Education Nation

Commentary: Perspectives From an Underemployed College Grad

I sit here writing this as a member of what I once thought were two mutually exclusive clubs: graduates of top universities and people still living in their mother’s house. In 2012, I graduated college with a 3.5 GPA – not stellar, but paired with charity work, extracurricular activities, and a degree from the #2 ranked undergraduate business program in the country, it looked like I was in good shape.

More than a year and a half after graduation, the only work I have gotten is a part-time job with the developmentally disabled. I’m not sure how I ended up broke, success-starved, and embarrassed. I feel like I fell through the cracks. Sometimes, I feel like I’m drowning. Don’t get me wrong, I love my job, but I would much rather be volunteering to do it than counting on it as my sole source of income. Plus, the pay certainly doesn’t justify the expense of a college degree.

If you view college as a business transaction, in which you pay to obtain a better job, then clearly this transaction was a miserable failure for me. However, I wouldn’t change my decision to go to school and I won’t stop advocating it to others because college was beneficial in so many other ways. The experiences, the friendships, and the opportunities it provided are inimitable in the “real world.” For instance, I had a chance to study abroad, to work on a project for Rolls-Royce, to mature and to become more independent.

I’m not here to advocate for education policy changes, to bemoan my situation, or to rail against my alma mater. I am writing to share the takeaways from my experience in the hopes that they will prove helpful to someone else. The two things I most undervalued while in school were networking and developing interview skills. With everything I have learned since graduation, I believe the biggest asset any school can offer its students isn’t a degree. Instead it’s the alumni who are willing to talk to them, ready to grant referrals and interviews.

Over the past year and a half, it has become increasingly clear to me that I shouldn’t have viewed college as a place to teach me workplace skills, but rather as a hub in which to meet people. Networking is simultaneously the reason I don’t have a traditional business job (judging from the stories friends have shared about how they got their jobs), the reason that a web series I’m working on has launched, and the reason I have had opportunities to write. As to the importance of interviewing skills, my small mountain of failed interviews is testament enough.

With all that said my advice to undergraduates is to study, get good grades, and participate in clubs relating to your interests but remember that employers will care less about what you learned at school and more about how teachable you seem. Keep in mind that the best resume won’t overcome poor interviewing skills. And finally, meet people, shake hands, and send emails, because the difference between a 3.5 and a 3.6 isn’t as big as the difference between a referral and an anonymous application.

To graduates who have found themselves in a situation similar to mine, the first thing I have to say is very basic: have a clearly defined goal. It’s a lot easier to reach a desired endpoint when you have a destination in mind. Secondly, adopt a new life code because it’s too easy to go home, fall out of the habit of being productive, and lose track of time. The new code: there are no zero days, days that go by where you don’t do something productive to help reach your goal. An overlooked part of the search process is continuing to build your resume and cover letter while unemployed. Work on your own projects to showcase your skills, volunteer for work in your area of interest and take courses relevant to your interests through websites like Coursera. Another way to build your resume is to learn technical skills like computer programming or to gain proficiency in software programs like the Microsoft Office Suite or statistics packages, since they can be beneficial in a variety of careers.

I’ll never regret attending college, even with the student loans. I just wish that I had made more of the opportunity. But that’s a life lesson that extends far beyond college, and it’s never too late to start correcting past mistakes. With enough hard work a better job could be just around the corner.