A college job can be a chore. Or it can be the doorway to future success. The choice is yours.

I asked Michael Hampton, director of career development for Western Oregon University, for advice on how college students should approach work. What should they look for in a job? What should they try to get out of it? Are college jobs really that important? We drafted the following seven tips, which we believe can help you to get the most out of your college work experience.

Connect Jobs With the Future
Try to connect your jobs — even part-time jobs — with something you enjoy doing. Ideally each job would relate to something you think you might want to do later in life. (This isn’t always possible — it’s an ideal.) This can help you determine if the job is actually a good fit. Test-drive jobs like you would test-drive cars. Students often think they want the prestige and feel of the glamorous BMW/Lexus job, but after a while they realize they’re better suited for a Honda/Nissan job. The opposite happens, too.

(Michael has a personal example. He once sought and obtained a glamorous BMW/Lexus job working for Nike. Though he liked the job, he came to realize that his personality was better suited for a Honda/Nissan job — advising college students.)

Do Your Best
Whichever job you choose, do your best. Don’t treat it like a chore. If you approach your work with a good attitude, a willingness to learn, and a spirit of excellence, you will set yourself so far apart from your peers that your employers will be forced to take notice.

Learn How to Work
Use any job to evaluate the work style of your supervisor and coworkers. Pay attention to what you like and dislike about how people operate at work. Notice who gains the respect of their supervisors, who seems to be in the dog-house, who gets the better work assignments. Emulate the people who are closest to what you consider the ideal work style. Learn from other’s mistakes and successes and adapt accordingly.

Don’t Spread Yourself Too Thin
Remember that you’re in school to learn. It’s nice to have money for beer and pizza, but it is study that will repay you in the long-run. When possible, favor fewer jobs to more jobs. There was once a time I was doing all of the following:

  • Working in the school’s A/V department from 8-9 three mornings a week. [3 hours/week]
  • Answering phones in summer events from 4-5 every weekday afternoon. [5 hours/week]
  • Working at a local coffee and dessert place from 7-11 three nights a week. [12 hours/week]
  • Waiting tables at a restaurant from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays and from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Sundays. [14 hours/week]
  • Serving as a resident assistant for a floor of 54 freshman men.

I enjoyed each of these jobs, and am glad to have had the experiences, but I was spread so thin that I could not excel at anything. And my studies suffered. It would have been better to find one job that could give me the hours and money I needed, and to have devoted myself to it exclusively.

Learn How to Network
While you’re working, you’re also networking — with employers, with coworkers, and with customers. It may sound crazy, but the connections you make on a college job can be parlayed into something greater, if you’re ready to do so.

I once worked at a coffee and dessert place that was owned by a man from one of Oregon’s wealthiest and most influential families. He was heir to a department-store fortune. He was chief of staff to a United States Senator. He spent most of his time on the East Coast, hobnobbing with the political elite. I spoke with this man at least once a week, sometimes more. But I was a cypher to him — just a cog in the machine. If I had taken the time and the effort to excel at his store, to become more than just a nameless employee, I could have formed a useful connection.

The summer after I graduated, I worked as an A/V aide on campus. One day, I was drafted to give a tour to an incoming freshman and his family. I was sincerely passionate about the school, and made a good impression. As the father was leaving, he gave me a business card. “You should call me,” he said. “I think I have a job for you.” I never did call him, and it’s probably one of the dumbest things I’ve ever (not) done. (Because this led directly to the worst job I ever had.)

Networking is often just being open to the chance encounters that come your way.

Foster “Planned Happenstance”
Michael speaks with students all the time about “planned happenstance” (outlined in the book: Luck Is No Accident by Krumboltz & Levin). The basic principle is that “you should be aware of your surroundings, take a risk, even with rejection as a possible outcome, and be adaptable and open-minded. Unplanned events — chance occurrences — more often determine life and career choices.” No one can control or foresee what happens on a day-to-day basis. Those people who accept and embrace this concept, and who realize these “accidents” are opportunities, experience positive changes. A person lives the planned happenstance life when they prepare for the unexpected, and make the most out of those experiences.

Learn From Others
One of the best ways to market yourself in any job is to ask questions. Learn from the wisdom of others. Most people love to talk about themselves and what they do. Tap into that. Ask questions, even if you know some of the answers already (even if you have more knowledge about that particular subject). Leave your ego at the door. It is amazing how much respect you can gain by working hard and asking questions. You should never need to sell yourself through overeager speech and rhetoric. (Don’t be a brown-noser.) Let your actions and questions speak for you.

A college job is not just about earning money for pizza and beer; you can earn money doing almost anything. You’re at the ground floor of life. What you do now establishes the foundation for everything to come. Make smart choices. Work hard. Be open to chance.

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