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  • Writer's pictureKenneth Flakes, PE

Take Advantage of These Opportunities During College to Prepare Yourself for Future Career Success

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High academic achievement is important in college because it helps prepare students for their future careers. Although technical skills gained from academic study are important, there are noncognitive skills not often taught in college that are equally important for professional success. For example, many college students graduate without any personal or professional development. Some graduate without any exposure to culturally diverse environments. Other college graduates have no understanding of the importance of networking for career advancement. Below are five opportunities that every student should consider in college if he or she wants to better prepare for a successful career.

Student Organizations

Active membership in a student organization can help students gain important personal and professional development skills. Participating in an on-campus student organization will benefit college graduates in the workplace by helping them develop in the following areas:

  • Leadership

  • Collaboration and Teamwork

  • Time Management

  • Organization and Multitasking

  • Negotiation and Persuasion

  • Money Management

  • Public Speaking

  • Networking

Additionally, according to a Gallup study of 30,000 college graduates across the United States, college graduates who were extremely active in extracurricular activities and organizations while in college were 1.8 times more engaged than their peers who were not active while in college.

Make it happen

Most universities have an online registry of student organizations on campus. Go online and identify a few organizations that you may be interested in. For example, consider student organizations related to your major. Next, research the organizations online and narrow down your list. After you have narrowed down your list, attend a few meetings for each organization and ask student leaders what kind of leadership opportunities exist. Ask each organization what its mission statement is and how the organization fulfills its mission. Ask about opportunities for networking, professional development, and community involvement. Finally, take some time to consider each group and then decide which one or ones will allow you to grow the most, apply for membership, and become active.

If you are adventurous, and you are having trouble finding an active organization that you like on campus, check to see if there is a dormant organization of interest that can be reactivated. Alternatively, you could start your own group with some friends who have similar interests. Creating a group from scratch or re-establishing a group can be a tremendous amount of work, but you will almost be assured to acquire the personal and professional development skills that you won’t receive with academic study alone.

Bonus Tip: In the interview process, activity in a student organization will distinguish you from other students who have similar academic scores, but who are not active within student organizations.

Undergraduate Professional Experience

Most employers are looking for college graduates that have some level of work experience. Internship positions are great because they allow a student to gain work experience and apply academic learning in a professional environment. Interns also gain valuable experience working with various professionals and are exposed to workplace etiquette and culture. Because students get early exposure to working in their field of study, internships are a very good predictor of your future engagement. Gallup’s research reports that “the odds of being engaged at work are two times higher if a college graduate had an internship or job that allowed them to apply what they learned in the classroom” (p. 10).

Cooperative education, also known as co-op, also provides excellent opportunities to help prepare young professionals to transition from college to work. Co-ops offer more extensive work experiences than internships because they can last up to a year in length. This allows co-ops to make a greater impact on the company, unlike most internships. Gallup’s research finds that “the odds of being engaged at work are 1.8 times higher if a college graduate worked on a project that took a semester or more to complete” (p. 10).

If a co-op is not an option, consider participating in undergraduate research. Undergraduate research can allow students to explore career opportunities. Additionally, undergraduate research allows students to develop problem-solving skills and prepare students for defending their work, both of which are important in the workplace.

Make it happen

Start early! It is not uncommon for underclassmen to get internships and co-ops, and the more professional experiences in college the better. Also, speak with your professors and find out what kind of undergraduate research opportunities exist.

Utilize your university career services center to get help creating a resume and updating your LinkedIn profile. Make sure that you take a professional-quality headshot for your LinkedIn profile. Then identify companies that you are interested in. Visit the company websites online and interact with the companies on LinkedIn. If possible, contact companies directly and see if they offer internships or co-ops. Ask the companies if they will be conducting any recruiting on campus during the semester.

Next, get some business attire and attend your university or college career fair. If your student professional organization has a regional or national career fair, plan to attend those career fairs, too. If you get invited for an interview, practice your interview skills. Once you have finished your interview, make sure to follow up with the company with a thank you letter or email.

Bonus Tip: Gallup’s research indicates that if a college graduate experienced an internship, was involved in student organizations, and participated in a semester project, the graduate was 2.4 times more likely to be engaged at work (p. 10).

Foreign Language

The business place has become increasingly more global, and language is the key to communicating with teams and customers across the world. As a result, learning a foreign language could greatly help students in their future careers.

Unsurprisingly, many leaders at the top of organizations across the world speak more than their native language. A Korn/Ferry International poll reports that 31% of executives speak two languages. An additional 20% speak three languages, 9% speak four languages, and as many as 4% speak more than four languages (see Note 1 at the bottom).

Also, there is a study published in Psychological Science that found that decisions made in a second language are more analytical than identical decisions made in one’s native language. Additionally, research conducted by the National Institute of Health concluded that bilingual individuals have a greater ability to multitask than monolingual individuals.

Learning a foreign language can be difficult for most and is not for everyone, however, but if you have the capability and discipline to learn a foreign language, it could give you an advantage over your monolingual colleagues in the areas of multitasking and decision-making.

Make it happen

First, evaluate the career that you intend to pursue. What region of the world may your career take you? Who will your audience, customers, and colleagues be? What languages do they speak and conduct business in?

Consider: China is an emerging global power. Over a billion people speak one of the Chinese languages with Mandarin being the most popular Chinese language. Although Chinese languages are difficult to learn, this may be a wise choice to consider. Spanish is the second most spoken language by the number of native speakers and is also a wise choice to consider.

