Most people spend between 2-4 years of their earlier years studying for one or more qualifications after High School. They hope the qualification will get them in the door at a good company, with a good job, that kicks off a new life and a rewarding career. This is a long time to live with little to no income, accumulating loans that you’ll inevitably have to pay off over the course of many of your working years.
While culturally this is acceptable and the norm, a rite of passage almost to get into the world of work, when you think about it you’re placing a large bet that it will one day pay off. It’s an investment of 2-4 years! Time that could be spent in the world of work already.
I know people who left University over 12 years ago, and still don’t have a permanent or secure job. On the other hand, I know guys who never went to College or University, but are making a lot more than the average person with a tertiary education.
Do I think University or College is a waste of time? No. I think it’s how people use the time that will ultimately impact their future success – landing the job they want. Yes, everyone is placing a large bet of both time and money, but they can increase their odds of winning by making this time work for their CV.
When applying for a job, having a relevant degree or qualification will only help you pass the automated sorting algorithm that gets your CV in the hands of the companies Human Resources team. It’s not even a guarantee of an interview. Some, more progressive companies have started to look past the qualification all together and focus on the individual.
With this in mind, it’s so important that you use your time to craft a rounded CV that really demonstrates the full complement of your skills and abilities. A CV that demonstrates your personal growth over that period. If an employer sees that, they can determine whether you have the attributes to be successful in their organisation. If you CV only says “Joe Blogs, BA Honours Information Systems”, this doesn’t get you far.
How can you use your time at University or College to really create an awesome CV, that increases the chances of winning that big bet you’re making? By doing only a few things off this list and putting them on your CV in the right way, you can increase your chances of landing the job you want.
Find an Internship
Colleges and Universities provide you with ample time off between semesters, especially in the summer break. Use this time wisely. How about doing an Internship?
Why? You get on the job experience, you start building your professional network, you learn a tonne of stuff you’ll never learn on your course, you might find the career you love, or one that you’ll definitely not go back to, and you might even end up with a job offer.
There are paid and unpaid Internships out there. Bigger organisations generally create formal positions for Interns. However, if you’re struggling to get into an advertised internship, go find one. Call companies, ask if you can work with them, for free – it’ll be hard for them to say no, and if they do, then you’re probably talking to the wrong person.
I remember one summer I missed out on some advertised roles, and was disappointed. Luckily through a family member, I got in contact with a large construction firm. I went to talk to them about opportunities they had, not on site, but in their back office. They said they’d love to have me but would need to clear it with Human Resources first. Now, I was expecting to work unpaid for around a 6-8-week period. To my surprise, they came back and told me that they wanted me to start working on a graduate’s salary, pro rata for 6 weeks – an absolute win!
Small businesses are out there on mass these days. There are hundreds of new start-ups trying to churn through massive workloads with minimal staff. Reach out to them, offer your help, and I’ll bet you end up having a great experience. Either way, look for something that sounds interesting and give it a go.
Now, for my top Internship tip. You have to take ownership of the experience you’ll have, and proactively ask for interesting work.
As an Intern I spent a lot of time bored, with no real value add tasks coming my way. It wasn’t until near the end of the Internship I found an interesting project to get involved with, and I learnt a lot.
In my professional career the shoe has been on the other foot and I’ve been responsible for finding our Interns interesting work. Sometimes our Interns experiences were good, some not so good – we were sometimes too busy to find them interesting work or spend valuable time coaching our them.
It works best when both the Intern and the Manager are proactive in making the experience worthwhile. I’ve found that if the Intern is really pushing for interesting work, then the Manager will come to the table. So, don’t sit back and watch the clock. Speak up, get involved.
For your CV, this shows that you’ve had a taste of the world of work and could acclimate into an organisation faster than others. If the Internship was in the same line of work as the next job you apply to this shows you actually like the field, will be engaged and less likely to leave the company – investing in you will be worth the organisations time if you’re a known entity who already likes the work.
The Sandwich Year
Called many things e.g. “a year in Industry”, the Sandwich Year is generally something built into your degree when you sign up from the outset. However, if you don’t have a year out working scheduled, it doesn’t mean you can’t pursue one. Talk to you lecturers, course leaders, advisors. I’m sure you can defer a year of study to go and get some real-life experience.
