Many students think being prepared for their first job out of college means having a briefcase full of the physical necessities. This is only partially correct! You need much more than the physical pieces you put in your briefcase every day. The soft skills that many students do not develop are the skills that are in high demand by employers all over the country, in every career field. Can you show up to work on time? Can you compose a professional email? Can you contribute to a meeting? Can you think critically and collaborate with others on a project? Can you speak effectively? Do you demonstrate an investment in your career? Do you even know what any of these things mean? Many students don’t, as employers have indicated in a recent study published by the American Association of Colleges & Universities (AAC&U). And unless you are taught the basics of what it means to be career ready, you won’t be.
The key to filling your briefcase is to start preparing early on. When you walked on your college campus for the first time, preparation for your future began. Here are some tips that will help you fill your briefcase with some of the basic skills you’ll need to help guide your career path and be truly career ready.
1. Find out what clubs are on campus, and join one that interests you (preferably one tied to your major if you have already declared). Once you join, step up and take a leadership position.
2. Start paying attention to different careers around you. They are everywhere. At your school (teachers, administrators, cafeteria workers, athletic trainers, coaches); in your home, (your parent’s careers, their friend’s careers, your friend’s parent’s careers); on TV (every show has a reference to a career, whether it is the cooking channel, a legal series, or a medical series). Although TV does not always give a completely accurate portrayal of a career, it does give a general idea. This can help broaden your awareness of career options. There is only so much you can learn from observation, though. Consider conducting informational interviews with professionals in different careers to gain more insight.
3. Talk to your professors. The way you learn to think critically is to engage in conversations that challenges or expands on what you currently know. Professors have office hours, so take advantage of them and spend an hour every other week talking about current events, a topic you are covering in class, or your career interests. People typically love to talk about what they do, and are usually happy to share. Listen to their stories and be open to their guidance!
4. Be conscious of how you speak. Use these words: please, thank you, you’re welcome, excuse me, and my pleasure. Don’t use these words: like (unless you are saying you like someone or something), and stuff, and whatnot. Don’t be scared of pauses in conversation, they are natural. Pauses give you an opportunity to think about what you want to say. Filling them up with useless words can give the impression that you do not communicate well.
5. Visit the career services office on your campus and make an appointment to start a conversation about what you are interested in and how to approach your career development plan.
6. Realize that you don’t know what you don’t know. Listen. Take information in and ask questions.
7. Try to gain some paid work experience (again, preferably tied to your major in some way).
8. Join a professional organization related to your career field. Many of them offer student rates and offer some great networking opportunities (the regional chapter events are usually offered at a reduced price). Make sure you sign up to receive any blog posts, as they can give great insight into your career field that you won’t necessarily find in the classroom or during an internship. And volunteer at their professional conferences. Many conference planners offer students free registration in exchange for a few volunteer hours, during which you can often interact with a variety of professionals.
9. Stay focused on your grades. Plan for your study time (schedule your homework time into your calendar, just like you do for your class time), and make sure to keep your grades up. Having a low GPA can eliminate you from some job opportunities.
You came to college to earn a degree and hopefully get a job once you graduate. It is a process, and much more involved than showing up for class (be on time), doing your homework (always), and performing well on tests (develop a study plan). Remember to enjoy yourself, be social, and engage in the opportunities that will make you as marketable as possible.
Andrea Peeters is the Career Services Specialist at Menlo College, a small undergraduate business college in Northern California. She works with all students and alumni on general career and professional development as well as supports the internship program. Prior to coming to Menlo, she worked as a High School Counselor and Adjunct Faculty teaching personal development courses in central California.