Advice to College Students on the Path to a Fulfilling Career

September 10, 2018

There can be a lot of conflicting information about how to spend your time as a college student. The job market out of school is tricky and universities definitely haven’t figured it out. As someone who has A) spent a lot of time working in the college recruiting / placement space (including doing some hiring myself) and B) achieved an outlier outcome in the job markets relative to peers at my school, below is what I’ve done right + what I wish I would’ve done that could’ve helped me even more.

This advice is particular for students interested in business. What I mean by business is quite broad: anything that doesn’t fall into government work, medicine, law or academic research. Basically, if you are applying to jobs at companies instead of at government institutions or universities, these principles will apply. I packaged my advice into two categories: taking classes seriously and deciding what to study.

Take Classes Seriously

Give 100% effort and stop worrying about grades. The biggest thing I struggled with was not usually how to get to an ‘A’ if I gave full effort, but if I should give the full effort if 50% could get me an ‘A-‘ or ‘B+’. I think this is common for students.

Don’t think of anything in terms of GPA or grades, only in terms of learning. The only thing that matters is if you understand the material – then you can speak to what you know instead of the credential you earned. If two candidates took the same class and the first one got an ‘A’ but the second one could explain the concepts of the class better, I would hire the second candidate 10 times out of 10.

The correlation between how smart you really are and your GPA is weak and getting weaker. The smartest people I know aren’t necessarily the ones with high GPAs. Some are, but some aren’t. And with rapid dramatic grade inflation ramping up since the 1980’s, GPA is becoming less and less relevant.

An added bonus if you focus on learning the material is that an ‘A’ will likely follow. It’s the motivation that you must change. The funny part is so few people have this mentality that if you apply it properly you can both understand the material and grab the credential along the way.

Immerse yourself in the material. Read. Your. Textbooks. They are a phenomenal way to learn. Read other books about the subject. Listen to podcasts about the subject. Read book reviews and articles about the subject. One of the most satisfying experiences is fully diving into your chosen subject and becoming an expert on it.

The more ways you can present the material to yourself, the more likely one will resonate with you. I do this with topics I’m currently interested in. For example, I wanted to learn more about the entire experience of wine tasting, so I am studying for a WSET guided tasting and exam, reading a book about the science of wine tasting, consistently listening to podcasts on wine and take detailed notes on each wine I taste. With this information hitting me from all angles, it allows me to always be synthesizing ideas about wine and what each resource brings to the table.

Another benefit is that podcasts and popular books have a lower entry point then textbooks, but still help with understanding. Eventually you must get used to reading primary sources, but as you are getting comfortable with the topic it can help to read secondary analysis if it helps break down that barrier (keep in mind you must always source primary source material).

Use your own methods to understand the topic. I’m not going to discredit universities too much here, but there are ways that you can hack the system to learn more. Professors are very knowledgeable in their fields – use that to your advantage by studying how to study so that you get the most out of this great resource.

For rote memorization, use the spaced repetition system. For problem-based classes, work through problems over and over until you can do them cold. For theoretical / literature classes, internalize the key points of the lecture in your head then write down the key points. At all stages, use the Feynman technique to check yourself.

If you are looking for further resources, there are many people who have written about succeeding in classes or learning outside the traditional means.

What to Study (hint: not business)

The best advice I can give is to major something in that interests you, then work your ass off outside of school to develop the skills you need for the job you want (with the caveat that an engineering major going into engineering field does this at the same time). School is structured very well for topics outside the business world – take advantage of this. The reason I got my job wasn’t because I majored in finance. It was because I had the skills and network for the job (and could market them), both of which I developed from things outside the classroom.

Learn business outside the classroom. The difference is staggering between someone taking a class on a business topic and someone going out and hustling in the real world. Marketing is the best example: I’m going to prefer someone who has proven their ability to go and get traffic / customers compared to someone who has taken a marketing class on it.

The disconnect is that universities think business can be taught like STEM. First, business changes faster than STEM, so sticking to a legacy curriculum is much harder in business. Social media, a key marketing driver, didn’t even exist 15 years ago. However, the principles from 80 years ago develop by Einstein, Heisenberg and Schrödinger still form the foundation of physics (and those are some of the newest things).