An unpaid year out isn’t as feasible as an unpaid Internship, unless you’ve got a stack of cash to keep you going. Therefore, it’s best to look for more structured paid work. There are a number of options out there, offered on schemes by many companies – generally the large ones. Think Big 4 Accounting, Banks or Consulting as examples.
Competition for places can be tough, but not impossible to get. I’ve many friends who had a Sandwich Year scheduled as part of their degree, they all found work. If they didn’t find anything, they’d have just continued on with their studies.
Even if you don’t really know what your future career path is yet, just go and try something. You never know, you might love it. Worst case you’ll have experience for your CV. It’s better to write-off jobs you don’t want earlier rather than later in life.
What will you get from this year in work? Similar to the Interns; experience, a network, and maybe a job offer. As this is a longer period of time, you’re bound to learn more. People have found these years to be more structured than an Internship; getting more responsibility and being placed on more interesting projects as they are guaranteed to be around for longer.
As with the Internship, if you’re not getting a good experience and feel boredom creeping in, be proactive and make it happen. Talk to your boss or Manager and find that interesting piece of work to get involved with.
For your CV, employers will see that you’ve had some experience in the world of work, will be more likely to adapt quicker and will get up to speed faster than others. Depending on the type of work, you’ll be ahead in terms of relative experience – this is a huge advantage over those who haven’t been in work yet.
One of the best experiences I’ve had. Study abroad opportunities are super awesome! They are a great way to push yourself out of your comfort zone and really experience a different culture. They give an opportunity to tack on some travelling either side and between semesters. You’ll meet a bunch of interesting people, and may make some friendships that last a lifetime.
Not all higher education institutions offer Studying Abroad as an option. Therefore, this maybe something you think about when selecting an institution. Or, if your course doesn’t offer Study Abroad, but you know the University has contacts with overseas universities (e.g. other courses offer the option), go make it happen. Talk to the course leader, University admin staff, the lecturers who organise other Study Abroad opportunities or exchanges, and see if they can set it up for your course – if you were the one who created the first Study Abroad option for your course, then it would be a great CV enhancer. A close relative of mine made this happen on their course. It is possible, just be persistent and find the right person to make it work.
For your CV, an employer will see you’re adaptable, accepting of change, can embrace differences and other cultures, and not afraid of stepping outside comfort zone.
Join a Club or Society
Everyone needs to break up the hours of study by letting off some steam. What better way to do this than joining a Club or Society. Universities and Colleges generally have many different Clubs and Societies that cater for all interests. The advantage of joining a Club or Society within the University is that you can leverage student discounts, so it’s generally cheaper.
If your University or College doesn’t have something that interests you, there may be something in the town or city the institution is based. This is a great way to network more broadly, and outside of the student network.
Get this on your CV! It demonstrates skills and traits such as; networking, you’re adaptable and like to learn new skills, you like to have fun, it shows you’re outgoing and like to get involved.
Join the Executive of a Club or Society
If you’re really passionate about the Club or Society you’ve joined, then consider getting on the Executive team. Clubs and Societies generally have elections each year, or like me, if you start your own Club, then you form your own Exec – I obviously gave myself title of President pretty swiftly, and this became a talking point in interviews after I put it on my CV.
It’s a bit of an undertaking of responsibility, but a great learning experience. You work with your team to navigate the admin of being affiliated with the University or College, learn how to complete risk assessments for events, find insurance, organise the events, and raise money from the institution or elsewhere to fund your Club or Society.
For your CV, you can demonstrate leadership skills, organisational skills, teamworking, management, marketing, creativity and perhaps some entrepreneurial skills. Running a Society or Club can be like running a small business.
Start your own Club or Society
If you’re still struggling to find a Club or Society that matches your interest, then like I did, start your own.
When I was at University I was very into Kitesurfing. I couldn’t find any communities in the area, although we had some pretty good Kitesurfing spots near buy. I’d joined a Windsurfing Society as a fall back, but still wanted a group to go Kiting with. So, I just set up my own Club. I recruited some interested people from the Windsurfing Society and we put up adverts around campus for our new Club. It worked. We actually had people from the local Town find out about the new Club and get involved.
