Advice to My Students

One of the volunteer activities that I’ve had the joy of being involved in for the past several years is the mentorship program put on by USC’s engineering school. It’s been neat to hear how things are going on campus, to find out which amazing/terrible/eccentric professors are still teaching, and to impart a little of the wisdom that I’ve gained post-college from the school of hard knocks.

Perhaps it’s because I graduated during the recession, but I feel like there is so much about careers and job searching and adult responsibility that college doesn’t prepare you for. And while I am proud to be a USC graduate, I felt at times during college that I drank the Kool-Aid that an engineering degree from a prestigious university would all but guarantee that job with a six-figure salary. Lies!

Over the years, I come up with a handful of observations and insights that might not be obvious to new graduates. They certainly weren’t obvious to me! I hope this bit of advice might be useful not only to students, but to those who are looking to change careers, or anyone who might be going through a life adjustment.

Your School’s Ranking Really Doesn’t Matter in the Long Run

While it certainly doesn’t hurt to have a Stanford engineering degree or a Harvard business degree, for many industries, practical experience trumps university prestige.

I came to realize this when I learned from a church friend where Apple does a good bit of it’s hiring – the local community colleges! The reason, I was told, was that these colleges do a good job at teaching the on-demand skills that Apple needs, such as practical programming and circuit design.

Now, I’m not necessarily saying to go to junior college instead of a university, but focus your learning through the lens or practical experience rather than simply reading textbooks and gaining head knowledge. Let’s face it: robots and computers already have an edge when it comes to regurgitating facts. Instead, highlight projects you’ve worked on, and the lessons you’ve learned through them. If you’ve already graduated, find out what skills are in-demand in the industry you’re interested in, and find ways to learn them, whether independently, or in a formal setting.

Then, move that important-sounding college and degree to the bottom of your resume and let those skills shine brightly at the top!

Volunteering is Not Beneath You

I shared in a previous post how important I believe it is for one to actively volunteer for a cause, no matter who you are. Not only is it a humbling experience being reminded that world doesn’t revolve around us and our obsessive ambition to become popular and maximize profits, but volunteering can teach you unexpected, yet valuable skills and lessons that can contribute to your personal or professional self-development.

There are so many groups and organizations doing good in the community, so I suggest researching some opportunities, spend some time volunteering, and serve willingly and often! While you can certainly utilize the skills and talents you already possess, I highly suggest trying to serve in areas that are outside your comfort zone. It’s a great opportunity to learn something new and demonstrate flexibility and versatility.

And while you’re at it, don’t post about it to your Instagram story. Don’t tweet it out to everyone. Put your phone away and serve selflessly and without any distraction, knowing yourself that you did something meaningful. Unless you were genuinely moved by the experience and absolutely need to share it, your followers really don’t need to know.

Learn to Write Effectively

I used to dread writing. English was by far my weakest subject in high school, and I halfheartedly pulled myself through the two required writing classes in college. So it’s certainly a little ironic that the opportunity to write for Medgadget has proven to be the most meaningful and rewarding job I’ve ever held!

Effective writing seems to be a decreasing form of communication these days. We seem to just not have the attention span to compose thorough, effective messages, let alone read them. We’ve reduced the craft to 280 typo-ridden words, prefaced our pieces with “tl;dr” summaries, and replaced written correspondence with email text messages emojis. For this reason, I believe that the ability to write effectively will become less and less common, and yet consequently, even more attractive.

So learn to write. It doesn’t have to be a five-paragraph essay on a book written by a dead guy, but learn to write clearly, critically, and thoroughly about something. Start a blog. Write to a local politician. Research freelance writing opportunities. And it doesn’t matter if your job doesn’t remotely involve writing; this skill will help in other areas of your life and will help you come across as more intelligent and confident.

Become a Confident Networker

On the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, I skew quite heavily toward introvert, and it’s one type that is fairly accurate. I honestly dread affairs where I have to work through crowded rooms, impressing the flesh with small talk to land an opportunity or meet important people. It saps my energy and makes me eventually long for some quiet and solitude.

But networking, specifically in-person, is another one of those skills that are dying with advancements in technology. And yet, there are so many advantages to face-to-face networking that technology can’t offer. So, my advice to both fellow introverts and extraverts – learn to network well.

While I’ll likely never learn to love networking, I’ve found some ways to make it a little easier to do:

  • Make business cards to hand out and exchange, even if you’re not employed. Print your own or use VistaPrint. If you’re job-seeking, hand these out instead of a resume (unless you’re at a job fair); that way you don’t come across as desperate and disingenuous.
  • Prepare and practice an introduction. Make it simple, and don’t be afraid to use it over and over again to everyone in the room.
  • Think of a list of questions that you can ask people. It’ll help keep the conversation going, and you’ll come across as interested.
  • Practice smiling. My “neutral” gaze tends to look a little angry/uninterested/intimidating (I think they call it a “resting b*%&# face”?), so I need to constantly remind myself to smile.
  • End with a call to action. Ask the person to get in touch with you further, or explain that you’ll be following up shortly. Anything to help that person keep you in mind. Treat it as if you’re ending a successful first date!

Find Your Passion – and Hype the Heck Out of It!

Do you have a passion for something? You probably have hobbies you enjoy, but what is the thing that drives you? What is it that you can spend hours talking about, the thing that others say causes your eyes to become wide and your voice excited? What do you spend money on without a second thought? What is the one thing you wish everyone around you should know more about?

Whether it’s STEM education, the eradication of human trafficking, songwriting, or politics, I believe it’s important to identify the something that you are passionate about. Sure, it’s commendable to have a diversity of interests, but I think if you can show a depth of knowledge and interest in even a single subject, it tells a lot about your personality. You showcase your expertise, but you also demonstrate dedication to a subject, creativity in learning, thinking, and applying. You tend to be easier to identify (“You’re the medtech guy!”).

Once you’ve discovered what you’re passionate about, don’t keep it to yourself! Write about it, talk about it, and advocate for it. Keep learning everything you can and share everything you know about it. Hype the heck out of it, and make it yours!

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