partnerships with new clients are all exceedingly valuable experiences that will really make your application stand out when recruiting season comes.  So start talking to organizations in your area and see what leadership roles that have now, or in the near future that you can hop aboard.

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Research

Research has both benefits and drawbacks.  Because research takes place in the academic environment it offers a great chance for personal enrichment in a particular area of academics.  Indeed most research projects involve very specific investigation and experiments in search of an answer to a specific hypothesis.  This narrow focus, benefits the student by making them a subject matter expert, at least in principle, on a particular topic.  But because of this specificity, the broader subject knowledge and body of skills used in a typical entry-level position in a corporation are not developed.

This has to be weighed against one’s ultimate career goals.  For some, who hope to go back to graduate school or get a post in a research laboratory or academic facility, research may be the most important experience to acquire while getting an undergraduate education.  However, for most students that is not the case, and in general an undergraduate research post does not offer the practicality and breadth of experience as more traditional internship or co-op work experience.

That being said some school’s research programs partner with outside organizations in more of a joint approach.  If this is the case, especially if the collaborative program is with one of your companies of interest, you should well consider this opportunity as one of the most valuable available to you as an undergraduate.

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Study Abroad

Studying abroad is a great opportunity, especially if it incorporates a language component.  However, from an academic point of view, these experiences still amount to you attending classes at a university which has no more value than what you would have been doing if you stayed at your home university.

There may be exceptions to this rule depending on the company or field you want to work for.  For example, if you know in your heart of hearts that you want to work for a company in Italy or with a company with very close ties to Italy, then a study abroad experience in Italy may well be worth its weight in gold.  Barring such a situation however, study abroad experiences may not significantly change your application status.  This does not mean that you should avoid it however.  Studying abroad may well be your most enriching personal experience, and ultimately personal growth is more important in the long term than career growth.

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The Final Word

All of this must be taken in context.  Of course there are amazing internships, research projects, and volunteer opportunities available that would shatter this structured hierarchy.  And if you come across such an opportunity then I strongly encourage you to take it.  What constitutes a great opportunity will vary depending on your career and life goals, but be bold and trust your instincts and these opportunities will reveal themselves to you.

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