“It’s been the worst year of my life,” my flatmate said regretfully on the eve of her last exam. Her current feeling of unpreparedness and anxiety had come on suddenly, as she felt that she’d wasted the last twelve months in student bars, pubs and clubs.
Although she was exaggerating, the point stands that very little time was spent on studying and thinking about the future. Consequently, she did poorly in exams and had no constructive plans for the summer.
Of course you should enjoy yourself and go wild in your first year of uni, but you should also remember the term ‘everything in moderation’ and that, rarely will you have more free time to play with than during these precious two terms.
In second year the work will pile up and the number of contact hours will increase, so why not use the opportunity now to get productive and improve your post-uni prospects? Here are five ways you can do so.
- Don’t settle for a retail job, aim higher
They say that you should try new things and let’s face it, slaving away in Sainsbury’s is going to be neither fun for you nor particularly interesting to an employer. You can still earn money yet also gain valuable experience by avoiding the unchanging retail environment (although it is good to try this at least once). You’ll have more diverse experiences and impressive stories to tell employers if you cast a wider net.
At the start of my first year I signed up to a tutoring website and eventually got to teach History and Spanish to a 16 year-old for £25 an hour. I registered to take part in surveys and simple psychological experiments, with both university departments and local businesses, even though this work was infrequent.
There was also the option of being a student ambassador and showing visitors around campus for £11 a tour. More jobs were available on the phones or at reception in the university offices. This may not have been fun, but you would definitely gain more skills than you would in a shop. Thus you are investing in your future by trying to bag one of these positions.
You can find them by checking out every stall at the fresher fair, speaking to everyone and making friends in multiple university departments, and by scouring the uni’s website and signing up for e-mail updates on new jobs. If the possibilities are there, you shouldn’t get stuck in something that you ‘just have to do for the money’.
- Don’t just join a society, run it
The chocolate melting society. The dinosaur appreciation society. The Liechtenstein society. There will be all kinds of weird and wonderful groups of people at your uni, and you’re bound to make friends in at least one of them. So you should try out as many as possible in order to find out where you fit in best. Once you’re in, aim for the top of that society.
Nearly all of them will hold annual general meetings in which students put themselves forward for different management positions and everyone votes on their new committee. You should apply for the role that will best prepare you for your chosen profession.
For example, young accountants may become treasurers, who are responsible for the society’s incomings and outgoings. Logically, aspiring marketers might want to be marketing directors, and hopeful barristers or journalists could do well as social secretaries. But whether you’re in charge of building the society’s membership or organising its events, you’ll be learning invaluable skills by working in a team to keep the club going.
- Don’t just volunteer, go global
Volunteering looks great on your CV because it shows that you’re proactive, socially engaged and highly determined. You may have done it during Sixth Form in order to fill up your personal statement and get into uni (or, you know, out of the goodness of your heart).
But now that you’re at uni, you may want to take it a step further. Pursue a volunteering placement if you really enjoy it, but be aware of anything your uni is offering that could be more exciting or out of your comfort zone.
Overseas volunteering is something that I think every student should try out. Carrying out a Microfinance project in Honduras with the Global Brigades volunteering organisation is the best experience I’ve ever had. Coupled with the fact that it opened my eyes and gave me friends for life, the huge sense of achievement means all the fundraising was worth it. The money I raised didn’t cover all the costs – and yes, these trips have huge costs – but fundraising is all part of the experience.
Employers will be impressed if you went the extra mile to set up events that managed to get people involved and to give towards your initiative. You can also show creativity in the events you set up – do a bake sale, hold a charity auction, have a raffle sale, organise a themed drinks night, do a sponsored run, or just shave your head. Throw yourself into the unknown and you’ll raise loads of cash.
Doing the volunteering itself will be an eye-opening, life-enriching, energy-draining, strength-building life experience that you’ll never forget. That’s exactly what puts a dynamic employee in high demand. This is going beyond the types of volunteering that everyone else has done. It can benefit you in ways you didn’t think possible, and universities offer tons of these kinds of opportunities. Grab them while you can.
- Don’t just learn your course, learn languages
Talent Cupboard has already written about websites that you can use to freely and easily learn how to code. Go and learn. Even if you never end up programming websites, at least you’ll be able to form valuable relations with those that do. And most importantly, you’ll show future employers that you’re willing and able to pick up new skills.
However, French is useful to learn as well. Don’t let the languages you learnt at school slip away. If you can’t learn them as part of your course, join societies at your uni that offer evening classes. You can then also make more friends, from a wider variety of backgrounds. Use apps like Duolingo and self-teaching websites to reinforce and grow your knowledge.
Perhaps you can experiment with more different, more challenging, more exotic languages. In a world increasingly powered by global businesses, employers are more heavily valuing Mandarin, Japanese, Russian and others. And again, you’re showing flexibility of interest and a keenness to learn by gaining at least a basic understanding of these languages.
- Don’t just do work, get work experience
It can be easy to fall into a schedule of work, library, lectures and clubbing, and we forget about the industry we want to enter. But the reason that universities take such long holidays and summers is so that you can do something productive around your studies.
Whatever industry you want to enter, small firms are likely to offer informal work experience to students that grab their attention with a well-written letter or CV. Search their websites for their locations and e-mail addresses. Tell them why you want to go into that sector and why you need the experience. Impress them with specific examples of things you’ve done that clearly show your passion.
Make your writing brief, relaxed and concise. Have a creative subject line (rather than just ‘work experience request’) that captures their attention. For example, you could say ‘Student seeks a bright future as solicitor’ or ‘out of the shadowing application, into the light’. Adapt it to what placement you’re specifically requesting.
Why is it important to do this in first year? Because these kinds of mini placements are perfect preparation for a full summer internship, which is essential for applying to graduate jobs. You could do your long internship at the end of first or second year, but you should take the stepping-stone towards that during your reading weeks, Easter or Christmas holidays.
Even if you don’t find it to be a useful experience, it may help you refine your career choices and alter your decisions. But how to get started? Ask your career advisors for websites that list financial and law firms, marketing and publishing agencies, design studios and other businesses in your area.
There are other websites that specifically advertise these kinds of placements, such as GoThinkBig and MilkRound, whether you want a fortnight of work experience or just a day of shadowing. Also ask relatives and friends of friends if they can fit you in anywhere.
It’s not a huge commitment on the company’s part, so be persistent. Keep track of everywhere you apply and follow up your e-mails with calls. Don’t be rude, but make sure businesses don’t forget about you.
If you’re aiming for a graduate job straight out of uni, then think of university as a path towards that. It might go ‘volunteering, shadowing, work experience, internship with a SME, internship with a large firm, employment’. Whatever the shape of the path, it’s good to keep the wider picture in mind and to show employers that you’re thinking about the next stage.
So, in conclusion…
At the end of the day, you’re not paying £9,000 a year in fees just to learn your course. A university is a noisy hive of extracurricular activity and personal development opportunities that won’t be as readily available at many other times in your life.
Take advantage of everything on offer and then go a step further and be adventurous. Many final-year students regret not having done so when they leave uni, so get started while you can. It’s not just about your personal development, but also about mixing up your uni experience and having fun on the journey.