Prepare Yourself To Know What You Want After College

This preparation has nothing to do with the courses you take.

Paul Ryburn, M.Sc.
Sep 22, 2020 · 7 min read
college student
college student
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

ou may come out of college being able to quote Dickens, or knowing the significance of Constantinople in world history. Those things make you well-rounded, yes; but will they prepare you for the “real world” after you graduate?

What if you pick a career path that’s not rewarding, that doesn’t use your best qualities — and you don’t figure that out until years later? Even decades?

I can relate. 19-year-old me picked a college major that was a poor career fit for 30-, 35-, 40-year-old me. I finally got out of my chosen field, but I was miserable for years, trying to fit in where I didn’t belong.

If you’re starting college, below is a plan to expose yourself to a variety of work experiences, and to learn a lot about who you are and who you can be in relation to the workplace. Best of all, you won’t have to change your coursework at all. You can do this in your summers.

Summer before freshman year: Work in an office.

This is the “default” environment in which most college students expect to end up following graduation. So you need to find out early on,

Do you actually like working in an office?

You want to find a job for this summer in a corporate environment, as close to 8 to 5 Monday to Friday as you can get. Bonus points if any of the following “perks” are part of the job:

  • A workspace in which you have almost no privacy, like a cubicle or an open office floor plan
  • A boss’s assistant who writes you up for being tardy if you walk in the door at 8:01
  • Dress code — business casual or higher in terms of formality
  • Morning and evening commutes in heavy rush hour traffic
  • Weekly staff meetings that exist for no other purpose than to have a meeting
  • The expectation that occasionally you will need to put aside whatever personal plans you have for after-hours or weekend work

You may find that you love a corporate environment, and you make valuable contacts over the summer that serve you well in the future. If so, fantastic.

However, many people graduate, get a grown-up job, discover that they hate office culture, and then they see no path out. They can either be happy and free, or be financially successful but at a job that drains all the energy out of their spirit. That previous sentence is what’s called a “limiting belief” and I discourage you from making such beliefs a part of your reality.

The reason to get some office experience early is that if you find it is not what suits you, you have four years to plan toward a less traditional work environment. You can keep that outcome in mind when you declare your major.

Summer before sophomore year: Work in sales.

My degrees and work background are in computer science. That’s a field that is constantly changing. The programming language I knew seven years ago looks nothing like the programming language that is today’s latest and greatest.

The art of persuasion, on the other hand, is a skill set that never changes much. It’s a skill set you can come back to in twenty years and pick right back up. If you have the gift of gab, if you can sell a block of ice to a penguin, you will never be without options in life.

Bonus points if the pay structure is part salary, part commission. When I was a computer programmer, if I wrote some amazing code that saved the company tens of thousands of dollars, I might be rewarded with a 4% raise. If you go out and kill it in sales, you might make 200% more commission.

Learn what it’s like to have a job where your effectiveness is measured by your performance, not your presence. Oh, by the way, you’re likely to have considerably more flexibility in your time than an office job. And if you do have to miss plans with your friends to work a Saturday, there could be considerable financial gain.

Retail sales jobs are among the easiest jobs for college students to get. Selling T-shirts or footwear to people your age is a good first dive into the pool of persuasion.

If you enjoyed your office job last summer, see if you can leverage your contacts to get a summer corporate sales internship. This could be a way to get a few years’ head start on your classmates who might one day apply to the same company.

Don’t overlook outside-the-box sales jobs that might be labeled “boring.” A friend of mine drives around all day looking for roofs in need of repair. When he finds one, he gets in touch with the owners and offers to sell them a new roof. Not only does he make a fine income, but he has almost total control over his schedule.

Summer before junior year: Volunteer.

Give yourself the gift of a lifetime by training yourself to spend time in the service of others. This will put you in contact with people from different walks of life, and help you understand that we are all one.

