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Setting yourself up for success: Things you can do while you’re an undergrad (page 2)

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Document your accomplishments

In addition to getting involved during your undergrad years, it is a really good idea to document your accomplishments. By keeping track of what you have done, you can later remember achievements better, be more specific in interviews about them, and show examples of what you have done rather than simply describing them. Besides, by doing the work now you'll save time later when you're deep into applying for schools and jobs!

Documenting your accomplishments might seem tough while you are working so hard in school. One way to simplify the task is to find a good-sized box and add "artifacts" to it. Artifacts are examples like photographs, writing samples (published or not), position descriptions from internships and jobs, programs, flyers, newspaper articles, thank you notes (print or email) you received for a job well done, screenshots of webpages you have designed, etc.

By saving the artifacts, you'll be giving yourself two important gifts:

1. Visual aids to jog your memory about the breadth and depth of your achievement
2. Contents to include in a portfolio (professional scrap book) you can bring with you to interviews

At the very least, it is a good idea to keep a running list of your accomplishments including, for example:

  • What clubs and meaningful campus jobs you've held, your titles, duties, and dates of service
  • What internships and meaningful summer jobs you've held, your titles, duties, and dates of service
  • Which scholarships or research grants you've earned and their monetary value
  • How many and what kind of meetings you have facilitated and for what size groups
  • How many partnerships you've initiated, and the positive outcomes of these relationships
  • How many and what kind events you've managed, for how many attendees
  • How many public speaking engagements you've held, for what size audiences, and on what topics
  • What kind of awards you've won, names of awards, and for what achievements
  • What courses you've taken and your grades
  • Where and when your writing has been published

Quantifying your accomplishments wherever possible will help prospective employers and others evaluate your performance accurately. Additionally, you'll provide data that many others lack.

Ways to use your artifacts and list of achievements:

Create a permanent portfolio (professional scrap book) by dividing your artifacts by skill area and putting together pages with writing and work samples, photos of you at work, thank you notes, your resume, etc.

You can also compile a few different samples of your work in a manila file folder to leave behind at an interview or submit with your application (if asked). Finally, include summaries of these accomplishments and statistics in your resume.

Build relationships

Building relationships is of key importance during your college years. The value of a strong social and professional network is impossible to overestimate, especially in the nonprofit sector. Nurturing new contacts, making your professional and social needs known, and connecting colleagues with the people who can help them succeed—all of these may lead to a successful grad school application or career transition for you.

More info on building relationships

Some people think "networking" is a dirty word. In reality, networking is just another word for building relationships. For a comprehensive overview of how to network and why it's such a critical activity, see Chapter Four of The Idealist Guide to Nonprofit Careers for First-time Job Seekers.

These are some people and groups you may naturally come into contact with during college:

  • Classmates, roommates
  • Peers and co-workers
  • Professors, teaching assistants, supervisors
  • Resident assistants
  • Campus staff: career center, service-learning, student life, and others
  • Organizational partners
  • Professional associations
  • Alumni of your school who are now working in your field
  • Civic leaders and fellow club members
  • Guest speakers who are experts in your field
  • Local affiliates of networks that exist elsewhere if you plan to move, like your undergraduate alumni group or your religious group
  • Family, friends, family members of your friends, friends of your family

Shyness is your enemy: Networking do-and-don'ts

  • Do serve as a resource for others: let others know about projects, job openings, and other opportunities that will help them. People remember those who helped them. Do ask people questions about themselves. People love to talk about themselves and by listening you will get ideas for how your work might intersect.
  • Do call or email the contacts you have been referred to, they may be waiting to hear from you!
  • Do cultivate relationships with people who have and need connections; this isn't fake, it's networking: taking part in a mutually beneficial relationship where you are each considering each other's needs.
  • Do perfect your elevator speech, a brief oral introduction of yourself and your immediate goal
  • Do let people you meet know what you need (ideas about where to go to graduate school, a job, donated space for an event, partners to get the word out about a project, etc.)
  • Do look out for what others need. It's great to help people, and if you help them first, even better.
  • Do ask people for help with open-ended questions, like "How can we work together?" and "What connections do you have in my field" and "What job openings do you hear about?"
  • Do collect and distribute business cards; make notes on the ones you collect to remember the context or seed of partnership.
  • Do ask to meet for coffee for a longer discussion (or an informational interview). Do follow up with meetings and phone calls by sending thank you notes (email or by post), and updates when you have found what you were looking for.
  • Do respect the relationship; if you know someone who is "famous" only send serious inquiries, or people you know very well, to contact them. If someone trusts you enough to put you in touch with their "famous" connection, be on your best behavior! Respect the honor of meeting someone who could help you a lot and be worthy of trust. By the same token, if your connection wasn't able to help you out, trust that they may be able to next time. You are planting a seed.
  • Don't ask for a lead from somebody then never follow up. Worse yet: don't ask for a lead in February, then ask again for the contact information for the same lead in May because you never contacted the lead and then lost their contact info!
  • Don't abuse the connection. When you use someone else's leads, you are not only representing yourself, but also their trust in you. If you flake out, it reflects badly on you and your connection. It could have a negative impact on their relationship.
  • Don't drop names! People only want to hear about your connections when it is useful to them or the team.
  • Don't be selfish and one-sided. Share your connections when possible.
  • Don't over-contact your lead. If you don't hear back within a week after a positive phone call or meeting, follow up with a polite email. If the other person persists in ignoring you, you may have to accept that this is not the best person to help you.
  • Don't over-promise. Always take a wait-and-see attitude when trying to help someone else.

Challenge yourself

Take on experiences, responsibilities, and tasks that you may not yet be good at, or that take you out of your professional comfort zone. If you study journalism, use a writing assignment to tackle a topic you are unfamiliar with. If you are an engineering student, try an anthropology or poetry class (or vice versa). You might discover something new about yourself that will help drive your next steps in a direction you hadn't predicted. Your worldview will expand, and you will set yourself apart from other students in your field.

Set professional goals

No matter what year of college you are in, it's a good time to either establish or revisit your professional goals. Going to grad school isn't easy! When you hit tough times making the grade or finding time for all the reading, remembering your broader or alternative goals will help you see that this is all leading somewhere and that you are working toward a better life!

Professional goals help you:

  • Seek the professional experience you need to get into graduate school or to land a job
  • Accept feedback from your professors, supervisors, and others
  • Shape the direction of the classes and projects you take on at school

If it helps, think of the direction you'd like to go in professionally, and steps you can take during your college years to move you in the right direction. These are your professional goals. It might also help to look at your resume: do gaps exist that you can fill during college? These are also professional goals.

Conclusion and further resources

This article listed many actions you can take as an undergrad to help prepare for grad school and increase your chances for success in your chosen field. The most important thing is knowing what your goal is, and with that in mind, taking the initiative to pursue every opportunity to learn, gain relevant experiences, and build as many relationships as you can from the resources available to you as an undergrad student.