A college education is a valuable experience in its own right, but academics alone will not secure your future once your last class is completed. One way to move in the direction of a bright future is to build a solid resume — one that includes work experience in addition to a degree and extracurricular involvement. Here are four ways that you can gain meaningful work experience while still in college:
On-campus student employment
One of the easiest ways to gain work experience is to pursue on-campus student employment. While a portion of these positions are reserved for work-study financial aid, not all are. But how do you both find and secure them?
Job boards may seem like the logical answer, but they are often inefficient. Instead, try to make a personal connection with the department that hosts the position. This strategy works best for office work, as you will be able to introduce yourself to the secretary of the relevant department. Even for non-departmental positions, such as food service and groundskeeping, meeting your potential supervisors can help distinguish your application.
There are two benefits to on-campus student employment: one, your supervisors will be accustomed to the challenges of scheduling your shifts around your academic commitments. Two, you will be able to demonstrate your ability to balance work and school. However, it is worth noting that you may not work in an area that is directly related to your career goals.
Your most useful source of work experience may not be one that pays. Begin looking for internship opportunities early in your college career – the summer after freshman or sophomore year, for example. To find internships, visit your college career center, as well as online resources such as Internships.com and Idealist (for non-profit opportunities). Locating the right internship can be challenging, so be sure to do your research into a position before you decide to pursue it — scams are not unheard of, even in the internship world.
The benefit of completing an internship lies in its focus on educating you on the inner workings of a particular field or business. Interns are expected to be learning, as well as contributing. The downside of an internship is its low or nonexistent pay.
For students majoring in the physical or social sciences, a great way to gain work experience is to assist a professor with his or her research. Securing this sort of experience can be difficult, since not all positions are advertised through the school’s employment portal. Start by contacting the secretary for each relevant department. It is often the secretary’s responsibility to coordinate the funding and paperwork for such a position, so the easiest approach may be to send a brief email that requests information on any research groups that might need an undergraduate assistant. Another tactic is to request a meeting time and to ask your questions in person. By introducing yourself directly, the secretary will be able to associate a face with your name. You can also ask the secretary for advice on which professors to approach directly.
Speaking directly to professors can be fruitful because most active research groups have discretionary funds in the form of research grants. Whether a professor chooses to employ an undergraduate assistant may come down to the quality of the available talent – in other words, if you can demonstrate, in a brief meeting, that you are intelligent, engaged, and sincerely interested, a position may be made available to you. You may also be able to learn about open positions before they are posted.
Volunteer opportunities or independent study
If you cannot find an appropriate paid position, a targeted volunteer opportunity or independent study can count toward your work experience. For example, in a small town with few employment opportunities, your best bet may be to find ways to demonstrate those qualities that employers seek – punctuality, organizational capabilities, honesty, and so on. Look for recurring volunteer opportunities that follow a consistent schedule, ideally in an area that is relevant to your major. Adhering to a regular schedule will demonstrate to future employers that you are dependable, and it gives your supervisors a chance to evaluate you over an extended period of time (which can lead to high-quality letters of recommendation). Independent study, when closely coordinated with faculty research, will also give you a chance to gain experience that is relevant to your field (while concurrently building recommendation-worthy relationships).
Brian Witte is a professional SAT tutor with Varsity Tutors, the leading curated marketplace for the top private tutors in the U.S. 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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