Finally, speak with your academic advisor. Once you’ve determined that you will pursue a foreign language, decide if you are only taking a few classes, or if you will declare a minor or double major.

Bonus Tip: If you don’t want to spend time learning a foreign language in an academic setting consider joining an ethnic organization on campus and immerse yourself in their language or find a friend willing to help you learn the language. Another option is that there are several language learning apps such as Duolingo, Babbel, Rosetta Stone, and others. Each app has its strengths, but know that learning language apps are limited compared to instructor-led language study.

Overseas Study

The workplace is more culturally diverse than ever due to changing demographics within the country. For this reason, students must be better prepared to work in these diverse environments. An overseas study provides students an excellent opportunity to gain an appreciation for new cultures and adapt to an unfamiliar environment. This will benefit students greatly in the workplace. An overseas study also presents students with opportunities to learn a new language and grow their global network.

Many of the leaders within organizations have studied overseas, too. A 2017 study investigating the academic backgrounds of the CEOs of the world’s largest companies conducted by study choice portal Study.Eu revealed that “32% of the world’s top CEOs---- spent part of their university studies abroad, strongly exceeding the general average of around 6%”. As a result, it would be wise for any student who aspires to be an executive someday to study overseas.

Make it happen

If you are a current college student, talk to your academic advisors and see if a foreign exchange or study abroad program exists at your college. Also, ask your academic advisors if there are any scholarships or grants available for studying overseas.

Some school departments have faculty-led abroad opportunities. If a formal exchange or overseas study is not an option, explore a faculty-led opportunity.

If you can financially afford not to work for a year, consider taking a gap year after high school or after college and travel abroad.

Bonus Tip: Studying overseas in college could help better position yourself for an overseas assignment as a professional.

Sports & Leisure Activities

Golf and Tennis

If a professional wants to know a client better, create new business, or expand their network, then golf is imperative. In fact, the networking potential of golf cannot be overstated. According to data compiled by Syracuse University’s online MBA Program:

  • 90% of Fortune 500 CEOs play golf.

  • CEOs who regularly play golf are paid 17% more on average than those who do not.

  • In a survey of business professionals who play golf, 50% agree that the way a person plays is very similar to how he or she conducts business.

  • 54% see golf as the perfect networking tool.

  • 80% agree that playing golf aids in establishing new business contacts.

  • 93% say playing golf with a business associate is a good way to establish a closer relationship.

Although tennis may not be quite as popular as golf in the business world, there are still many opportunities to network via tennis. Tennis is also a great alternative to golf because it takes less time to play so it can be played both after work and on the weekends. Golf, however, is typically a weekend activity unless you can get out of the office for a day. Another benefit of tennis is that unless you’re playing doubles, it’s just you against the person you’re trying to network with.

Make it happen

If you are a beginner, first learn the rules of the sport. There are lots of books and videos online where you can learn the basic rules.

Next, invest in some affordable equipment. Golf clearly requires more equipment than tennis to play. Check out Amazon and golf outlet stores for deals. Don’t be afraid to buy preowned equipment. Depending upon how frequently you play, consider renting equipment.

Now, take some lessons. If you cannot afford lessons, then find a friend who is willing to give you some simple instructions. For golf, practice at your local driving range. Some universities have a physical education requirement, so you should check to see if your university offers golf or tennis as an elective. Most colleges have intramural golf and tennis leagues. These intramural leagues are often paid for by student fees and could provide yet another opportunity to learn to play with other students.

For even more information about golf for beginners, Golf Digest provides a lot of advice.

Golf Note: Remain patient. It takes time to become good at golf. You don’t have to play like Tiger Woods to benefit from golf. Focus on the basics and be committed to growing your skill and you will fit right in with your peers at work who golf.

Lastly, some universities have a club golf team affiliated with the National Collegiate Club Golf Association (NCCGA). Also, some universities offer club tennis through the United States Tennis Association’s (USTA) Tennis on Campus program. Club sports are organized competitions against students at other schools. Club sports are more competitive than intramural golf and offer opportunities to play in regional and national tournaments. If you are a more experienced golfer or tennis player, try out for the club teams at your university.

Hunting, Angling, and Shooting

Leisure activities such as hunting, and fishing (angling) are common networking activities in the business world. Rifling and shotgun sports such as clay, trap, double trap, and skeet shooting are popular. Firing a pistol at the shooting range is also a common networking activity. So, if want to build relationships, it could be wise to learn the basics of these leisure activities and shooting sports.

Make it happen:

Check to see if you need a state license for the outdoor activity. Check to see if your school offers fishing and shooting classes or find a group of friends or classmates that do these leisure activities and join them. Many colleges have recreational teams for hunters, fishers, and shotgunners. Those with advanced abilities should consider trying out for their club sports team or college NCAA team.


College is a great time to learn and try new things, but don’t feel pressured to have to pursue all five of the suggested opportunities. It is best to choose only activities that you are genuinely interested in. Do know, however, that if you explore maybe three of the five opportunities above, you will be more likely to be engaged in your future career and increase your ability to network. High technical skills, high engagement, and networking will help prepare you for a long prosperous career.

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Note 1: The Korn/Ferry International poll results are widely quoted on the internet, but the results could not be found on the Korn/Ferry website.

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