Six Things College Students Can Do to Kick Off a Career in Communications
I was just admitted to the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. But before I received the decision, I had to wait two months.
How does it feel to wait? Do you get a few butterflies, or full-on sick to your stomach? Are you excited? Anxious? Do you even want the waiting to end, because rejection would feel worse?
Every college student knows that waiting is a nerve-wracking experience, whether they are waiting to be accepted by the university itself, waiting for a decision on an internship application or waiting for a grade on a big course project.
Difficult as waiting is, I’ve decided that a waiting period doesn’t necessarily have to be empty space. I was completely free and ready to pursue my passion in communications — with or without a decision from the School of Journalism and Mass Communication — so I did.
I applied for a public relations internship, started writing more to develop my skills and interviewed communications professionals to uncover the keys of their successes. That’s how I got started, and I’ve been adding to the list of tips and tricks as I gain experience.
As a public relations intern at Pocket Hercules, a Minneapolis-based advertising and public relations firm (yes, I got the internship), I have discovered six ways to kick off a career in communications. While I cannot yet speak for how effective these tips are, I have been exploring these techniques at the recommendation of communications professionals with years of experience in nonprofit, government and PR work.
From why you should apply for internships to what you should wear on the first day of a job, maybe these observations will help you kick-start your own career in communications, or another field, such as finance or IT. I hope you find the same inspiration in these pieces of advice as I have.
1. Start a LinkedIn page
LinkedIn is a great way to track your career and communicate with your peers and potential employers. Having a LinkedIn page also demonstrates that you understand the importance of professional networking and using technology to connect with others in the rapidly changing world of communications.
Starting a profile is free, so all you need is a compelling description and a headshot. Then, you can start connecting with your peers and potential employers.
LinkedIn only shows three lines of your description, meaning that an employer will need to click on the “Show more” button to read the rest. They won’t spend very long looking at your account, so you need to make those first three lines really count. When writing a description, ask yourself:
- What motivates me?
- What am I passionate about?
- What can I offer that another journalism student might not?
For your headshot, recruit a friend to snap a photo of you looking nice from the shoulders-up. No selfies, and no high school senior pictures of you sitting on the ground in a field.
After uploading a photo and writing a description, add people! Peers, colleagues and former bosses can connect you with new opportunities, so use LinkedIn as a tool to maintain those relationships and communicate in the future.
2. Apply for PR, marketing or writing internships
As a freshman, I was very intimidated by the idea of getting an internship for the summer. I didn’t think that I had the qualifications or the skills to succeed as an intern, having only taken a few college communications classes. I was actually planning on trying to find a job in retail before my uncle suggested that I apply for a public relations internship offered by his company.
After a few weeks working as a public relations intern, I can honestly say that it is not as intimidating as I expected. I have learned so much from working around people doing exactly what I imagine myself doing in the future. That’s the point — to learn and get real-world experience. Interns are not yet experts in their fields, and they aren’t expected to be.
Apply for an internship, even if you’re worried that you aren’t qualified or won’t do a good job. You may be surprised by the results.
3. Invest in a pair of dress pants
I work in a creative space, meaning that everyone in my office is writing, designing ads and websites, or shooting and editing videos. Here, a suit and tie would be out of place, but someone who had never been to the office before might not know that.
I hadn’t interviewed for the job at the company’s office, so I was going in blind on my first day. I didn’t know any of my coworkers yet. I didn’t know what my building even looked like and I didn’t know how I was supposed to dress. The firm’s employee handbook told me to “use my best judgment” when it came to clothing — but what exactly does that mean?
I went with a pair of black dress pants and a striped button-up shirt for my first day, and quickly figured out that plain black pants will never do you wrong. I didn’t stick out in the creative atmosphere of the office, and I could meet my coworkers and learn about my job without feeling self-conscious about how I looked.
I promise you won’t regret purchasing a pair of your own black dress pants. They don’t have to be Armani or match with a tailored blazer. Mine were $24 at a consignment store. They are black, ankle-length and I could wear them to any office in the world.
I am coming from a female perspective with this tip, but the same thing goes for guys. Anyone can benefit from a nice pair of pants and an unwrinkled shirt.
4. Follow blogs and Instagram accounts that inspire and teach
Blogs and social media give us a look into someone else’s life. They tell the story of how a person got to where they are now, and how they continue to succeed. They show us how effective communication happens and help us stay on top of trends. And while every path to success is different, learning from someone else’s experiences and expertise can be a valuable tool.
I follow Stephen Dupont’s blog. He is the same uncle who recommended I apply for the PR internship, and he turned out to be my boss at the firm. He’s the vice president of PR and branded content at the company, and has taught me a lot about professional communications over the past two months. He shares tips on building a personal brand and motivational insights on advancing a career in communications.
His blog has inspired me to examine my career goals and how I approach my education. His writing style is unique and he provides valuable pieces of wisdom for young people without playing into Millennial stereotypes and criticisms.
I also follow a handful of other writers, influencers and public figures on Instagram. Their posts motivate me to take inventory of my own life and reexamine my creative process. Every day, I am inspired by social media posts to produce more refined content and work to become the professional, as well as the person, I hope to be one day.
Chances are that you already follow a few celebrities and influencers, but I would encourage you to find a few more accounts that inspire not only your lifestyle, but also your career. On Instagram, I follow @dariadaria, a sustainable fashion and lifestyle blogger, @bymariandrew, a writer and illustrator, and @emmawatson, an actress and human rights activist.
Keep in mind, though, that blogs and Instagram accounts only show us what someone else wants us to see. We need to consciously maintain healthy boundaries between the words and images posted to the Internet and a much less gorgeous reality.
5. Ask a lot of questions
I really want to stress that questions are absolutely critical to success in any class, internship or job. On my first day as an intern, I had to ask how to fill in my timesheet and scan documents correctly. Even after a few weeks on the job, I asked my boss if he said “fifteen” or “fifty” when he asked me to write fifty social media posts for a client.
Understanding the details of a story or assignment matters in communications, and nobody just knows everything. Asking questions will keep you from having to rewrite an entire article, and staying on top of details can open doors to new opportunities and jobs in the future. So if you have a question, just ask.
6. Interview the experts in your chosen field
I’m sharing pieces of wisdom I took away from interactions and interviews with five senior-level communications professionals over the course of my summer internship. In the spirit of asking questions, the reason I am able to offer all of this advice is because I took the time to schedule each meeting, and asked communications experts how they found success.
If you don’t know who to ask for an interview, reach out to your professors, your boss, your coworkers at an internship, your parents or your parents’ friends.
Find those individuals you look up to, and email them. Then, introduce yourself, tell them why you’re reaching out and find a time to speak with them. Meet at a café (make sure that you pay for their coffee), talk to them over the phone or meet them at their office so you can take in the professional atmosphere.
You have everything to gain from learning about how someone acquired the job that you may want someday, and you will discover career options you didn’t know existed.
These tips may be somewhat scattered — I discussed Instagram and internships in the same article — but I have come to understand their value and look forward to seeing how they influence my career in the future.
As happy as I am to have been admitted to the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, I don’t think of it as a sign that I’m meant to be a writer. For me, waiting for a decision and my eventual acceptance felt like a part of the overall process in building a career in communications and improving my writing skills.
I got all of this advice from communications professionals, and I decided to follow it while I waited for a decision from the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Because I was focused on getting my career started outside of the classroom, I almost didn’t feel like I was waiting at all.
With that in mind, I encourage communications students to incorporate at least one of these tips into their lives. Don’t wait for a professor or a school to tell you that you’re ready to kick-start a career — get the process rolling on your own.