7 Ways to Gain Executive Experience in College

“Describe your background and how it qualifies you for this job.”

While you wouldn’t be surprised to hear that request in an interview, it may put terror in the heart of any new college graduates without much practical experience. In many cases, even those who earn a college degree come up short when it comes to job search success. How can you avoid looking back at your college days with regret and instead become marketable for a job?

Maria Stein, associate vice president of cooperative education and career development at Northeastern University in Boston, offers the following seven tips to help ensure you gain the experience you need in the C suite while you’re still in school.

1. Find experiential opportunities. There’s no question internships are key for college students. However, you may not realize how useful other experiential opportunities may be. If co-op isn’t an option at your school, Stein suggests you participate in experiential learning to help gain first-hand knowledge and experience. She quotes a Northeastern survey on enhancing higher education outcomes: “Eighty-nine percent of the general public and business leaders say experiential learning is important for students’ success.”

It’s a good idea to explore potential opportunities even before you commit to a school or program of study. Find out if there are local opportunities to get practical experience in fields that interest you. Also ask what contacts your school, career center personnel or alumni department can help you make while you are a student.

Stein suggests you make an effort to participate in internship opportunities as early as freshman year to set yourself apart from your peers.

2. Get entrepreneurial. The workforce as we know it is changing. Accenture’s 2013 Rise of the Extended Workforce report states that: “Twenty to 33 percent of today’s U.S. workforce now comprises independent workers (freelancers, contractors and temps), up from 6 percent in 1989.” Plus, MBO Partners’ 2013 State of Independence in America report suggests the independent workforce will grow to 24 million strong by 2018.

Are you ready to join this economy? Stein says: “Shake things up, solve a problem — start a business.” According to Northeastern’s innovation survey, 73 percent of business leaders want well-rounded grads with a range of abilities. Stein also suggests that people who want to start their own companies investigate school resources or team up with like-minded entrepreneurs. “Bring that entrepreneurial spirit to your experiential opportunities.”

3. Step out of your comfort zone. For most college students, getting useful, hands-on experience requires going outside their traditional comfort zones. Stein advocates for students to, “go abroad, discover new cultures and traditions at home, and do something that challenges them.” She adds: “In a 2012 [Northeastern University] survey that looked at the five things people want from higher education, 76 percent of Americans said a worldwide perspective is an important takeaway.”

4. Network, network, network. It’s important to know people — and for them to know what you have to offer. Don’t hesitate to showcase your expertise and work to extend your personal and professional network throughout your college years. Stein reminds students: “Networking can open up many doors and opportunities you may not have even known existed. Building relationships and making connections across industry will help to make you well-rounded and able to relate to a variety of sectors and positions. You never know where your next opportunity might come from.”

5. Use social media. While you may have heard that social media will contribute to your professional demise, employers pay attention to these networks. You can benefit from this attention as much as you can be hurt by it. Stein’s suggestion for students: “Use tools like LinkedIn to develop your professional brand, interact with others in groups and make connections across industries.”

Jobvite’s 2013 Social Recruiting Survey revealed that 94 percent of companies use social networking tools to recruit. It noted that more recruiters react negatively to posts with profanity (65 percent) and grammar and punctuation errors (61 percent) than to references of alcohol use (47 percent). Use social networks to expand your network, and demonstrate your expertise to connect with hiring managers.

6. Find a mentor. “Personal drive and ambition are key,” Stein says, citing a Northeastern poll that shows that 71 percent of C-suite executives credit these factors for their success.

She adds: “But connections and relationships are too.” Thirty-two percent of those executives credit mentors and advisors. While networking can get you in the door, a mentor can help you throughout your career, as he or she guides you on your path and helps you make the most of your experiences.

7. Tap into career services. It’s never too early to visit your career center. In fact, you should ask to meet with someone from career services when you are visiting colleges, before you choose a school. If you’re applying for internships and other experiential opportunities, you’ll need strong marketing materials, including a résumé, cover letters and online profiles. Stein notes: “Career services staff can help you to develop your job search strategies, facilitate important face time with employers and provide a wealth of resources along every stage of your career journey.”

Miriam Salpeter, owner of Keppie Careers, is often quoted in major media outlets for her job search and social media expertise. Author of three books and a sought-after speaker and coach, she leverages her extensive background and successes to teach job seekers and entrepreneurs how to easily use social media marketing to accomplish their career and business goals. Salpeter also provides strategic advice and support regarding interviewing, résumé writing and personal branding.

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