When I started applying to colleges in the fall of my senior year of high school, I was shocked by the fact that I was expected to fill in an “intended major” field on every application. As a 17-year-old with zero real world experience, how could I be expected to know what I wanted to major in? I was not old enough to vote; yet these schools expected me to declare what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. Yes, I had been exposed to many subjects in my 13 years of schooling – I knew I loved music, math was my strong suit, and I was not interested in history courses – but I also knew there were countless majors I had zero experience with up to this point.
As it turned out, I got lucky. I chose a university I loved and happened to stick with the major I declared on that early admission application. Most of my friends, however, were not so fortunate. Many changed majors (multiple times) and some transferred schools. I told them the same thing everyone else did: “It’s completely fine to change your mind and explore! Being expected to choose what you want to do with your life this early on is crazy.” To this day, I still believe that.
As a senior with less than five months left until graduation, I have been doing a lot of reflecting over the past few months. I’ve watched my friends sign job offers and leases for new apartments in new cities. I’ve heard some say they’re excited, some say they’re nervous, and others say they feel like they’re settling. We all talk about the future and wonder how many of us will be happy with where we are a year from now. We make bets on how many from our graduating class will hate their jobs and quit.
Why is this the case? At this point, we are only four years older than we were when colleges asked us to declare an intended major. Why do we not share the same attitude with upcoming college grads that we did with upcoming high school grads – why is it no longer okay to explore? Well, maybe it is. I truly believe that my friends who have explored different career opportunities and actually experienced what it may be like to work somewhere before they graduate will end up far happier in their full-time jobs than those who are going in blind. Even better are people who have multiple work experiences, as they really understand the pros and cons -- while an internship or two is great, even that is not enough given the number of options we have.
From a college student’s perspective, here are the benefits of doing as much career exploration as possible before jumping into a job:
1. It helps you academically.
Experiential learning is, above all else, learning through reflecting on doing. It is the theory that leads to many schools following a curriculum focused on cases and client projects, helping students to understand and practice the material on a real-world level. However, our classes still often seem separated in our minds; we have trouble making the connection of how, for example, a statistics class can directly relate to the career aspirations of a marketing student.
Completing projects while exploring careers can help us to bridge those gaps in our minds, connecting our courses to each other and to real-world experiences. It can also help us to see the value in the courses we may have previously thought were unrelated to our future career. Perhaps a statistics class seems much more relevant to a marketing major after seeing how analytics impacts brand management, content creation, and social media efforts in real life. If we use experiential learning so often in our course work, what’s to stop us from utilizing it to better understand the career fields we might enter one day?
2. It helps you access more jobs.
I think by this point we’ve all heard the broken record that a good GPA and a highly ranked school on your resume does not predict career success. When a college student with a strong academic background hears that, it can be particularly disheartening – what are we supposed to do to prove ourselves if all the work we do in school is not enough? On the other side, those without great grades also know that GPA is still used too frequently by employers to make hiring decisions. In both cases, this is where project-based experience can set a student apart in the highly competitive environment of our current college system. By working on real assignments for real companies, students can demonstrate their skills, motivation, and creative problem solving – stories they pull from for their resume, interviews, etc. From the employer side, they may be more likely to tap you for a full-time job if they’ve seen you prove that you can be successful in the role.
If the project does not lead to a full-time offer, it still helps build that vitally important professional network. Through these projects, you will meet individuals from the companies for which you are completing the work and can also use these experiences to build relationships with others. Alumni, professors, and other professionals often enjoy helping students, especially when it does not require answering standard questions such as “what is your typical day like?” With over 70% of jobs filled through networking, there is immense value in building these relationships, both for now and for the future.
3. It helps you identify the right job – before you start.
Internships are a great thing, and at many schools it is becoming more and more normal to see even freshmen interning during the summer. While internships are an awesome opportunity to get to know a company over 8-12 weeks, most students will only have the chance to complete one or two internships during college, if that. And what happens if you realize during the first week that it’s not for you?
A friend of mine interned the summer after her junior year in the marketing department at a large CPG corporation. She realized very quickly into the summer that the industry was not for her, but was still stuck for ten more weeks. When she went to start full-time recruiting in the fall of her senior year, the only thing she knew was that she did not want to work for a big CPG company. She had not even figured out what her true passion was; yet she needed to find a job for after graduation. Compare that with another friend of mine who chose to take on small projects from companies throughout college to narrow down what he wanted to do, in addition to his internships. He explored countless industries before eventually deciding that sales for a smaller company would be the best fit for his skill set and his passions. He found his dream job and has been there for over five years.
In the current recruiting landscape, there are a million options for students (company size, industry, role, training programs, etc). Forbes published an article this spring where they listed the four steps to narrow down your passions and choose the right career: eliminate, fail, integrate, and master. All four of these steps are covered with project-based experience, and the work you do now to narrow down your passions will lead to far less job hopping later.
Going into college, I had a slight idea of what I wanted to major in (and therefore do with my career), but had no real direction or idea on how to get there. I have explored my strengths and passions through countless part-time jobs, two internships, clubs, travel, and leadership positions. That being said, nothing has prepared me more to choose a career than the real assignments I have worked on for many different companies during my time in college.
High school students usually have no real idea what they want to do with the rest of their lives. College students might not either. For those who want to figure it out, Parker Dewey’s short term assignments are a great way to get real, professional experiences and start working toward those goals (and even make some money). Choosing a job can be hard – why not try it out first?