After pouring four years of your life and thousands of dollars into your college education, you’ll want to make sure you get the most out of your experience. In many ways, your college education is an investment in yourself, and you want to get the greatest possible return.
So how can you make the most of your college experience and set yourself up for future success? These seven tips will help:
1. Make use of your career services office
2. Attend job fairs and shadow alumni
3. Put time into building your network
4. Seek out an internship
5. Apply to scholarships all four years
6. Start paying back your student loans quickly
7. Reflect on your goals and progress toward them
And even if you have no idea what you want to do after graduation, it’s still worth a visit to career services. This office can help you identify your interests, pinpoint your strengths and brainstorm ideas for future careers.
With this assistance, you can narrow down your options and design a course of study that will help you achieve your professional goals.
Once you’ve gotten your resume and other application materials ready with the help of career services, put them to the test at college job fairs.
“If a college offers job fairs, students need to attend them,” said Kent Ingle, a doctorate of ministry and the president of Southeastern University. “This is the perfect place to ‘visit’ different companies all in one location.”
You might make a connection that could lead to a job after graduation. Along with attending school job fairs, you could also jumpstart your career by connecting with alumni and setting up informational interviews or — if they’re open to it — even shadowing them for a day at work.
“A lot of alumni are willing to give back to their alma mater through their time,” said Ingle. “Think of it this way: They have walked the path many current students do, and they can share so many valuable tips on how to prepare students for the field they want to be in.”
Reach out to your student services or alumni office to find out if you can connect with alumni to learn about career options.
College is a unique situation where you have access to a huge group of peers, not to mention professors and mentors. Growing your network can help you learn from others and connect with new opportunities, both while you’re in college and after you graduate.
Financial coach James Pollard says his first piece of advice to college students is to invest in growing their network, a move that he believes can boost your future earnings.
“There’s an old saying that your network is your net worth — it’s more true than not,” said Pollard. “You never know who someone knows and how that person can help you in the future.”
By forging meaningful connections with people around you, you can not only make friends, but also widen your circle and potentially learn about job opportunities in the years to come.
By working an internship during college, you can gain real-world experience and make a valuable addition to your resume. The company you intern with might even end up hiring you after you graduate.
“Internships are the perfect opportunities to figure out exactly what a student wants to do in the future,” said Ingle. “It gives the student an inside look at future careers and can help the student evaluate whether or not a job or company is a good fit. Internships help students build career knowledge, network with people in a desired field of work and add work experience to a resume.”
That said, not every student can afford to work an unpaid internship, especially if they’re already working part-time during college to make money. If you can’t afford to work unpaid, search for paid internship opportunities, or at least make sure the ones you find will give you college credit.
While you might have applied to scholarships before starting college, it’s easy to lose momentum once school is underway. But you don’t have to be a high schooler to snag scholarship money; instead, you can apply for funding all four years.
“Even if a student applied for scholarships before he or she started college, it’s important that he or she continues to look for others while still in school,” said Ingle. “As a student pursues his or her degree, new scholarships and grants can become available due to the certain field he or she is studying.”
Use scholarship search tools to find opportunities, and ask around with your peers, financial aid office or major department. If you’re able to win scholarship money, you can borrow less in student loans and ease the burden of debt after graduation.
That said, find out whether your school practices scholarship displacement. If your school might take away grants because you won a scholarship, the award might not be worth as much.
Although you typically don’t have to pay back your student loans until your grace period ends (usually six months after graduation), getting a headstart on repayment could ease the burden on your future finances.
“Pay your student loan debt down in college,” advised Pollard. “Your unsubsidized loans accrue interest while you are in school. This means if you can pay them down, you will avoid paying the money in interest.”
Unless you have subsidized loans, your debt will be quietly growing the entire time you’re in college. But if you can swing small or interest-only payments as a student, you might not have to face a bigger balance than you borrowed when you eventually start repayment.
College is a time of enormous personal and professional growth, so make sure to step back and reflect on your goals from time to time. Even if you’re still exploring majors and careers, setting goals will help keep you motivated and on track for graduation.
“Students should also take the time to reflect as they go through college,” said F. J. Talley, a long-time academic and administrator, currently working at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. “Asking themselves what they learned from a challenging semester or how they would like to redirect their course through college as they mature is another way to strengthen their success mindset.”
This kind of self-reflection can be especially useful as graduation approaches.
“Since many students start reflecting in April of their senior year, those students who begin that kind of introspection are the ones who find themselves with the widest range of career and graduate school opportunities before they receive their bachelor’s degrees,” Talley said.
Make the most of your college experience
While everyone’s college experience will look different, these tips can help you get the most out of your time at school. Don’t ignore the services your college offers to help you grow your network, explore careers or find scholarship awards. By making use of these resources, you can set yourself up for success in college and beyond.