Making the most of your senior year of college

Around this time each year, articles crop up giving advice to students. There are articles for high school students about applying for college, articles for college freshmen on how to transition to a life away from home, and articles for college seniors on how to make the most of your senior year. There’s a lot of good advice in many of those articles, and I’m going to summarize the bits and pieces that I think are most helpful for college seniors who haven’t quite figured out what they want to do after graduation.

First of all, realize that you’re not alone. Although many people have a good idea about the career they’d like from a young age—I remember high school friends with ambitions to become doctors, dentists, lawyers, and college professors, and many of them succeeded—many students, especially those majoring in the liberal arts and social sciences, may not have a clear idea of what they’re going to do next.

Secondly, recognize that there are lots of resources available to help you figure this out. Every college and university that I know of has some type of career center, complete with career counselors, who have a wealth of information at their finger tips. Some of your professors may have had other careers earlier in their lives, do freelance work on the side, or just know a lot of people in different fields. And many colleges offer internship programs—sometimes through a specific department and sometimes through a career center or other specialized office. Take advantage of those resources while you’re still on campus—your tuition dollars pay for them, so use them!

There are other options as well, that will take a bit more independence and self-motivation, but that can help you find your path and prepare you for your next step (and will show potential employers that you’re a cut above the competition). Here are some of those ideas that can be beneficial:

  • Figure out what you’re good at and what you really enjoy. While no one enjoys every job all the time, you’re going to be happier if you have a job that you enjoy at least some of the time. Free, online aptitude tests can give you great ideas about how to match your skills with potential careers. You can read about the tests I think are good in Tip 1: Use online aptitude tests for personal exploration.
  • Create a portfolio of your work. You may be thinking that you’re not in the kind of field that requires a portfolio—you may think that only artists and writers and musicians need portfolios. But in today’s high-tech world, individual portfolios have taken on a whole new form: blogs and twitter feeds will tell a reader a lot about who you are, what interests you, and what you’re good at. An online (or hard copy) portfolio of your writing will always be valuable. There are very few jobs that don’t include some kind of writing, and there are relatively few people who write well. A portfolio with samples of your writing could be the critical difference between you and other candidates for a position.
  • Do one or more internships. If you read this blog often, you’ll know that I write about this a lot. There are few things that will help you prepare for life after college as much as an internship. You will learn not only about the tasks involved in a specific career, you’ll learn about what you do and don’t like about that career, that field, that type of organization, and the kinds of people you’re asked to work with.
  • If you do know exactly what you want to do after college, start doing research about potential employers at the beginning of the fall semester. Learn as much as you can about various organizations that would hire someone in that field and what the requirements are for entry-level positions. Make sure that you will be able to meet all the requirements, and that you have some of the preferred qualifications as well. This may mean taking an online workshop on a particular type of software, learning a new language, or even changing some of your planned coursework—especially if you learn that you will have to go to graduate school to enter the field of your dreams.
  • Since I brought up graduate school, don’t use grad school as a fall back position in case you don’t get a job. If you know what you want to do and grad school is required, go for it. But if you’re not sure what you want to do, and you’re just going to grad school to keep from moving into Mom’s basement, think again. Grad school is valuable, but it’s also expensive, and many employers have program that pay for some or all the cost of attaining an advanced degree. (Wouldn’t that make Mom and Dad happy!). If you’re going to be adding to your student loans to go to grad school, make sure there’s a payoff at the end. Don’t just delay thinking about your career and see grad school as an easy way out of a dilemma. Work NOW to figure out what you want to do and how you’re going to get there. Getting a job now may be difficult, but adding more debt and then trying to get a job later may not be an optimal plan.