Why Outside-of-the-Classroom Experience Is So Important

So, you went to school for four years and got your degree. Now what? This is not a question you want to be asking yourself after graduation. That's why it's so important to have relevant internship and job experience throughout your four years at college. Wait, are you telling me that attending my classes, writing my papers and passing my exams isn't going to automatically land me a job? That is exactly what I'm telling you. Pull out your notebooks, folks. I'm about to give you some tips about outside-of-the-classroom experience and tell you why you probably won't be able to convince a company to hire you just because you passed all of your classes. 

One of the most important skills you need to learn in college is how to market yourself as a product

It sounds weird to talk about yourself as a product. But it's true. The whole idea behind getting your degree is that eventually you want to be able to "sell yourself" to employers who will hire you.

Why do we buy certain products over others? Because they do something for us that competing products can't. They stand out. They are reliable, fulfill a need and outshine the rest. This is how you should think of yourself in the job market. What's going to make you stand out from the rest? Certainly not that you've passed all your classes and received a degree. All of your competitors have done the same. Classes are great and give you the foundation you need in your field. But they aren't what's going to differentiate you. You need to have other experiences as well. 

You can start gaining outside-of-the-classroom experiences as early as freshman year...actually, you probably should do this

Although it's probably hard to land your ideal internship freshman year, you should definitely start gaining other experiences that will allow you to eventually achieve your desired internship and job. Good places to look for these experiences are nonprofit organizations and on-campus organizations. Nonprofits can always use the help, and even though you probably won't get paid for your work, it will definitely give you awesome skills that you can bring to future internships. Getting your foot in the door by joining on-campus organizations is always a good idea. You can start small by being a member of an organization, and eventually you can acquire a higher-level role in the organization that can give you truly valuable experiences to talk about while interviewing for future internships and jobs. Doing something other than classes freshman year is also just a great way to meet new people, learn to better manage your time and discover what you're good at.

If you play your cards right, you can land the internship you want

Internships can be great, but they can also be not-so-great. You don't want to work somewhere where you're the coffee slave and not getting paid on top of it. 

So how can I market myself well enough to get a paid internship? Or at least one where I'm doing relevant work? You not only have to have outside-of-the-classroom experiences, but you have to know how to talk about these experiences and connect them to the company at which you're trying to get hired. This means that yes, you need to heavily research the company. I never understand when people apply for internships or jobs at companies they have barely looked into. Companies want to hire people who not only know a lot about them and their work, but who also have a solid idea of how their own skill set can play into and enhance the business. It seems like common sense to know these things, but you'd be shocked at how many people use the same cover letter and resume for every job they apply to and never even look at the company's website. If you want to even be considered, here's what you need to do:

1. Visit the company's website 

Look at every single page. Know who the company has worked with. Know the company's values and beliefs. Look at past work the company has done and why you think it was successful. Look at their job openings page and see what it says they're looking for in potential employees. Carefully read the internship/job description and qualification requirements.

2. Write a personalized cover letter 

Take detailed notes, and use all of this information to write a very personalized cover letter in which you connect your experiences to that of the company. Make no grammatical errors, and show the company that you took the time to research the details. This will make you stand out.

3. Receive a job offer 

Once you land an interview, make it your goal to receive a job offer. Using your company research, figure out possible questions they might ask you. Make a list of every point you want to make in the interview. Practice describing your experiences using the "CAR" method: context, action, result. What is the context behind the experience? What action did you take? Why is it relevant/what was the impact of what you did? It's one thing to say, "I can use Excel." It's an entirely different game when you say, "I saw on your job posting that one of the qualifications for the position is knowing how to use Excel. My organization had this business problem, I decided to strategically use my skills in Excel such as blank and blank to do blank, and as a result my organization was able to blank." This is just a rough example, but you get the idea. Making your experiences relevant to the actual job and company you are applying to and explaining them using the CAR method sounds one million times more impressive than just listing things you've done.

4. Lastly...Be YOU 

I am slightly embarrassed by how cheesy this is. But seriously. Companies don't want to hire a robot or someone who is so rehearsed and researched that they sound fake. You need to be prepared. But you also need to be relaxed and be yourself. It's all about the balance. Try throwing some tasteful sarcasm/humor into your personalized cover letter or your interview (if it's appropriate with that company's culture, of course!). Also, don't force a fit. Don't apply to companies that don't even come close to aligning with your personality and values. You won't be happy in the long run, and neither will they. 

Good internships give you endless takeaways

Having some internship experiences under your belt can do way more than just help you get a job in the future. After landing an amazing public relations internship this past summer, these were just some of the things I was able to takeaway from my experience:

1. Development of important professional habits 

Throughout my internship, I had to keep up with the news every day. Now I continue to keep up with the news, which is very important in my industry.

2. Networking opportunities 

Interning gives you amazing resources in your coworkers and fellow interns. You meet so many people, often people you become friends with who learn your work ethic and skills. Your coworkers become people who in the future can help you fix your resume, write you letters of recommendation, recommend you to the recruiting department once positions open up, let you know what the company is doing after your internship has ended, and even hire you some day. 

3. Professional development 

Without having an internship, it's hard to know exactly what it's like to be in a professional environment. My internship truly helped me develop better communication skills, not only in person with coworkers, but also on the phone and via email with clients. If I hadn't had my internship experience, I could have really embarrassed myself in my future job by having poor communication skills.

4. Knowledge of the office environment

It's basically impossible to know if you'll fit in with a company or not if you've never experienced their office environment. Getting to spend a summer in my own cubicle surrounded by my coworkers, attending events and participating in office happy hours has been eye-opening for me. I have a way better idea of the structure of the office and the company culture.

5. Learning what I still need to learn

This sounds weird. But basically I am thankful I was able to get my internship before my senior year at IU. It actually really opened my eyes to the things I still need to learn and the experiences I was unaware I was lacking in. Now I have this whole school year to improve upon these before I enter the full-time job world. Sometimes experiences that show you where the gaps are in your skill set are the most important.

Setting yourself up to some day land a great internship and job is important. Maybe you're okay with having an internship where your sole purpose is to make coffee runs. (At least you'll learn to order a grande iced soy double espresso hazelnut macchiato in one breath!) But most likely you want to be able to have a valuable experience that will help you develop as a professional and maybe even line you up with a job after graduation. Keep these tips in mind, and hopefully you'll find yourself at an internship like mine where the final intern project included dressing up as 90s kids and singing a cheesy intern version of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme song (or at least one where you do real work, learn a lot and enjoy the company.)

Interns posing after our end-of-the-summer performance

About The Author
Alexea CandrevaJournalism and Communication & Culture major - Class of 2015 - Crown Point, IN

Dog lover. Adventure seeker. DD iced coffee aficionado. Peanut butter addict. Future PR pro.