The Undergrad Maze

My time as an undergrad was an eventful one. There was the good, the bad and the ugly. I started off as an Electrical Engineering undergraduate student at a local university and then dropped out to pursue Marketing at a private educational institution. It was not the most direct path to doing what I love but I learned so much on this journey.

During this time I realized that the life of an undergrad was similar to being stuck in a maze. I mean you could be motivated and dedicated but there was no way of being certain that after 4 years of school, the world waiting for you would be the same as the one when you went in.

There are so many options but there is no way to be certain if it will get us where we want to go. Have we found our passion? Will this course of study be remotely related to our jobs? What should our first job be? So many questions.

I realized there are so many guides and articles online recommending steps you need to take to improve your life and find success. The thing is, there is always more than one way to succeed. More importantly, there is also more than one way to define “success”. To me, my definition of success was to find my passion. To set up an opportunity where I could learn, grow and specialize in it.

I just felt it would better to instead share my opinion on mindsets you should try to avoid as you make your way through school. I believe, in avoiding these mindsets, you are essentially taking a step in the right direction. These are all mistakes I made at the start just as I was starting my life as an undergraduate student.

1. “I will focus on my studies now. I will think about work later”

Yes, while you are studying your priority has to be your studies. However, if you do not try your hand at least one internship or part-time job, you will not learn the true meaning of time management. These things prepare you for the real working world. Things at work will not be so clear cut. There might be times when you have to work on multiple projects. If you are in an agency, you might even need to support several accounts at the same time! I believe working while schooling gives you a taste of how important it is to manage your time. It just makes it easier to cope once you start working.

2. “Grades are the most important things”

There was a time when I had to juggle 2 part-time internships and full-time school. It was daunting. There was an opportunity and I wanted to make the most of it. I had to count on the support of my friends at school, my family at home to navigate through them. I started leveraging on tools like Wunderlist and Google docs to constantly keep track of the varied tasks I had to do. I will be honest, it was the 4 most difficult months but I learned so much during that time that I never regretted taking it up.

It might be a good idea to reach out to your professors, friends or people you know to try and find a job/internship that is related to your field of study. Earning cash is one thing, but ensuring that the particular job adds value to you and your time is more important. Earning $50/hr as a tutor might sound lucrative as a temporary job but you might stand to learn so much more as a marketing intern despite earning $8/hr.

There was a time I believed grades were the most important outcome of school. I believed my grades and a brand name school would get me the job. I still cannot believe how I would fight for every mark. How I would spend my time trying to reference every research paper to perfection, memorize every theory and read every lecture slide. It all seems a little misguided now.

In my opinion, grades are not the most important outcome of your education. Instead, initiative and knowledge should be the outcomes people focus on. It is within reach to score a good grade by answering a paper just as expected. Truly internalizing the concepts and applying it in real life, on the other hand, is a whole other thing.

At an interview, I believe it is more important to demonstrate your ability to apply than justify your presence by claiming “Hey, I deserve this job because I got an A ++++ for a theoretical paper”. A professor of mine once shared, during an interview when asked what is marketing, the candidate replied, “ it is about the 4Ps”. See the difference now?

It is important to realize that the purpose of that certification is to apply what you learn to the real world. Grades are just a tool we use to get to the door. If we are unable to look past our books and relate what we learn to the real world, what good is our education?

3. “I will start on my LinkedIn profile after I graduate”

A good LinkedIn profile takes time. It is more than mass adding people. It is more than just liking or sharing posts. LinkedIn is a community. For you to benefit you will have to contribute to that community regularly. Share your opinions. That is the best way to learn. There are some nice folks out there who will take the time to correct you, guide you or just share their expertise with you.

I used to think that LinkedIn was just another social media platform but I managed to secure all my 5 internships and my first job via LinkedIn. It did take time to build it and I had a friend guiding me all the way. I can safely say she is the reason I got a hang of LinkedIn. Ask around, get the help you need but start building your profile the moment you start your first year. I cannot emphasize this enough. There are plenty of industry news in the feed, job opportunities, just so much to learn. It will greatly complement the things you learn at school.

While I was studying marketing, I periodically sent messages to marketing managers asking them about the different fields of marketing and what those job scopes entailed. To be honest, those conversations gave me a much clearer picture of the industry than online articles ever could. Take the effort to connect, ask questions. There is so much to learn and for every 10 unwilling to help, you might find 1 who does. All you need is that 1.

4. “Internships are just “cheap” labor”

There is this common perception that internships are just cheap labor. That we do them just for our CV but we rarely learn anything of use from that. That we will be doing mostly administrative work that has no direct relation to learning tangible skills.

I believe it is all about finding the right internships. You are right, there are some companies that leverage on interns to dish out labor intensive work or delegate mind numbing data entry or cold calling tasks. But, if you look hard enough, or take the time to reach out to connections on LinkedIn, you might find internships that will add value to you.

The mentors I met during my internships were very encouraging and they shared their experience with me and guided me along the way. Yes, I have packed boxes of goods, entered hundreds of lines of names on excel sheets and sent hundreds of emails but I have also had the opportunity to be a part of pitches, events, account servicing etc. They were great opportunities to learn. You just got to seize any opportunity you can find and make the most of it.

5. “Expecting a high first pay”

Getting a first job can be an exciting but daunting task as well. You might plan to start sending out resumes early. You might even do your research to find the market rate but let me ask you this question. Why do you deserve that pay? Are you able to justify it without your educational background?

The most common complaint I hear from my managers is that the candidate expects this pay because he/she has a degree or masters. How can that be your sole justification for a pay? I believe the only reason you would have to dictate a certain pay is that of your ability to deliver. If you are an undergraduate student without much experience, how could you demand a pay greater than the market rate? Assuming you did score 1st class honors, does that guarantee your ability to perform with the new team? There are so many tangible and intangible factors that go into affecting your performance at your new workplace.

I believe the best thing you can do is negotiate the market rate but even if you cannot secure that, don’t lose hope. Don’t throw away that opportunity. Use it to prove yourself before demanding higher pay. Try thinking along the lines of:

“Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor.”

6. “This is the last time I will need to study”

This is my favorite. It might have taken us some time since grade school to make it all the way here. You might have hated tutorials, exams and even cheat sheets but graduating doesn’t mean it’s the last time you need to study. Folks at banking still need to sit for their financial papers, some folks at law got to sit for the bar while some of us in marketing might like to take some extra certifications or pick up some parallel skills like Photoshop and InDesign. If you want to keep up with the world you will need to continue studying.

This does not mean you should rush to do your masters. Your time is precious. Choose skills and certifications that will help you in the future. Some industries are evolving so rapidly it’s vital to keep reading and keep upgrading your skills. The term lifelong learning might sound cliche but welcome to the working world!

These few years may or may not make a huge difference in your life. All of us reach our peaks at different times under different circumstances. However, what is important is that we make the most of every opportunity that presents itself to us. As an undergraduate student, you have an opportunity to accumulate knowledge and prepare yourself for the working world. Try making the most of it. Me? I went with trying to accumulate a breadth of experiences and knowledge during my 4 years. I had hoped they would help me identify where my interests and passions lie

Hope you have an easier time navigating the undergrad maze!

Originally published at on August 15, 2017.

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