Back-to-school time isn’t just about your coursework. It’s also about your future.

With that in mind, here are eight steps you can take at the beginning of the college year to lay the groundwork for your career. Follow them and you may just do justice to the amount of time you spend sitting in a classroom.

1. Don’t stress about your major.
College teaches you how to think. If you’re good at thinking and learning in any given subject, you’ll be prepared to do the same in the workforce. You won’t be an expert at anything after college — that’s what grad school is for. So just pick a major and get decent grades.

Also realize that you’re going to change careers at least three times in your life anyway, so having a major that’s relevant to all your future careers is virtually impossible.

2. Recognize that law school can be a crutch.
It’s scary to be a good writer and good thinker and have no idea what you’re going to do with your life. But that isn’t necessarily a sign that you need to go to law school.

A huge number of people go to law school for misguided reasons, so be sure you know precisely what you want to do with your career before pursuing that JD. Otherwise, the loans you’ll have taken to get it will make your second thoughts about being a lawyer a first-class financial disaster.

3. Help your parents organize their network.
Sure, everyone tells you to network in order to get a great job, but who are you going to network with? Your fraternity brothers? Of course not.

Their parents, however, are a different story. Everyone’s parents have friends, and the charm of the baby boomers is that they want to be involved in every little aspect of their kids’ lives. So get your parents to put all their contacts into a tool like LinkedIn. That way, you can go through the list and systematically network for your own benefit.

4. Join the cheerleading squad. Really.
Cheerleaders are great salespeople. It’s probably self-selecting — after all, introverts don’t run onto the football field at halftime and jump around.

But when companies recruit at colleges, they often cater to cheerleaders in the same way that they cater to athletes. Both types are high-performers in the workplace, so join a team to do well in your career — and, yes, the cheerleading squad counts as a team.

5. Make time to read “Getting Things Done.”

True, you won’t get graded on this assignment in school. But you will in life.

The way to reach your goals is to keep yourself working productively toward them. Productivity is a skill, and in the adult world you’ll be competing with the samurais of productivity, so get started on building your skills by reading David Allen’s “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity.”

6. Learn your strengths.

One of the best ways to find meaningful, fulfilling work is to understand what your strengths are. There’s no single job that’s right for you, but there is a single type of job — the type that allows you to be your best self by leveraging your best traits.

So use college to discover your strengths and practice applying them consciously. That way, when it’s time, matching them to a job will be second nature to you.

7. Take a class in positive psychology.

The best way to make a happy career for yourself is to know what really makes you happy. And here’s a newsflash — it probably isn’t your career itself, but the general level of optimism you have.

This is what you’ll learn in a positive psychology class. If one is available at your college, it’ll provide you with the basis for defending your decisions to your parents about things like taking time off to travel, getting bad grades so you can start a business in your dorm room, and following your girlfriend to Idaho instead of going to grad school.

8. Learn to be vulnerable.

When your career demands that you lead, or inspire, or even just connect with the people around you, the best way to do so is to show your vulnerabilities. Not all of them, and certainly not the most pathetic ones. But some.

Because the only way to connect with people for real is to open yourself up a bit. Don’t be the big man or woman on campus — be someone who’s approachable and authentic.

It’s not easy. First you have to know something about who you truly are, and then you have to project that true self to others. This is the hardest thing to learn in life, so start in college and you won’t be lost later in life.

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18 replies
  1. Joe Blogger
    Joe Blogger says:

    Forgot one: Don’t forget to experiment

    When I went to college, my idea of college was ‘pick a major – stick with it’, which is what I did. I happened to like my major, so it worked out. I was forced by my university to take other classes (such as art, history and languages) and initially I hated it. However, I found out that I *really* enjoyed languages, and I was interested in topics that I never thought I would be interested in!

    By all means experiment with different topics, clubs (good networking), and activities. When you graduate with a Biology BS, you won’t be going into biology research – but you may be taking your carreer into directions you never thought you would.

