Experiential Learning: The Key to Great Post-College Jobs

Focusing on career prep and internships early is crucial to developing skills needed to impress employers. Here's how to plan for the postgrad job search now.

A college degree is considered by many to be the clear path to a well-paying job and successful career. This is one reason why parents and high school students are always so focused on finding the “best” college to attend…and often willing to spend a small fortune to make it happen. Although earning a degree is the culmination of the college journey, it’s the focus on experiential learning and training during those college years that will provide the graduating student with the necessary skills that companies are looking for in future employees.

The importance of starting career prep early

On the career front, the days of waiting until senior year of college to begin the job hunt is obsolete. The time to start planning your job search should begin during freshman year. This allows college students to learn about possible career paths, build their networks, and enhance their résumés with specific skills for the careers they’re seeking. Unfortunately, the career focus is often overlooked as many students possess a high level of confidence that they’ll be hired immediately upon graduation. Students often have thoughts like, “I’m a Business major—I won’t have a problem finding a job” or, “I go to a great school—employers will be lining up to offer me high-paying positions after graduation.”

However, today’s path to a career has been altered, especially by large corporations that many students apply to. These employers are now looking for students to come out of college with proven skill sets. Entry-level positions, once the main avenue for new grads when searching for their first job, are few and far between. Job postings now typically ask for one year of experience or more as well as specific skills the company needs. When they see this, students may ask, “How is it possible to have the experience and skills employers seek when we haven’t even graduated yet?” The answer: experiential training in college.

Related: The Importance of Career Prep

Seeking out hands-on learning opportunities

Applying school-taught knowledge to real-world issues can help you gain valuable insight into recognizing and solving problems that companies are facing. This experience is a critical component that employers look for when hiring—and they place students with that experience at the top of the résumé pile. Although a highly recognizable school might provide some value in appealing to employers, the real selling point comes when an applicant can show how they’ve taken the academics they learned in school—the theory—and have successfully applied it in hands-on learning experiences.

Looking beyond your high GPA

A good GPA is required by many companies when hiring recent college graduates for open roles. Many job descriptions specifically state that a minimum 3.0 college GPA (or maybe even as high as a 3.5) is required. But meeting or exceeding that barrier is only one element of the job requirements. This is where experiential learning comes into play. In addition to seeking students who’ve performed well in school, companies also look for students with demonstrated success in a working environment.

How companies manage internships

Internships are one way employers manage their upcoming hiring needs. In today’s college job market, employers use summer or semester internships as a main interview and training process to ensure they’re getting the best talent available. Many companies only hire recent grads from the internship pool when onboarding for junior roles. Outside candidates may find it difficult to have their résumés reviewed if they weren’t part of a company’s internship program. The recruiting cycle for these positions has also changed; many companies now actively advertise and hire interns in the fall for positions that start months later. As a result, students should engage with employers year-round to ensure they don’t miss out on these opportunities. 

Related: Internships: Your Dream Job Diving Board

Navigating the competitive world of college internships

Competition for summer and semester internships has dramatically increased over the years. Most companies don’t provide specific data on hiring practices, but Goldman Sachs—a New York City investment bank sought after by Finance majors and others—has noted that it typically receives over 250,000 applications for summer internships and jobs for recent graduates. Although not every company receives that volume of applications, securing an internship at many popular companies has become a challenge.

Developing your own project-based internship

If you’re not accepted for a summer or semester position, one approach is to be innovative and create your own project-based internship. This can be done by utilizing your knowledge in a particular area to help local companies and merchants with various activities. The first step is to put together a business plan that outlines how you can provide value. For example, Marketing majors can provide merchants with social media solutions; Computer Science majors can help set up a merchant’s website; and those pursuing a Communications degree could develop a public relations game plan for a small business. This strategy is valuable for many degree fields: Art majors can help local galleries with exhibits. Students focused on Fashion can offer to host fashion shows at dress shops. And Theater students can introduce acts or work with the production staff at their town playhouse. 

The great aspect of a project-based internship is that it can be done at any time—there’s no need to wait for summer break. To get the most value out of this training, you should have established goals, hold status meetings with the business, and provide a project completion document. Having four or five different internships over four years in college will help you differentiate yourself from the competition.

Enhancing and learning new skills

In addition to experiential training, some students can benefit by looking outside of their major to enhance their skills or develop new ones. Jamie Dimon, Chief Executive Officer of JPMorgan Chase, has stated that “many students in our high schools and colleges are unaware that, with a little bit of training, they can qualify for jobs paying $65,000 or more a year. You can major in Philosophy or History and take a few courses in coding to help ensure a good job.” 

Related: The Top 10 Hard and Soft Skills All Employers Want

Experiential learning—and starting it early—is crucial to an integrated and solid educational foundation that’s sure to take you far in the working world. Find internships early and as often as your schedule can handle to ensure you get a great job after college that values and rewards you for all your skills and experience.

Learn more about internships and what to expect after college in our Internships and Careers section.

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