7 tips for first-year college students

In years past, I might have hesitated to advise students on how to manage their college careers. That’s the purview of academic advisers and department heads, not a careers columnist.

But I’ve met with enough recent graduates to realize that many feel a disconnect between their college experience and their preparedness for the next stage of their lives.

And no, I am not talking about the mismatch between one’s field of study and the actual job market. I do not believe one’s major has much to do with vocational or economic success. I’ve met highly successful history majors and completely unemployed holders of science degrees.

With that in mind, here are tips to help first-year students get more from their college experience while also laying the groundwork for a successful launch into the work world later.

1. Unless you’re in a vocational program, don’t treat college like a vocational experience. Vocational programs are designed to train you for immediate employment. Think: trades, health care delivery, sales, and even law school and medical school.

Liberal arts degrees, on the other hand, are designed to deliver … liberal arts. Here you learn about the traditions that form our society, and how to reason and express yourself. Those are all things that can and will be applied to any work you do, but they are not in themselves vocational training.

2. Try some offbeat classes. College is expensive, so I’m not suggesting you choose classes using a dartboard. But since I know plenty of people who selected each course with the utmost care and still couldn’t find work later, I tend to disregard this approach. Instead, I’ve learned from my midcareer clients that sometimes it was the oddball class that inspired their most rewarding career experience.

3. Introduce yourself to your instructors. If you’re on a small campus, that may come naturally. But in a large school, your first-year classes might be huge. Introducing yourself to the professor is not only respectful, it’s also strategic. You’ll feel more connected and more comfortable; you’ll also be one of the few students the professor knows, making it easier to recommend you when an outside employer asks for job candidates.

4. Go for B’s. If you feel relatively certain that you’ll attend graduate school, it might make sense to go for a 4.0. Otherwise? Forget the idea that employers make their decisions based on GPA. The advantage in shooting for B’s is that you free yourself to take harder classes, and to participate in extracurricular activities. Those are things that employers value and, coincidentally, they’ll make you happier and more well-rounded.

5. Socialize. Even disregarding the question of emotional health, consider this reason for meeting more people: Most jobs are gotten through knowing somebody.

6. Build your soft skills. Take speech and persuasive writing and sales, even if you’re majoring in technology. Especially if you’re majoring in technology. Employers in all fields are clear: They want people who can communicate, solve problems, take criticism and think on their own.

7. Work. If you don’t need the money, then volunteer in something that sharpens judgment and communication skills. Otherwise, take a job by second semester, even if it’s only a few hours a week. One reason is to impress future employers, but the real reason is because it’s part of your education. Nothing teaches us to work like work — this is how we learn everything from being punctual to handling setbacks to discovering what bosses really want from their employees.

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Amy Lindgren owns Prototype Career Service, a career consulting firm in St. Paul, Minn. She can be reached at alindgren@prototypecareerservice.com or at 626 Armstrong Ave., St. Paul, MN 55102.