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Ten things I wish I had known when I started university

Posted on 6 September 2011

I’m up at UNBC today as part of my job at CFUR Radio. It’s pretty weird to realize how far removed I am from that first day on campus. I’ve spent almost as many years out of post-secondary school as I did in it.

It was a good experience for me. And I think I’ve been reasonably successful since. I’m happy with where I am in life, career-wise, financially, and personally. And I’ve had a few– very few– people ask me about strategies for getting the most out of university. And since I’m never one to let a lack of demand stop me from sharing my opinions, I’d like to now share some of the things I learned over the course of my academic career and in the years since.

This is not an extensive list. You will not hear anything about studying hard, making friends, or savouring the experiences, because you hear those things everywhere. That doesn’t mean they aren’t true, just irrelevant to my purposes. Instead, I’m going to focus in on things that I learned only by luck or accident.

Also, this not a tried and tested list. This is just my own opinion, based on my own experiences as someone who took a BA in political science and international studies and used it to have a short stint in political work and is now working in media. Take it as you will.

1. VOLUNTEER.

I cannot emphasize this one enough. I know lots of people will tell you volunteering is good for a variety of reasons, and it is, but when you’re in university there is one key reason it’s important: it will probably help you get a job.

The reason I want to focus in on this selfish, self-motivated use of volunteering is because when you’re a student, you don’t have a lot of time. You have classes, you probably have a job, and you’ll want some semblance of a social life. It can be easy to defer volunteering until later. Don’t.

I volunteered for the school paper and radio station. I can guarantee you that I would not have the jobs I have now if it weren’t for this experience. In fact, if you could put take away a full point off of my GPA or take away my volunteer experience, I would keep the volunteer experience.

Grades are good to have. But no matter how good your grades are, there’s someone else whose grades are just as good. Probably better. And let’s face it– when you’re getting a BA in something with no defined outcome like political science or history, the real, tangible skills you can develop and DEMONSTRATE through volunteering get pretty darn important when it comes to filling out that resume.

Which brings me to…

2. Don’t fall into the “but what is it good for?” trap.

This goes out to those of you getting the non-concrete degrees. I know what it’s like. I got my degree in political science and international studies. Towards the end you start wondering what you’re going to do with it. Not a lot of people have “international studier” or “political scientist” on their business card. And those who do have at least a masters.

So you’ll probably start to question what you’re doing. Don’t worry about it. Or let’s put it this way: don’t worry about the idea that what you’re doing is useless. It’s not. You’ll have to be smart about pursuing opportunities, learning how to translate your skills into the “real world” and whether or not you actually like what you’re learning. But if you do those things, you should be OK.

3. Apply for stuff. Do it early.

This is one that I probably should have done more. I didn’t spend much time going after scholarships and bursaries. I know people who did, and it paid off in dividends.

I applied for and got some really cool opportunities for travel, learning, and networking. There’s a lot of other opportunities I probably never heard of. My internship in provincial government– a position that had huge learning opportunities, great networking experiences and an enviable pay rate– I barely found out about and applied for on time. In the years since, I’ve heard that no one from UNBC has applied for the same experience, despite the university being one of the founding members of the program.

It’s worth it to spend some time looking at books and talking to professors to find out what’s available. Start right away, and do it every few months.

4. Don’t take all your first-year courses in your first year.

Where possible, save a few of your electives for your last year. You’ll be taking intense fourth-year courses with massive essays and complex concepts. Having a first-year introduction to film or Canadian fiction with assignments that cap out at five pages will be a welcome relief.

5. Branch out.

Some of my most rewarding courses were the ones that I didn’t think had much to do with what I would be doing in life. That includes that first year course on Canadian fiction. And it helps to have a more holistic view about the world. I wish I’d taken more statistics classes, for example.

6. Talk to people in other disciplines.

You may just find out you want to switch, or at least dabble. I had no idea how awesome planning was until my fourth year. I just didn’t know what it was. Had I known earlier, I definitely would have taken a couple of introductory courses. They also make good contacts later in life.

7. Get good/interesting/different summer jobs.

I didn’t stick with the co-op work experience program, and I’m not positive that was a good move. I liked the jobs I did instead, but I feel like I might have had more breadth of knowledge had I gone for that interpretive guide position in a hatchery somewhere or other. Maybe not. But at the very least, I’m glad I switched jobs up from ESL teacher to mill worker to barista-in-training.

(sidenote: I know of people who’ve had their long-term minimum wage jobs turn into actual careers, so be aware that there can be benefits to sticking with these things, too). 

8. Take a break.

University is not a race. Aside from your credits expiring if you do it for too long, there’s no harm in taking some time off. Maybe you want to make some money so you don’t have to go in debt. Maybe you want to travel. Maybe both. If you can afford it (however you define the word ‘afford’) it’s worth thinking about if you find yourself burning out or just feeling like you need to switch things up for a while.

9. Treat your assignments as dry-runs for the real world.

This is something I learned in my last year. Prior to this, when doing a research assignment I would go to the obvious academic and journal sources. But at some point I realized that I could use primary sources to do original surveys. I wrote one paper using primary sources available from the local school board, and another using data on student enrollment at UNBC. There are all sorts of things in your community that could be studied that no one else has ever studied before. There are countless community groups that could use some data or a report or an academic survey about them. Just look around. It’s interesting, it sets your paper apart, and it can be used as a launch point to actual jobs actually studying things. I didn’t take a straight path in that direction, but I know people who did.

10. Start sending out resumes before you graduate, and get ready for some rejection

This is related to points 2. and 3. At some point you’re going to realize you’re close to graduating with no clue what you’re going to do.

First of all, you should start looking two semesters prior graduation. That’s not to say that you’ll get a job by the time you graduate, but you’re DEFINITELY not going to have a job if you haven’t even tried.

Be liberal with what you’re looking for. You’re more qualified than you think for a lot of things, it’s just a matter of figuring out how.

This is also where you can start getting into programs aimed at recent graduates, both in public and private sectors. Talk to professors. Look for research opportunities. Chances are your going to spend some time actively looking for a job while you’re unemployed. You may as well make as much of that time correspond with being in school.

***

So that’s it. Like I said, this is no ways comprehensive. It’s also not at all guaranteed to work for you. But I think it’s important that you be exposed to a variety of ideas. That being the case, I’d welcome anybody else who has their own 2 cents to add to do so in the comments below or by sending me a message on Twitter.

Filed under: Best Of, how to

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