College Bound – Advise for Freshmen

(A version of this article was originally broadcast on the BBC World Service program Business Daily.)

Every year millions of students leave home for the first time, bound for various institutes of higher learning. They hope to benefit from a generations old formula: good grades at a good school equals a good job.

Your transcript might get you the interview, but it won’t get you the job.

If you’re one of these students, you should know that class work isn’t the only thing, or even the most important thing, about university life. I’ve interviewed and hired many new college grads and I don’t think I’ve asked any of them about their grades. I’ve always cared more about what they can do and who they are than in what they have studied.

Fortunately, there are several simple things you can start doing today which will make you more attractive to employers after graduation.

Do real work, starting now.

Interviewers won’t care how you solved a textbook problem that 200 other students solve each year. They will be much more interested in how you handled a nasty surprise at the end of a difficult project, when you had no time and no money. To get that kind of experience, you need to get out of the class room and into labs and research projects.

That means late nights and long weekends, but it pays off in valuable experience and good stories.

Hiring is difficult and firing is painful, so companies are understandably reluctant to take a chance on a new graduate. However, they will hire you if they already know what you can do. That means internships, summer jobs and work-study.  “It’s not what you know.  It’s who you know.” might not seem fair, but it makes sense from the company’s point of view. Take advantage of it.

Go broad.

As fast as the world is changing, it’s unlikely you’ll spend your entire career in one field. So it’s wise to build skills which will serve you wherever you go. Studying another language or taking a Year Abroad is always a good idea. Your value in the market is partially determined by the size of the market. The more people you can work with the bigger your personal job market will be and the more valuable you will be.

Freshman economics classes have a reputation for being dull as dirt and of little practical value. But if your school has the right kind of department, studying economics can be an eye-opening experience. Look for one which emphasizes incentives, unintended consequences and a dynamic view of the world.  These habits of thought will help you spot opportunities others may miss.

If your department only teaches equilibrium models and macro aggregates like GDP, skip it. The dead, static view behind these concepts conceals too much about the world and will trick you into believing you have all the answers when no one even knows what the questions are.

Besides, those things will turn you into a Keynesian, at which point you’ll be ruined for life.

Learn to speak and write well. People who can communicate their ideas clearly and with confidence have a great advantage, regardless of how good their ideas are.

Get comfortable speaking in front of a crowd.  It’s a surprisingly valuable skill and one which most people scrupulously avoid developing. Being the one who presents the project  gives you more visibility and that opens up more opportunities. It will also help you look confident and competent in the interview.

Have a blast.

Finally, take time to have fun.  That might sound like a lot to ask but it really shouldn’t be that  hard. If you’re doing it right all those labs and projects should be fun. Working on hard problems with smart people is rewarding by itself, even if it does mean losing a lot of sleep.  Besides, you’ve got 40 years of long hours, back to back meetings and taking work on vacation in front of you. You might as well learn to enjoy yourself now.

Four years is no time at all.

Make the grade, prove your mettle, build a network, learn the ways of the world and the people in it and have fun. It’s a lot to pack into a few short years and those years will pass much faster than you can imagine.

But if you keep these goals in mind and have a plan you’re willing to stick to or throw out the window, as opportunities present themselves, you’ll do well.

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About fzinger

I read and I write. I read a lot and I write when I can.
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