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What should you do in college to maximize your success after graduation?

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You might have heard the phrase before: “it’s not where you go, it’s what you do when you’re there.” While we should be careful of broad generalizations, there’s a lot of truth to this statement. When making decisions about college, many people are under the misconception that the more selective the institution, the better. However, while the institution you attend matters (the extent to which it matters depends on your demographic and socioeconomic background, as well as your major), so do the decisions you make while in college. Although every student is different, researchers are generally in agreement on the decisions students can make while in college to maximize their success after graduation. Here are the driving factors which influence your success after college.


1. Find a job or internship that is relevant to your studies.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, approximately 70 percent of undergraduates work while in college. People tend to think that working as a student poses a heavy burden on your time, preventing you from fully devoting yourself to your studies. To be fair, not all jobs are created equal, and there’s a huge difference between working to help pay for the costs of college and working to build up your resumé and gain relevant work experience. However, research shows that the right job, one that is related to your studies and allows you to apply what you’ve learned in the classroom, can be a huge advantage after you graduate. According to a 2015 report by Georgetown University’s Center for Education and the Workforce, 63 percent of college graduates who completed a paid internship while in college received a job offer, compared to 37 percent for those who completed an unpaid internship and 35 percent for those who did not complete an internship. In addition, the starting annual salary for college graduates who completed a paid internship was $52,000 while the starting annual salaries for those who completed an unpaid internship and those who did not complete an internship were $36,000 and $37,000, respectively.

Jobs and internships are becoming increasingly necessary in an age when employers are seeking college graduates with various applied learning and project-based experiences. According to a 2013 report by Hart Research Associates, 78 percent of surveyed employers said that “completing an internship or community-based field project to connect classroom learning with real-world experiences” would help college students succeed in the workplace. Internships facilitate graduates’ transition into the workforce by giving them on-the-job training and relevant work experience while in college. They’re also opportunities for students to build connections which will later help them in their job search as many graduates get their first jobs after college from former internship sites or internship site contacts.


2. Find a mentor who encourages and supports you.

According to a 2011 report by the Institute for Higher Education Policy, mentoring has been consistently linked to college success and has been shown to positively impact students’ GPAs, retention rates, and feelings of preparedness. Having a mentor is also one of the six college experiences linked to student confidence based on a study by Strada Education Network and Gallup. The study, which surveyed over 32,000 U.S. undergraduate students, found that students who reported having a mentor who encourages them to pursue their goals and dreams were more likely to express confidence in graduating with the skills necessary for success in the job market.

So how does one find a mentor? For most students, a mentor is a faculty or staff member at their university. Your relationship with your mentor can be formal or informal; however, although some colleges and universities have formal mentorship programs, many don’t, which partly accounts for why only one in four college students report having a mentor at their schools. This means that unless you’re lucky enough to attend a school with a thriving mentorship program, finding a mentor will take effort on your part. Try to build positive relationships with your professors by visiting them during office hours or by asking questions after class. Some students are under the impression that they have to be struggling in a class to go to office hours, but you could also stop by to discuss a topic that wasn’t covered in class or to ask about their research interests. You might also want to ask upperclassmen for advice on how they found their mentors.


3. Get involved in research or a long-term project.

Getting involved in research is a great way to work closely with faculty at your school. It’s also an opportunity to prepare yourself for the “real world” as many jobs require technical skills you can’t learn in the classroom. According to the same 2013 report by Hart Research Associates, 83 percent of surveyed employers said that experience in “[developing] research questions in their field and evidence-based analyses” would help college graduates succeed in the workplace, and 79 percent recommended “[completing] a project prior to graduation that demonstrates [the student’s] acquired knowledge and skills.” So how can you get involved? Most schools require their students to complete a senior thesis prior to graduation, but there are other opportunities as well. Your school may offer an independent research course or student research assistant jobs, to name a few examples. You could also reach out to professors to see if there are any openings in their labs. Like finding a mentor, getting involved in research or a long-term project requires initiative on your part, but it’s 100 percent worth the effort.    


4. Seek career counseling.

According to a 2016 Gallup-Purdue Index Report, “graduates who visited the career services office and said their interactions were very helpful are 5.8 times more likely to say their university prepared them well for life outside of college.” Career counseling can be extremely helpful in preparing students for success in the job market as it connects students to jobs and internships they might not otherwise have known about. It also provide services like resumé and cover letter workshops to help you in your job search. Unfortunately, 27 percent of college students never visit or access resources made available by the career counseling office at their college or university, and when students do visit, they often wait until their senior year to do so. However, many postgraduate opportunities (including postgraduate fellowships) have complicated application processes that require you to plan months in advance. Moreover, the job you want to pursue most likely requires skills you have to learn in advance, both inside and outside of the classroom. For these reasons, it is recommended that you visit the career counseling office sooner rather than later. You can also sign up for its newsletter to get notifications about jobs or internships relevant to your interests.


5. Choose your major wisely.

Here at Edmit, we’ve already written several articles on the importance of your major on your postgraduate outcomes. [Related: Which College Majors Make the Most Money? The Answer May Surprise You.]


Choosing your major is arguably one of the most important decisions you will make while in college. In fact, the influence of your major on future earnings is often comparable to that of college selectivity: differences in earnings by college selectivity almost disappear when you compare science majors, even when studies don’t control for the quality of incoming students. Additionally, according to a 2018 report by Georgetown University’s Center for Education and the Workforce, college majors are even more important than education level in determining one’s future earnings. Before choosing your major, make sure you’re informed about how it will affect your postgraduate outcomes. You can do this by reading our articles on the subject, which you can find on our blog, or signing up for an account.

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