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Setting yourself up for success: Things you can do while you’re an undergrad

It may be ideal to attend graduate school after you've become a junior expert in your field through work experience. But if you are determined to go to grad school directly from undergraduate—and in fact, there are some fields in which this is encouraged—this section will help you prepare. (You'll still want to gain real-world work experience to prepare for your future career, but there are ways to get that while you're still in school. Keep reading!)

If you set out to enroll in grad school directly after college, preparation is essential. The most important task is getting skills and experience in your field so that you have confidence in your decision and so that the schools you apply to know you are ready. By gaining experience during your undergraduate years, you'll know the language, leaders, and trends in your field; you'll know if you really belong there, and be familiar with the variety of ways you can use your graduate degree to shape your future career.

Do your best job

The simplest way to set yourself up for successful admission to grad school and a smooth career transition is simply by working hard during your undergraduate years. By being diligent, earning good grades, and participating on and off campus, you'll attract fans—people in your network who want to help you succeed in your next steps.

Benefits of doing your best work include:

  • The organizations you've been volunteering or interning with will want to hire you if they can.
  • Your professors, club leaders, and peers will want to give you a good reference. They will take an interest in mentoring you, as an extension of themselves. They'll want you to become part of their legacy.
  • You'll have great experiences to share at your school—or job—interviews. Your accomplishments will be reflected in your resume, statements of purpose, and cover letters.
  • You'll have gained the skills and confidence you need to succeed, in school and in future jobs.

Take advantage of undergraduate life

Take advantage of being an undergraduate student. College and university campuses are full of resources and opportunities to help you succeed.

Classes: Choose your classes wisely. Take classes based not only on requirements for your bachelors degree, but also on what you'll need to know for grad school. For example, macroeconomics classes are prerequisites for some international affairs programs. Find out what your priority schools require before you arrive, and work on those classes now. Use your classes to learn the language, current trends, and major players in your field. The authors of studies you are reading now might become your advisors in grad school! Some classes have a component that allows you to get practical experience, too—sometimes called practica or practicum. Finally, you may be able to enroll in graduate-level courses in your field, which will not only prepare you for grad school, help your professors take you seriously, and allow you to network with current grad students, but will also help you clarify if this kind of work is compelling to you and if you are good at it.

Professors: Visit your professors outside of class. Office hours are sometimes a quiet, lonely time for professors. Even if they enjoy the time to get work done, they must face the sad truth that they are often most popular just before an exam or paper. Going to office hours—of your own professors and even professors you admire from afar—helps professors get to know you by name, and gives them a chance to mentor you in the best field in the world (theirs). They will have connections at graduate institutions, and can introduce you to programs you might not have known of, explain the differences between a Ph.D. and a masters in your field, and talk to you about the realities of life in academia.

Professors who know you better as a person will also be more willing to write letters of recommendation for your grad school applications and be better able to write about you in those letters.


Know before you go

Before visiting a professor, it's always good to find out about any of their recent publications and at least scan them, so you have something fun to chat about! This is true for teaching assistants, too. Bonus: you might learn what they really want on that upcoming paper or exam, which could help you get a better grade. And who knows, you may become friends, and later, professional colleagues!


Clubs: Take on leadership roles among groups of people doing things you are passionate about—from media (radio stations and campus papers), to environmental activism, to pre-professional groups. Participating in a campus club is a unique opportunity to learn and lead—not easily replicated after graduation. It also demonstrates commitment to and passion for an issue, cause, or field. Commitment to cause and upward movement in related clubs matter!

Service-learning opportunities: After you graduate, you'll have opportunities to volunteer or serve. As an undergraduate, you have the valuable opportunity to serve while being guided by a syllabus, a professor, and relevant readings.


Idealist.org can help

In addition to your college career center, you can find opportunities using Idealist's free services:


Career center: Use the free services offered by the people whose job it is to help you find internships, teach you about the job search, and listen to your dreams. After you graduate, your career center may still help you—though sometimes they charge a fee for alumni. Career center staff may also connect you with alumni who can offer advice about what to study and how to launch a career.

Research funding and resources: In grad school, you'll lead your own research projects and you may even need to fund your research. Undergraduate research grants may be available to you now, to fund a thesis or other project. Your undergraduate research can showcase the quality of your thinking and writing. This is another reason to get to know your professors and visit your school's career center—they may be able to help you explore these resources.

On-campus jobs: Campuses are full of interesting paid jobs. Landing one of these jobs as a student is typically much less competitive than it will be after you graduate. Some examples: run a literary journal or edit a section of the campus paper, assist a professor with research, serve as a resident assistant for the school year or summer session, or work in departmental offices where you have close contact with professors.

Events and speakers: Become conversant in your field by participating in events and listening to guest speakers who play a role in your future world. Sometimes special guests to campus eat lunch with a group of select students—if this is the case, find out who is putting together the luncheon, and ask to attend. This may be a wonderful opportunity to begin networking with experts in your field.

Professional associations: Many professional fields have associations with journals, lectures, conferences, and networking possibilities. Examples include the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) and the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management (APPAM). Professional associations often have reduced membership rates for undergrads. Your school may even be willing to pick up the cost.

Competitions: Academic competitions can bring (modest) fame and fortune. And competing in projects in your field can teach you a great deal, even if you don't win.

Fellowships only open to undergraduates: Fellowships can pay for graduate study, or fund a gap year experience before grad school. If you can, start looking as a sophomore or junior, and prioritize those that require student status to apply. This is yet another reason to become familiar with your career center.

Study, volunteer, and travel abroad: Most campuses have an office of study abroad with staff who can alert you to opportunities to learn in another country. International experience allows you to learn or test your foreign language abilities, hone cross-cultural skills, and see the world in a different light. No matter what your future field, expanding your horizons by spending time abroad will help bring you closer to your goals.

Gap year opportunities: Taking a year off of school, either before your first year, or some time before senior year, is another way to get the experience you need to be successful in grad school. Examples include participating in a year of service (AmeriCorps, for example), or serving as a volunteer in a foreign country through a third-party service or network.

Take advantage of time off: Interning and volunteering

Finding volunteer and internship positions

  • Search Idealist.org
  • Chapter Five of the Idealist Guide to Nonprofit Careers has lots more advice on finding these positions.
  • Talk to people your peers about interesting organizations they know

Sometimes the skills you want simply can't be gotten in on- and off-campus jobs. Few better ways exist to get a good feel for a particular work setting or career field than to intern or volunteer. These opportunities grant you an insider's view and a chance to see what the career field or type of organization that interests you is really like close-up. They also allow you to try out new skills, test knowledge from the classroom, and understand an issue or work culture better.

While you are extremely busy as a college student, for the sake of lifelong happiness it really makes sense to clear an evening or weekend morning per week to volunteer or take an unpaid internship that lets you explore your interests. At the very least, use your summers and breaks wisely by looking for internships and volunteer opportunities in your field. Often the path to finding your life's calling is to try a variety of pursuits to discover which one suits you best.

For example: If you are interested in fundraising or grantwriting, try to find a local after-school youth mentoring program in need of your time and energy. If you want to explore your feelings about direct service, try volunteering to help low-income or limited-English-language adults prepare their tax forms, or volunteer in a free urgent-care clinic.

You can balance a part-time unpaid internship by taking on a part-time job elsewhere if you need to earn money during your summer.

Such opportunities will also connect you to a broader network of public service professionals—people who will be priceless resources as you look to your future. You can ask these contacts for informational interviews, and for guidance in choosing a field or a grad school.

Keep reading on page 2 for more ideas on setting yourself up for success.