Not sure where to get started volunteering? Most cities have an agency that serves as a clearinghouse for volunteer opportunities. They can walk you through a checklist to help pinpoint the options that would be the most fulfilling for you, and for which you have the most to offer. They might ask you,

  • Do you like working with animals? With children? With seniors?
  • What hours and days would you prefer?
  • Do you have a vehicle that you could use as part of your volunteer work?
  • Do you possess any special skills that might be handy, like cooking skills or expertise in common computer software?
  • Are you able to lift heavy objects?
  • Do you like the outdoors?
  • Are there any particular volunteer opportunities you don’t want?

With this assessment in place, the agency should be able to match you up with a few different possible volunteer gigs in your city. Pick the one that appeals the most.

One more decision to make: Do you want to pick one type of volunteer work and stick with it all summer long? Or, would you prefer a different type of assignment every week?

Now, if you can afford to volunteer full-time for the entire summer, good for you. However, many people need an income. My suggestion is that you volunteer 8–10 hours a week. For work, find a fun job. Maybe be a lifeguard at a pool, or work at an escape room. Or, you could hook back up with your contacts in the corporate or retail world.

Summer before senior year: Work at a restaurant.

Everyone should have to work in the service industry, at least for a few months. Whether it’s hosting at a swanky fine dining establishment, serving at a diner, or barbacking at a neighborhood locals’ bar, many of the valuable takeaways will be the same:

You learn to deal with difficult people. There are some people who, no matter what you do, just can’t be pleased. You’ll encounter them all through your working years, no matter what field you land in. These people seem to eat out a lot. Accept their lecture that you should have brought additional lemon. Send the chicken back to the kitchen because it didn’t have enough gravy to please them. Graciously smile and move on to the next table.

You learn to work as a team. The kitchen manager probably isn’t going to be happy that his chicken got sent back. Develop a relationship with him, get him on your side, and things will run a lot more smoothly. Cultivate goodwill with the dishwashers, the hosts, the servers, everyone.

You learn to juggle multiple tasks at once. The other day I watched a server at a local restaurant. He took my drink order, he stopped to adjust the thermostat, he took food and drink orders for a table of 5. Then he stopped to fix the receipt printer, entered all the orders into the computer, and brought me my beverage. I don’t know how he got all that without missing a beat.

The contacts you make can be even more valuable than those you meet working in an office. Talk to your regular customers in your downtime. Get to know them on a first-name basis.

Perhaps the general manager of your local sports team will be one of your regulars, and he’ll tell you about a marketing position that should come open right around the time you graduate.

Maybe a producer at a local TV station will be a frequent customer, and you and she will have some good conversations about careers in media.

Restaurant work is always something you can fall back upon. The practice of serving food and drink never goes out of style. If you give a career a try and it proves to be not to your liking, you can always fall back to the service industry while you figure out your next move.

Let’s hear from the experts…

College Magazine, published by a nationwide network of top journalism students, released a list of the best summer jobs for college students. On the list were

  • Sales (be your own boss) — gain professionalism with a role on a marketing team
  • Sales (retail) — learn to collaborate with the customer to find a product that suits them
  • Food industry — the pay at some jobs can be quite good, and there are often employee discounts
  • Office (receptionist, administrative assistant) — great opportunity to shadow full-time staff and learn what they do
Photo by MD Duran on Unsplash

To wrap it up…

Book knowledge and a college diploma will open doors for you, but they cannot replace a deep understanding of people. Study hard during the school year, but during the summers build different “soft skills.”

Office work, sales, restaurants, and volunteer work will give you a breadth of experience by the time you graduate. You’ll be able to approach the job market from a variety of perspectives.

Thanks for reading! If you have additional thoughts on becoming a complete college graduate, leave them in the comments.

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness and fulfillment.

Paul Ryburn, M.Sc.

Written by

I write about writing, ideas, creativity, intuition, spirituality, life lessons. Ex-college teacher Twitter: @paulryburn

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness & fulfillment. Join thousands of others making the climb on Medium.

Paul Ryburn, M.Sc.

Written by

I write about writing, ideas, creativity, intuition, spirituality, life lessons. Ex-college teacher Twitter: @paulryburn

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness & fulfillment. Join thousands of others making the climb on Medium.

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