  2. Matt Bingham
    Matt Bingham says:

    I posted on yahoo – there is no other way to describe this than Good and Solid advice. I especially love number 6. Knowing your strengths early will give you a great advantage over others. You can better align a job for what you are good at instead of getting a job and finding what you are good at inside that job. Hope that makes sense, but you could be the very person holding yourself back and not even know it.

  3. Ryan Healy
    Ryan Healy says:

    Fraternity brothers are actually a great way to network. Many alumni are very successful and love to help out the younger guys. For me, this was one of the top reasons to join. A good friend of mine just landed a great job through an older fraternity connection.

  4. Jessica Burgess
    Jessica Burgess says:

    I am a big fan of volunteering at your campus radio station. They will train you on all aspects of radio production, build good communication skills, you can interview fascinating people, learn a lot about the world, and be around people who are very passionate. I was a volunteer throughout university and am now working there training new volunteers and managing the talk show department.

  5. Joe Miller
    Joe Miller says:

    I couldn’t agree with #2 more. The difficulty is that most people who go to law school did well in school prior to applying to law school. Prospective law students listen to the statistics and tend to write them off because they are in the mindset of, “I’m smart. I can do it. I’m not going to be one of those people.” But the reality is that only a tiny percentage of students end up working at large firms–the easiest job to have for paying off student loans.

    If you are thinking about law school, and still think that the people who say how difficult it is are just naysayers, consider then the large number of lawyers, even those working at large firms, who are unhappy. Consider the high levels of depression and alcoholism within the legal profession. The adversarial nature of the law can create a lot of toxicity. Is that something that you want to be a part of?

    Many employers, such as Google and Gallop, conduct personality tests to see if prospective employees will fit with the culture. Maybe law schools should do the same thing.

    We all have our albatrosses to bear. I was someone who was considered to be very talented, did well in school and went to law school because I wanted the education, not because I wanted to work in a large firm. But talent never dies. I have a large amount of school debt, and it is tough, but I still have my whole career ahead of me. If you did not do well in law school, don’t make it into a character assault. You did not do well IN LAW SCHOOL–that’s it. It does not mean that you’ve failed as a person, it does not mean you’re finished. Everyone, lawyers and non-lawyers, feels lost at some point in their careers. It is a very tough world–for all of us.

  6. Andrew S
    Andrew S says:

    (re-posted from Yahoo)

    I think the spirit and advice is good, just presented poorly. To the points …

    1) “just pick a major and get decent grades. ” Not true. If you do this you will end with a 3.5 GPA and a degree you dislike. How is that helpful? I agree, though, don’t stress the major too much, but think outside the box too. Why only 1 major? Why not double major? You love pottery but your parents want you to take business. Do both! Give yourself more options for after college. I double majored and it made the first career change all the easier.

    3) Again with the animosity of “baby boomers”. That just makes no sense. Anyway, I think this point shows you don’t know your audience. If you’re gearing this article to an 18 year old starting college, his/her parents would not be “baby boomers”. They would be about 43 years old. Not much older than you. Networking with your parents’ friends is a good idea, but I doubt those people will make it easy by having everyone listed on LinkedIn.

    4) Cheerleading is NOT for everyone. By recommending this for everyone, you completely contradict yourself on point #6. I agree that people should join a club/organization/team, but be smart about it. Challenge yourself. If you’re an athlete, join a group that is NOT competitive. Learn how to be in a team where the goal is not to simply beat someone. The opposite also holds true. If you’re an intellectual, join a group that is competitive. See what it’s like. College is about trying new things.

    7) Being eternally optimistic is as bad as being eternally pessimistic. Don’t aim for the extreme. Aim to be balanced and realistic.

    8) While I think it is important to learn to be vulnerable, I don’t think that applies to the work place. Being vulnerable at work means opening yourself as a person, connecting on a personal level. Which means you are not connecting on a professional level. I don’t care if someone is vulnerable at work, so long as we all work well as a team. That is what is important. Yes, be “approachable and authentic”, but don’t lose your professionalism.