It can be hard work, but it’s very rewarding. You’ll work more closely with the University or College admin staff, other students, people for the local community and local businesses. All this time you’ll be developing a network, having fun and achieving something that may last for years and years.
Don’t do this alone. Find a good team (Exec) to work with you, spread the load, and don’t let it stress you out. Remember, have fun.
For your CV, this definitely demonstrates entrepreneurialism and creativity, skills highly sort by any organisation or prospective employer.
Organise an Event
Be it for your College, Friends, Club, Sorority, Fraternity, or whatever, this might be your first step into project management. Organise a social event, a trip, a holiday, a fundraiser. Just get involved and enjoy the experience.
It might not go that smoothly, and these things never do, but you’ll learn a lot – mostly from the things that went wrong.
If it’s fear of messing up that’s holding you back, then it shouldn’t. If you accept the fact that you’re bound to mess something up, it’ll not be a bad as you thought. What’s the worst that can happen?
Go big, go mess up, learn, and do it all over again.
For the CV, this will show you have good organisation and project management skills, or that you’re able to learn from your mistakes and get It right the second time.
Like the Internship, use the time between semesters wisely. If you can afford it, go travelling. Visit new and interesting places and meet new people. Absorb yourself in the local culture, experience the local food, drink, talk with the local people, and enjoy some freedom.
There are many places to choose from, things to do, sites to see. Travel doesn’t have to be to another country. Many people have travelled, but not many have actually travelled within their own country – which can be a much cheaper option. Just jump in the car, get on a bus, train, or plane and explore.
There are many books that talk about the benefits and pitfalls of travelling, so I’ll not go into too much detail. I’ll just clarify that I’m talking about independent travelling – by yourself, or with friends. The family holiday to the 5 star, all-inclusive beach resort is good, but doesn’t carry as much weight for the CV.
For the CV, travelling will showcase your adventurous side, show you’re not afraid to try new things, experience new places and people.
Do some charity work
I’m not talking about that time you raised the $3k entry fee for the 10km run you did two months ago – unless you were really passionate about the chosen charity and not because you wanted to take part in an organised run, then think before you put it on the CV.
One-off acts of charity are good, but if you really want to make an impression then think about more consistent charitable work or giving e.g. volunteering at the soup kitchen once a month, teaching children to read, or mentoring children on an ongoing basis. Any longer-term commitment you make e.g. building houses in Africa, is also a great way to get in touch with the realities of the world, and as a side, showcase this on your CV. Employers like people who give back.
I’m not saying work with a charity for the sake of making yourself look good. I’m saying try some charitable work, see if you get something out of it and the people value your efforts. It might open up new doors for you e.g. working for a charity full time.
On the other hand, you may be passionate about a particular charity and want to continuously work with them or fundraise for them – then that 10km run becomes more meaningful. It’s not about the 10km run, it’s about raising money for that charity, whatever the event.
If you’re collecting spare change on the street for a charity, and taking a cut of the collection, then I sometimes struggle with that. If you’re putting it on your CV, then the time you give should be at little to no cost – working full time for the charity aside of course.
For the CV, this demonstrates to the employer that you are prepared to put in the extra time to get something intangible back (other than money). It shows a more empathetic side to you, which may be valued by the organisation.
Work a part time job
A great way to earn some extra pennies to cover your mounting debt, or spend on valuable experiences such as travelling. It also breaks up the monotony of studying full time, exposes you to different people, and may help you develop skills that will transfer into the workplace.
Make the most of your part time job, ask to take on new responsibilities and challenges. Look at how you can use this experience to enhance your CV e.g. if you’re working as a bartender, perhaps ask to get involved in stock control.
If you know what it is you want to do once you graduate, then perhaps look for a part time job in that field. This is a great way to get a foot in the door and be on the lookout for opportunities once you graduate. This way the employer knows who you are and that you’ve got what it takes to do well in their organisation. You’ll definitely have the advantage over other candidates, or may even get a job offer without going through a competitive interview process.
Remember to prioritise your studying and qualification. That’s what you’re there for. Don’t mess that up. It can be an expensive and costly mistake.
