Making the Grade

Eight things to do in college to be successful in your career.

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Thursday, January 01, 2009

A successful career begins before your graduate, not afterward. Consider these pointers from those experienced enough to know.

1. Take leadership roles.

The best way to learn to lead is to do it. Generation Y has been raised to be great team playersin everything from school to work to social lives. Gen Y is a generation that will live its life out in groups. But for all the hoopla about being on a soccer team where everyone plays, there has been very little focus on leadership for young people. You can address a deficit like this by taking leadership positions in college, and courses in leadership (especially if you can get someone else to pay for it).

2. Get a good internship.

Eighty percent of graduating seniors will have completed at least one internship, according to Mark Oldman, co-founder of Vault, a media company for career information. "In the United States an internship is no longer an optional benefit but an essential stepping stone for career success," says Oldman. So part of your job as a student is to line up good internships. The way to set yourself up for success as an adult is to balance the school stuff and the work stuff—even now, before you graduate.

3. Don't worry about straight As.

There is little correlation between how well someone does in school and how well that person does in adult life. School rewards people who follow rules and are motivated by grades. Adult life requires people to figure out how to steer themselves and motivate themselves. Spend your time in school doing something besides studying so that you will steer well when you graduate. People who spend their college years getting straight As often say they regret it.

4. Be a joiner--spots, fraternity, cheerleading.

Cheerleaders do better in business than everyone else except athletes, who do as well as cheerleaders. So be a joiner. Figure out how to work in teams and how to exude enthusiasm even in the face of bad news. And, when it comes to building networks, a fraternity is a ready-made network of people who are generally similar to you, so get started in college, when it feels more like a party than a network.

5. Read novels, even if they're not assigned.

Tiziana Casciaro, professor at Harvard Business School, says,"How we value competence changes depending on whether we like someone or not." And people who lack social competence end up looking as if they lack other competencies as well. This is why social skills are as important as other workplace skills. The best way to learn social skills is to put down your books and go meet new people. But if you insist on reading, pick up a novel. It will require you to understand what motivates people, and that, after all, is what social skills are all about.

6. Take a Myers Briggs test—know your strengths.

We are each born with strengths and weaknesses. Instead of banging your head against the wall trying to change who you are, take a personality test and discover your strengths. Then forget about overcoming your weaknesses and focus instead on leveraging your strengths. Many studies conducted at the Gallup Institute show that we find success through our strengths, but you have to know them in order to leverage them. Most people wait too long to take a test. Take yours now, in college.

7. Start a company.

You can run a company out of your dorm room. Try anything. It's free. The software is free, the viral marketing is free (your friends list), and your time is almost free, since you wouldn't be getting paid right now anyway. So even if your business does nothing, you will have the experience of starting one, and that will give you the confidence to try many more times after you graduate, when the stakes are higher.

8. Turn a professor into a mentor.

People with mentors are more likely to do well in work than people without them. It is hard to find mentors and hard to keep them motivated to help you. So start practicing now, with your professors. They want to help, and, like corporate mentors, professors want to help the people who are most motivated to help themselves. A professor can give advice, make a connection, or tell you about his or her own travails. In any case, the more you are able to show that you used the advice, the more likely you will be to get more help.

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