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Outside-the-classroom experiences boost career potential

Above, Stony Brook University students volunteering for the Port Jefferson Volunteer Ambulance. Photo from SBU
October 30, 2013 | 04:13 PM
Traditionally, college students had little trouble finding a good job after attending a good college and earning good grades. But today's college students need more: good is no longer good enough. Studies show that employers expect entry-level candidates to present the total package — excellent grades, skills and experience in their field.

Having career-related experience prior to graduation isn't just an attractive add-on; it is a necessity. In a recent survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 63 percent of paid interns in the Class of 2012 had at least one job offer when they graduated, compared with only 40 percent for those who had never interned.

Although certain fields, such as engineering or accounting, seek candidates with specific majors, most employers are looking for graduates with transferable skills. According to a 201213 College Employment Research Institute report, of the top 24 majors most requested by employers, "all majors" was No. 1.

That's because the skills employers consistently seek in potential candidates involve those that can be applied in varied work settings, such as the ability to think critically, solve problems, communicate effectively, make sound decisions and work collaboratively with a group of diverse people.

Employers taking part in NACE's Job Outlook 2013 survey also said they look for a range of soft skills, including leadership, initiative and the ability to persuade.

According to Andrea Koncz, NACE's employment information manager, eight out of 10 employers who review the résumés of potential college hires want evidence of leadership skills, and 75 percent of employers look for problem-solving skills.

How does a new college graduate demonstrate these attributes? Here's where a career-related experience can help. Résumés that pass the screening process present at least one or more outside-the-classroom learning experiences.

At Stony Brook University's Career Center, we encourage students to think about career possibilities as early as their freshman year, and to plan for career-relevant activities as they do their course schedules. These experiences can take the form of an internship, co-op, research or community service. Involvement in professional organizations, as well as leadership roles in clubs or community activities, also provide fabulous opportunities for students to apply knowledge they are acquiring in the classroom to authentic, real-world environments.

There are many benefits to such experiences: Students learn more about themselves, which enables them to find, focus on and form career goals; often they acquire hands-on experience they may not get in the classroom and develop advanced skills, enriching their classroom learning; they gain confidence through their accomplishments and the ability to better articulate what they know and what they can do; and they get an insider's view of a professional workplace, with access to networks and individuals who open doors to future options.

What can new graduates do if they did not participate in these career-related experiences before completing their degree? Plenty!

They can volunteer with an organization or cause they care about and practice applying their skills.

They also can take on leadership roles in their communities, develop their network through friends and family and apply for gap-year programs like AmeriCorps, AmeriCorps VISTA or the Peace Corps. Ultimately, they must be able to demonstrate that they have the skills and the initiative employers demand in these competitive times.

Marianna Savoca is the director of the Stony Brook University Career Center.

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