Start a small business on the side
When I was at University there was an old housemate of mine that started her own Chinese takeaway business within campus accommodation. While I’m unsure if this met health and safety requirements, and wasn’t an annoyance to the other housemates sharing the kitchen, it was successful. She cooked traditional Chinese food, and had a team of three people take orders and run deliveries around campus. They split the profits.
While I’m not condoning setting up a business under the radar and dodging taxes, there are a lot of benefits from starting a small business – and it’s so easy. Anyone can spin up a website or online store in a matter of days for little cost.
While you have to be careful the business doesn’t detract from your studies, there is a lot to learn when running a business, online or otherwise. You’ll get to apply the fundamentals of business and economics, make a bit of cash, and learn new skills such as; website design, search engine optimisation, marketing, advertising, sales, and customer management, among other things.
If you’re into arts, then setting up a website can be a way to showcase your portfolio and make some sales.
For your CV, this demonstrates entrepreneurialism, practical business experience and creativity. If you hired people into your business, it’ll also demonstrate management skills.
Publish a paper
You’re studying, carrying out research, writing papers and assignments. Your course may lead to publishing a paper in due course. Even if it doesn’t, there may be no reason why you can’t publish. Perhaps going that extra mile, doing that little bit extra research, can help turn the essay into a published paper.
It’s always satisfying to have your work published, and if the topic resonates with interviewers, something great to talk about at interview.
Publishing doesn’t have to be for PhD or Masters students. Talk to lecturers, professors or the College to find out how to do it – if you’re interested.
This may not be for everyone, but is a great way to add a little extra to the CV and make the qualification you obtained stand out a little more. Think about how you can link what you’ve published to the skills or knowledge necessary for the role.
Compete for your University or College
Linked to the topics on Clubs or Societies above, getting involved in a competition is always worth experiencing.
It can get you out from under the radar and make you more prominent with your network. It’s a great way to bond with teammates or other competitors, and it’s fun.
You can always add this to your CV or use it as a talking point if the Club or Society you belonged to comes up in the interview.
Not everyone gets the opportunity to compete. Maybe what you do has no active competitions, or maybe you do what you do because you enjoy it, but aren’t quite good enough to make the comp. Where you can, put yourself out there, see how far you can go and enjoy yourself, win or lose.
Learn a new skill
I remember I had a lot of time on my hands at University, outside of boozing, sleeping and studying. While I learnt some new skills by joining a couple of martial arts clubs on campus, I also taught myself to play the guitar.
The internet is full of free information and video tutorials on all sorts of things. The hardest part is choosing something you might be interested in doing.
As part of your journey to find out what it is you like and don’t like in life, I always advise trying as many things as you can. How about taking some time to learn a few new things, some may stick, others might not. Use these experiences to figure out what it is that excites you that might turn into a job or career one day.
from a CV perspective, it’s great to list some of your more valued skills and hobbies. Talking about how you learned a new skill at University or College demonstrates that you’re a fast learner, are adaptable, and have an appetite to learn new things.
Study hard and get great grades
While all of these extra circular activities are great for enhancing the CV, and giving you the edge over other job candidates, don’t forget what your main objective is – to get your qualification.
No prospective employer wants to see that you had to repeat a year because you couldn’t prioritise what was important or got bogged down as you took on too much – employers place high value on those who can effectively balance all commitments, which includes giving up some things to focus on what really matters.
Therefore, don’t try and do everything on this list. In fact, it would be pretty impossible to do everything. I’m providing this as a list of options, a menu to select from to differentiate yourself and get the most out of your 2-4 years of being a student.
Employers will be looking to those students who obtained the higher grades in their qualification. Focus on getting the best grades you can, but remember to mix it up a little and enjoy being a student.
While it will be fantastic to experience any or many of the above, don’t treat these as a mere tick box or checklist of things.
If you’re going to tick them off, then don’t check the box until you’re satisfied that you fully experienced each one – you got something out of it and you’re proud to showcase it on your CV.
Focus on the skills you learned, traits you developed and what you can bring to a future job from the experience.
Most of all, don’t forget to eat, drink, sleep, party and have a much fun as possible.
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