In college, major feels like it means everything. After all, your area of study determines the faculty and fellow students with whom you spend most of your waking hours. It often defines which clubs you join, and dictates which events you’re eligible to attend. It can mean the difference between hearing an intrigued “ooooooh!” and a confused “ohhhhhh….?” when older relatives ask probing questions about school over Thanksgiving dinner. However, this overwhelming focus on major can be extraordinarily deceiving when it comes to preparing for life after graduation. Looking back on my university experience, it certainly was for me.
According to recent data from early career platform Handshake, the number one way college students find jobs, 81.5% of students place outsized importance on their major selection, believing it is a key determinant of their future job prospects. In reality, though, many employers value other things far more than degree field — half of them don’t even specify required majors in job listings. We live in a world where you can become a software engineer with a philosophy degree or a graphic designer with an accounting major if you’re motivated enough. Now more than ever, your major doesn’t necessarily determine your future.
As an English grad now working in tech, I know this all too well. While I certainly learned valuable skills in the classroom, my career path unfolded almost entirely because of the work and internship experience I accrued during my university years. My need to work through school to pay my bills — a circumstance I’d originally worried would hinder me during my college years — ended up helping me stand out from other applicants entering the professional world. When I graduated from my large, public university in the aftermath of the Great Recession, I had two full-time job offers on the table. Many of the peers who lacked on-the-job experience struggled to find work. By holding down several jobs and seeking professional development opportunities outside of my academic course load, I added weight to my resume that many of my classmates lacked after we all received our diplomas.
College students today recognize this inherent value of real-world work experience. In the aforementioned Handshake survey results, students from all major groups except engineering ranked “prior internship/job experience” as the number one most valuable factor needed to find a job. (Understandably for pupils in such a technical field, engineering majors ranked “relevant skills” as the most important factor for determining employability).
The Value of Work Experience
It’s not just flashy, big-name gigs that can boost your postgrad employability. Sure, freelance articles I wrote for various publications helped bolster my portfolio when applying to media positions — but the coffee shop job I held for three years and the 20 hours per week I spent behind the register at a consignment boutique added just as much clout to my resume.
Regarding professional development through internship, volunteer, and work experience, Handshake Vice President of Higher Education & Student Success Christine Cruzvergara suggests that students should focus on the skills they gain. “They should focus on developing skills including the ability to synthesize information, think critically, and communicate well, which will serve them both in college and beyond,” she says.
These valuable skills can be honed in ways you might not expect. For example, my time spent buying and selling used clothing helped me gain confidence as a negotiator, which has served me on my career path as I’ve hammered out arrangements with everyone from beauty influencers and catering vendors to PR agencies. The discipline it took for me to wake up at 4am every weekday to bake pastries, roast beans, open up shop, and field the morning coffee rush before running to my day’s lectures has stuck with me in every job since; managers are more likely to assign important, high-visibility, career-defining projects when they know an employee is driven and dependable. Significant time spent in customer service roles trained me to communicate and engage well with other people under pressure, which has equipped me to nail job interviews even into my late twenties.
If you’re unsure what you want to do after graduation or fretful about how your degree path might affect your chances, focus your energy on making yourself a compelling candidate. Apply to an on-campus job that’ll teach you data entry or provide Photoshop experience, even if it’s only six hours of work per week. Shoot for that internship in a field you’re intrigued by; it might not end up being your ideal path, but you’ll learn valuable, marketable skills along the way.
When it comes time for finding a career after you cross the graduation stage, those bits of experience could very well be what sets you apart.