  7. Reflective Counsel
    Reflective Counsel says:

    1 & 2 are very good advice, but only when well thought out. Picking a major that is useful down the road is better than a major you hate or something un-marketable. The worst major you can pick is “pre-law” – you are qualified for nothing but law school. Going to law school is a decent choice for practicing law or not; however, knowing the costs are critical. Law school can successfully launch you into a “non-lawyer” career and may even give you a step up on the competition. It is not cheap, but for me has proven to be a good profession with many opportunities – both leagal and non-legal.

  8. Erin Hallstrom-Erickson
    Erin Hallstrom-Erickson says:

    I wish I would have studied abroad in college 10 years ago. It seems now like it would have been so natural and less stressful than it is now that I’ve got the career and the house, husband and kids.

    I also wish there would have been a mandatory course called “real life” that you were required to take that discussed how to handle office politics, asking for a raise, standing up to the office bully and nosey folks.

  9. Dawn
    Dawn says:

    The biggest regret I have about college is that I didn’t socialize more. I graduated this past year (2007) and though I went to way more parties and dinners and formals than I can count, I still always put school first and missed a lot of really great memories because I was dead set on getting every A I possibly could. More than just missing out on some cool things, I developed a very black/white way of looking at my work which made things hardly enjoyable. Now that I’m starting to work full-time I’m trying to change my attitude (perhaps to the dismay of my new employer) and make my relationships a priority.

  10. Alison
    Alison says:

    All good advice, especially #1. Nobody cares what you majored in. Everyone cares (a) what you know, and (b) what you can learn, as well as how “fun” you seem to be around (which is where #4 fits in, though there are a lot of routes besides “cheerleading” to get there). Take it from a girl who majored in Creative Writing. Major in what you want – just figure out how to justify it and diversify it later.

    I think the best is #8. I agree that vulnerability (the correct amount) is crucial to success, peace, and happiness. I wish I’d done more in college to that degree. I never stopped to consider what I wanted to get out of those 4 years internally (my goals were grades, no debt, good job, etc). As such, I left a lot more “work” for myself in later life.

  11. Cara
    Cara says:

    Somebody remind Asian parents of #1, please. Again and again if needed. My biggest regret is not bucking parental pressure on both my college and my major. I managed to make the best of it in a small technical school studying engineering (both chosen by my parents) instead of going to the large state university I wanted to attend. My school barely had any offerings in the liberal arts, and the classes they did offer were watered-down “English for Engineers” courses. Terrible for a closet liberal arts lover like me.

  12. Lola
    Lola says:

    I definitely regret not studying abroad and not choosing an easier major. Nothing worse than killing yourself for an engineering degree then graduating in a tough job market with no job. I I’d known I would end up unemployed I would have just done a liberal arts major which would have been less rigorous and allowed more time for extracurriculars.

  13. Jan
    Jan says:

    I have to disagree a bit with number one. Not every person is going to go to grad school. For most jobs grad school is not necessary. I have a great job, and only with a BS. I got excellent grades, and paid extra attention to course work that would help me get ahead in my field.

    I would suggest that for the first three semesters students explore, get a good basic education, learn to communicate, to write to read. After that, adult starts and college is for getting a job. I know far to many people who followed step one, and are now stuck in a dead end job or worse, still working in food service.

    They are angry to not be setting the world on fire, or even a clue as to what they want to be when they grow up. Still stuck in the bedroom they grew up in.

  14. Sherri
    Sherri says:

    Where was this advice when I was in college? This is a great article. My stepsister will be entering college next year, so I’ll be sure to pass this on to her.

    When it comes to picking a major, I struggled. It seemed like all of my friends had a clear plan that began sometime in high school. I was more of the “can’t I try everything?” type. I rushed right into a major in college for the sake of having one and ended up changing it (okay, maybe more than once). It’s okay to not know what you want to do. Take the core courses, learn everything you can, and pick a major when you’re ready.

  15. klein
    klein says:

    My best advice for college. If you ever plan on getting your Master’s degree do it immediately! No matter how burnt out you feel by your senior year of undergrad, push through and get that masters.

    It is REALLY DIFFICULT to get back into the mindset of being in college again after you’ve been out the real world for even a year.

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