Second, and more importantly. practice problems don’t work in business the way they do in STEM. The business equivalent of a math student working through multivariable calculus problems isn’t working through theoretical business problems. It’s closing enterprise sales. It’s designing a product people buy. It’s developing cost-cutting strategies. The difference is in math the theoretical is the job, but in business the practical is the job. The proof in being good at marketing is getting customers; the proof in being good at math is doing math problems. It seems obvious, but if you want to get good at something you have to actually do it.

Mentors cannot be underestimated in this process. Getting in a situation where you have real responsibility under someone who is very good at what they do is essential. Startups are a great place to find this, but you can also find unique opportunities at larger companies in some cases.

Your major ≠ Your job. This isn’t ground-breaking advice, but I don’t know if people really understand it. Learn business outside the classroom (accounting may be the exception). Learn other topics in the classroom.

Universities are great at teaching technical subjects. Universities are also great at teaching subjects in the humanities. Use this resource as much as you can – being outside of school it’s now considerably harder to teach myself mathematics or have a guided philosophical discussion. These are insanely cool things to learn, take advantage of what’s available to you.

When choosing a major, STEM is a safe bet no matter which career you choose, but don’t discount the liberal arts if they catch your interest. The stereotypical art history major working at Starbucks has a misguided reputation for not being attractive to the job market after they graduate. However, a recent study has shown that business majors are now the ones most underemployed. While only one study, it’s important to remember that if you work hard you can get the job you want, and if you don’t you won’t. A major isn’t going to save you from that reality.

Network to showcase your skills and understand what to pursue. It continues to amaze me how few people use this tactic to get a job. It’s very common in my industry and it is effective everywhere if used properly. Reach out to people doing the job you might want to do and ask them about it. I can’t emphasize enough how much of an advantage you have as a student in getting responses from people – it feels great from the other side helping out a hungry student. This way you can learn about what it takes to get the job and if you actually might like it.

This is also the best way to get around the “major = job” issue. An easy hiring preference for me is if two candidates have similar skills but one studied history or math and can talk thoughtfully about it. It gives another perspective on the job, perhaps leading to better results and innovation. Plus it just makes you more interesting. The way to close this perceived gap of major = job if your major isn’t in your field is to prove you worth through a portfolio or through talking to people (or both). You must market yourself. Put your name out in the industry and prove to people that studying something outside your field can give you a better perspective, and that you were willing to hustle outside the classroom to learn the skills anyway.

Higher education is not only about preparation for the job market. William Deresiewicz has a great quote from his book Excellent Sheep about this:

“It is precisely because you do have an interest in your students’ long-term well-fare that you don’t give them what they want. You question them. And the thing you question them about the most is what they want. ‘Teaching,’ said Socrates, ‘is the re-education of desire.’”

Between the societal pressure and exuberant costs, it’s easy to look at a college education strictly as preparation for a job. But as much as it is preparation, it is also exploration. The motivation for taking humanities classes is to help you understand what you want to do as a human. Don’t just take these classes, take them seriously. The really important questions in life aren’t about where you work, they’re about how you’re living.

Philosophy is a good place to start. It has a bad reputation for people talking in circles about minutiae that doesn’t matter, but it started off as searching for practical answers to the question of, “how should I live my life?” History is another good place to spend time. Push back on opinions and discuss these things with people who seem satisfied with their lives. None of the other stuff matters, none of it, unless you are content with how you are living your life. Spend time thinking about this stuff.

Last Thoughts

There’s a lot going on in college. I always struggled with the line “don’t forget why you came to college: to get an education,” because I didn’t think of my university as top tier for my field. In reality, the only thing holding you back is you. You don’t need to go to M.I.T. to be a top computer scientist, you need to be a top computer scientist to be a top computer scientist.

My favorite part about much of what I wrote in this article is it applies to any point in your life. Considering a career change? Find a mentor and apply the Feynman technique to learn the skills. Want to learn about a new topic as a hobby? Dive in the material through books, podcasts and reviews (and maybe even a textbook or two). Each day is a new opportunity to live the exact life you want.

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