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How to Make the Most Out of Your College Degree

The average college student will spend between $10,000 and $30,000 per year to earn his or her degree. As one such student, your goal may simply be to graduate with degree in hand. However, with the rising cost of tuition and an ever-more-competitive job market, it is important to get as much value out of the college experience as possible. Here are several tips to help you make the most of your degree:

Avoid majoring in a job description

One of the most significant mistakes that you can make is choosing an overly specialized major — in other words, one that sounds like a job description. Several schools, for instance, offer degrees in turfgrass management or science. While this concentration may successfully position you for a career managing a golf course grounds crew, it may also close more doors than it opens. After all, very few students pursue just one career throughout the course of their working years. A broader degree, like business management, will ultimately benefit you if your goals change later in life.

Very narrow majors can also fall out of use. Petroleum engineering, for example, was an understandably popular choice when the oil market was booming. Now, hundreds of thousands of petroleum industry employees are being laid off, and recent graduates are facing a dismal job market.

Choose diverse classes

You may be tempted to take as many classes as possible in your chosen subject, but it is important to remember that no one expects complete expertise from a recent graduate. If your field is naturally very broad, then by all means select courses that involve different specialties. For example, some schools that once offered degrees in ecology, microbiology, plant biology, etc. have reorganized to offer a more general biology degree. Completing classes that fall under the biology umbrella — but that diversify your knowledge — can allow you to apply to a number of graduate programs or positions.

You can also add value to your degree by taking courses in complementary fields. Computer skills, for example, are in high demand with employers. Several classes in web development, or in programming languages like Java and Python, can offer a high return for a minimal investment in time. Also consider these areas: quantitative courses like statistics (for a grounding in data), writing-intensive classes that strengthen your communication skills, and art courses that provide an introduction to design and presentation.

Complete an internship

Colleges and universities often offer their students internship credit, and some participating students find that their internships are extended interviews, with an offer of employment waiting upon graduation.

Chances are you will only have time for one or two internships before you graduate, so be sure to conduct research before committing to one. As unpleasant as it may be to work without pay (as is the case with many internships), college may be one of the few times that you can make the necessary financial sacrifice. Speak with the counselors at your career center for more help with finding an internship and crafting your application materials.

Build a portfolio

Many of the hiring managers that you encounter will care more about the accolades you have earned and the projects you have completed than they will about your complete course list or college minor. Jobs in fields like computer science and fine arts almost always require a portfolio, for example. If you are interested in software development, consider registering for a GitHub account, and keep it updated with your projects. If you are an artist or writer, create a website for your material, and include a brief statement of your vision and goals. Even for fields in the sciences or in business, it is always wise to keep a record of your accomplishments. These can be class assignments, freelance commissions, or undergraduate research projects. The point is to demonstrate how you have applied what you have learned to “real world” endeavors.

Much of the advice in this column is focused on practical skills that can help you develop a stellar resume. These items are undoubtedly important for securing your first position. However, learning to think creatively and critically, as well as learning to communicate effectively, can pay dividends over the course of your whole career. Aim to leave college with the tools you will need to become a lifelong learner. Certain skills that you know at 25 will be outdated by the time you are 35, and antiquated when you are 45. If you learn to learn, however, you will be able to adapt and grow throughout your life.

Brian Witte is a professional tutor and contributing writer with Varsity Tutors, a live learning platform that connects students with personalized experiences to accelerate academic achievement. He earned his Bachelor of Science from the University of Washington and holds a Ph.D. from The Ohio State University.

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