When I first began college back in 2014, to say that I was clueless would have been an understatement. I didn’t have an older sibling or friend to teach me the ropes of navigating this new world, and I really had no idea where to even begin.
I knew I needed to do really well in class, that college would be a big adjustment from high school, and that I should eventually try to get work experience. If all would go well, I would finish in about 4 years. After graduation, well, we would cross that bridge when we got there.
I had always been told how important college is for so many reasons, and now that I was finally there, it was time to start my “adult” journey. As I navigated my large university ecosystem, I learned that there were so many ways to get involved, build up my resume, and develop myself personally and professionally.
I was also lucky enough to meet an excellent mentor who began to share his advice and experience with me. As I progressed through college, I found myself growing as an individual and saw my confidence and abilities progress as a result.
Now a few years out of college, I wanted to share my experience, knowledge, and advice for professional development for both undergraduate & graduate students.
Professional Development Tips for Graduates and Undergraduates
1. Create a Resume/CV, and Keep It Updated
A resume, also known as a curriculum vitae (CV) in some countries, is a document used to showcase the experience, skills, and accomplishments of the person whom it is written for.
There are millions of variations of resume templates and layouts, each with their own unique presentation style and flair.
As a university student, it is a good professional move to always have an updated resume/CV on hand. Even if you’ve never had work experience before, there are still things you should consider listing on your resume/CV that can showcase your abilities.
Educational background (high school, junior college, undergraduate, etc), extracurricular and volunteer activities, language skills, “hard” and “soft” skills, and certifications are all examples of things that you can consider adding to your existing resume/CV.
One very important thing to note is that what your resume/CV should look like, and the information it should contain, will vary greatly by what country you are in.
For example, in many countries, it is common to limit your resume/CV to just one page, whereas in other countries two or even three pages are commonly used.
Some countries ask you to have a headshot photo on your resume/CV, or include your hobbies, driver’s license information, and so on.
Therefore, when building your resume/CV, I highly recommend that you research the common requirements in your country, and also your intended career field.
As a university student, consider checking out your career services center and booking an appointment with a career coach.
These are qualified professionals who can help read through your current resume/CV and offer valuable tips to improve it. There are also numerous online resume/CV guides you can review for additional help.
Don’t forget that a resume/CV is something that you should constantly be updating with new skills, projects, and work experience.
As you progress through your undergraduate and graduate semesters, you will no doubt be taking on more opportunities to enhance your resume/CV.
I try to get in the habit of revisiting my resume every three months or so to make sure it’s up to date with my most recent work experience, certifications, awards, skills, etc.
2. Make an Effort to Connect With Professors, Staff, and Faculty
While this can be more difficult when it comes to online learning, your professors can prove to be excellent resources for your personal and professional development.
After all, professors were also students at one point. They understand the progression of a university student in your field of interest very well, having experienced it as both a student and now as an educator!
Not only are professors able to help you with your classwork, but professors are often involved in other areas of the university outside of their classroom.
Some professors are chairs of their respective departments, faculty leads of student professional organizations, sports coaches, or internship advisors. By getting to know them, you are gaining a great professional connection at your university.
For the graduate students out there, your thesis or dissertation advisor(s) can also be a wonderful resource that you should be seeking opportunities to get involved with.
Aside from your usual meetings about class and your projects, try to set up additional meetings and opportunities for them to share their valuable advice and experience with you!
By getting to know your professors and other staff & faculty at your university, you are creating a valuable professional network and setting yourself up for great success.
If your professor hears of an exciting opportunity, they are much more likely to share it with a student who they know really well and who they know is motivated. This student should be you!
3. Join a Student Professional Organization
A student professional organization is a university club that focuses primarily on professional development, career exploration, and networking in a particular field.
While the term itself can vary by university, examples of an ‘SPO’ could be the Student Accounting Association, Computer Engineering Cohort, Marketing Association, Mock Trial, or any other society that helps to nurture student professional development.
There are many benefits to joining such a group, especially as early on in your college career as possible. Getting to meet other people in your career field of interest can help you learn more about the field and meet some excellent contacts.
You can also become involved in exciting projects and activities which will help you build your leadership and teamwork skills.
Because of their professional nature, many of these student professional organizations work with real companies to gain a unique insight into the field.
For example, I was a member of the student-run newspaper, which allowed me to write on a variety of current news topics at my university. I was able to learn interview skills, photography, and journalistic standards which helped instill my love for writing and storytelling.
These types of professional organizations are excellent networking experiences, and can also help you realize whether or not you enjoy the field you’re intending to pursue after graduation!
Try researching the student organizations that exist at your university. If there aren’t any available in your career field, try joining another organization that relates to volunteering, leadership, activism, or a sport or hobby you’re interested in. The more opportunities you can get involved in, the better!
4. Create a LinkedIn Profile
Since its inception in 2002, LinkedIn has grown to become the world’s most popular professional networking site. It is reported that over 650 million people use LinkedIn, making it a networking gold mine.
What makes LinkedIn different from other social sites like Facebook or Instagram is its strong focus on professionalism, networking, and job hunting.
I first created my LinkedIn when I was 16 and got my first job as a lifeguard. At the time, that job was the only thing I could showcase on my profile and probably wasn’t impressive to anyone.
But, as I continued through college and took on different internships, leadership roles, volunteering, and won awards as a result, my LinkedIn profile began to expand greatly. Similar to a resume/CV, a LinkedIn profile is a very beneficial thing to have ready to go, and it’s important to keep it updated as well.
