Secrets to College Success: How to Get Ahead Now and After You Graduate

Freelance Writer

In college, it can sometimes seem like a handful of students know a few keys to success that you don’t. They’re taking classes just like you, but they’re also working on cool side projects and networking with professors and already making a name for themselves. What’s their secret?

It’s actually pretty simple: getting involved in activities and assuming roles that push you beyond what you think you’re capable of. What does that look like? Among many other things, you could help a professor with their research. Start your own company. Venture off campus to work in the community. All these activities can position you for bigger opportunities.

Student success means more than just getting top grades. Today’s grads need to be ready to merge their college degree into a real-world career. If you start when you’re in college, you’ll be ahead of the game on graduation day.

“It’s a powerful experience,” says John Gardner, President of the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education. Close relationships with faculty, for example, develop bonds with professors who can teach you the ropes, help you get into grad school, or get a job after graduation. These experiences also introduce you to peers with similar goals. “It puts you in a context with other outstanding students,” says Gardner, “and now you’re in a powerful peer group that influences you.”

Why are these secrets?

Really, there’s no secret to it, but there are so many ways to acquire these experiences that you may simply be unfamiliar with them. Class work, labs, research, and extracurricular clubs are just the beginning.

The real world expects more than just book smarts. Employers want candidates who know how to manage their time, work well on a team, and even lead others. Graduating with those skills will enhance everything on your transcript.

Do you want to go into politics? Organize an on-campus debate or head up a major fundraiser. Do you see yourself in a corporate corner office? Work with school administrators to change or implement new policies to reflect the changing campus climate.

The following activities are also excellent avenues toward gaining unique—and uniquely applicable—experiences that will serve you well in college and beyond.

Starting your own business

Believe it or not, college is a prime time for launching a business, one that gives you a wide range of experiences, a taste of success, a taste of failure, and some real-world clout.

But you might be thinking, with classes, sports, internships, and clubs, why and how would any student launch a business? “No time is better than in college,” says Kit Needham, Associate Director and Entrepreneur-in-Residence of Project Olympus at the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Carnegie Mellon University. “If you are starting a business in school and if you get enough runway, you can go right into business upon graduation.”

You’ll also learn business structure out of necessity. “You learn all aspects of a business and understand the business model,” Needham says. “It’s the most intense education you’ll have, and it pushes you out of your comfort zone.” 

Andy Chan, a Carnegie Mellon sophomore studying electrical and computer engineering, has already launched VIT, a company developing a smart knee brace. Despite the grueling schedule of full-time classes and work, Chan says starting a business now is worth it.

“College is the time when I felt confident enough to take on the work,” Chan says, “and the resources on campus are so rich. Many people think this is a terrible time to start a business because they think I should be focusing on school. But I have nothing to lose.” If the business fails, Chan is still in the protective and supportive college environment, he says.

“Regardless of if it works or not, it’s still a learning experience,” he says. “Just start doing it. Go out there and get your hands dirty.”

Working with professors on research—even as a non-science major

Students often get to work closely with professors during class, but if you have the chance, find out how you can work with a professor on research too. And before you think “Pshhh, that’s not for me. I’m not studying the sciences,” remember that research projects can be found in practically all disciplines, and getting involved not only means conducting fascinating work but also gaining valuable professional credibility.

“It deepens their understanding of the world and what it is they are studying,” says Jamee Moudud, an economics professor at Sarah Lawrence College. Textbooks, he says, can only teach so much, but when students perform research, they draw on information across many disciplines and gain hands-on insight. “They are learning how to be a researcher and how to pose questions,” he says. “That’s so important.”

Many professors invite students to present their research at conferences, so you’ll get an opportunity to get comfortable mingling with others in your field and talking about your research. “When they go to an employer, they are in a position to take the initiative,” says Moudud. “It becomes second nature to them—that creative, innovative instinct.”

Branching out into the community

You can further expand your horizons by working in the surrounding community, where you’ll gain a new perspective of your school as an outsider as well as valuable “real-world” understanding.

Arnold Robinson, an assistant visiting professor at Roger Williams University and Director of its Community Partnerships Center (CPC), says off-campus work shows students how what they’re learning will translate into a career. “They get a sense of how their discipline really gets used out in the real world,” he says. “You want those learning experiences to test the ‘Is this what I want to be doing?’ question.” Students learn how to make presentations, work with clients, and run effective meetings.

Leaha Bovino, who earned both her undergrad and graduate degrees at Roger Williams, says her project manager role at a local library gave her an honest look at issues like the intersection of creativity and budget limitations. Mostly, however, she saw what her future career could look like.

“The CPC projects were like a light bulb clicking on,” she says. “It melded my two academic studies and validated that I was doing the right thing. I had hope there was a future in this, and I saw how I fit into the picture.”

Dabbling in consulting roles

If you can tailor your work to your post-grad dreams, you’ll gain experience employers want to see.

Tatiana Andrade, a sophomore at Stonehill College, is a finance major with her sights set on becoming a financial advisor. Shocked at the lack of financial literacy amongst her peers, Andrade decided to help educate her classmates and also gain some real-world experience by becoming an ambassador for SALT, an educational program on several college campuses nationwide that helps students make smarter financial decisions. She runs seminars on spending, saving, and borrowing money, explaining everything from budgets to student loan repayment steps.

As a SALT ambassador, Andrade uses her classroom experience to mirror the requirements of any post-graduation job. With each seminar, she becomes more comfortable organizing her thoughts and talking in front of a group. And she builds on her work and reputation to position herself as a young expert in the financial field.

Diving into the challenge

Are there drawbacks for extending yourself? Of course, says Carnegie Mellon’s Andy Chan. Balancing multiple demands on your time is difficult. But the resources available to college students are exceptional, and many businesses and individuals will help students in ways they might not help recent grads. “It’s a wonderful learning moment,” says Arnold Robinson at Roger Williams. “Things fail, and that’s okay. How do we get things back on track? You learn just as much when things go wrong. You are being self-managed, but you still have the academic support network you can turn to.”

All the while, you’ll establish qualities employers seek. “Employers aren’t asking ‘What did you learn?’ but ‘What can you do?’” says Robinson. And students find this work not only beefs up their résumé but also boosts their confidence.

“I felt very well prepared for the next step,” says Leaha Bovino. “This wasn’t make-believe—it was real. It tied my education and my personal strengths to my career.”

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