The process of creating a LinkedIn profile is incredibly easy and free to do, even if it takes you a bit of time to get used to the layout. LinkedIn offers the ability to add your existing resume/CV, your publications and articles, photos, job experience, educational experience, certifications and awards, and much more all on your profile page!
There are many ways to make even a basic LinkedIn profile stand out. You’ll want to have a professional headshot as your profile picture so you make an excellent first impression.
Think about a strong personal summary (3-4 sentences) that will appear at the top of your profile and explain who you are and the types of opportunities you’re looking for. You can research some examples of good, strong summaries by people in your career field if you want some inspiration.
Another very useful aspect of LinkedIn is its recommendations feature. At the bottom of your profile page, there is a feature that allows people to recommend you for certain skills, and even write their recommendation for you (like a mini reference letter)!
This is a key aspect that many recruiters on LinkedIn will look at to get a better idea of your character, so keep this in mind. Many of your previous supervisors, colleagues, or even professors likely have LinkedIn accounts, so consider asking them to write a recommendation for you!
LinkedIn is also very commonly used for employment and job searching. You can look up job opportunities in your area, and recruiters can find your page if you are listed in the sector that they are recruiting for.
Each time you meet someone at an event and build a new connection, be sure to add them on LinkedIn to stay in touch!
5. Take a Professional Headshot Photo (or Several)
This is a very simple professional development tip that is often overlooked – having a professional headshot photo ready to go in case the need arises. This is the type of photo that you want to have on your LinkedIn profile, and on your resume/CV if this is a requirement in your country.
Many professionals state that your headshot photo should match your personal “brand” and can vary according to your industry.
When it comes to headshot photos, you want this to be a strong representation of you in the most professional way possible.
Below are some of my tips based on my own experience taking headshots:
- Find your inspiration – If you’re working with a photographer for this, they will likely research some poses and layouts for you to review and try for yourself. If you’re not working with a professional photographer, you will want to do this research on your own. Check the internet to see the types of headshots that people have and find a few that you really like. Even though it seems simple, there are many different types of headshots and it’s important to find a few styles you want to replicate. For example, do you like a colored photo, or black and white? Do you like a plain background or a photo taken in front of flowers or a nice landscape? Consider these details as you prepare for your own photo session.
- Wear appropriate attire – To my above point, this can vary by your field so think about your target audience. Someone in the field of law or finance may choose to wear a very professional outfit like a suit, for example. A piece of advice that someone told me is that you should wear an outfit that you would wear to meet a client at your job. In some cases, this means business attire, while in other fields like creative or design, something more casual may be acceptable and more on-brand. My personal advice with headshot photos is when in doubt, dress in business attire.
- Lighting and background – Focus on choosing an area with good lighting and a plain background for your photo. If you don’t have any good indoor space, you can also take your photo outside and blur the background with some simple editing. If you have the ability to work with a photographer who has experience taking professional headshot photos, this is ideal and likely will produce the best results.
- Pay attention to details – When it comes to taking a high-resolution photo of yourself, make sure you’re diligent in your attention to detail. Since the photos will be high quality, the camera may pick up things that normal photos do not. This means to make sure your hair is done properly, you’re happy with your makeup (if applicable), and that there aren’t any wrinkles in your clothes. Again, the HD aspect of the camera will pick up all these things so take extra care to check your photos for any mistakes. Even if you hate taking pictures of yourself, trust me when I say that you’ll want to make sure you’re happy with your headshot photos.
- Act “natural” – Having taken headshot photos many times, I can tell you from experience that it can be a bit daunting at first. You’re all dressed up and look great, the lighting is set, and your photographer is ready to go. Because of this, it can feel a bit unnatural and make you feel a bit of stage fright. Try to act natural and have fun with the experience. If you can, bring a friend with you who can help you relax, make you laugh, and try to get you to smile naturally. Try a few different poses and layouts and again, just have fun with it!
6. Rehearse Your “Elevator Pitch”
If you’ve ever taken any sort of career development seminar, you’ve definitely heard the term “elevator pitch”. An elevator pitch is a very short (usually 30-60 second) summary of you and your experiences.
The name comes from the idea of meeting someone in an elevator, where you only have about a minute to introduce yourself before the elevator ride ends. The idea is that you never know who you might bump into at an event, at the office, or in an elevator of course, so you want to be prepared!
An elevator pitch, along with the aforementioned resume/CV and LinkedIn profile, is something you should add to and update occasionally. It can be something as simple as your name, current field of study (as a student), and what you’re interested in.
Think about it like you were presenting to a potential hiring manager but only had about a minute – who are you and what are you interested in doing?
While it does sound simple, fitting an adequate description of yourself in under a minute is actually quite difficult. This is again why it is important to practice, so you understand your elevator pitch and can recite it on cue.
It may also be a good idea to get feedback on your elevator pitch just like you get feedback on your resume/CV.
Try reaching out to your career services center, or a professor or staff member at your university and see if you can practice your elevator pitch to them!
As a university student, your first and foremost goal should be completing your university studies and working towards obtaining a job in your field. As you approach graduation, you will also notice growth as you take on internships, leadership opportunities, and engage in professional development.
In my experience, college at the undergraduate and graduate level is a lot about what you make it. My advice is to aim to be a well-rounded individual with a mixture of experiences, skills, and achievements both in and outside of the classroom. Stay proactive, and manage your time wisely. Set goals for yourself, and don’t stop until you achieve them!