Not so much words of wisdom, but words of warning
I know what’s going through your mind: I see the whirlwind of fear and excitement. I predict that this next year is going to feel like the busiest year of your life. I know that you’re already tired, worn, and feeling more ready to be done with school than ever before. I know that your brain is buzzing with the scary amounts of caffeine you’ve been consuming on a regular basis and your head hurts behind your eyes from staring at 12pt Times New Roman on an albino screen for three to four years straight.
No, I’m not psychic. I’m just graduating too. But take a moment to stop and breathe and clear your mind. Forget about the mid-semester’s load of homework and that load of unfolded laundry in your floor by your bed because I need your full attention for a second to pass along what I wish a graduate would have told me a year before I was graduating. There are some things that you need to think about before you walk across that stage and enter the mad chaos known as the future.
Firstly, and god this is so important – start saving and paying toward your school loans now. Most loans offer a six-month grace period after graduation before interest kicks in. A six-month gap might seem like plenty of time to process how you’re going to start paying off what could potentially be the dark cloud of debt that follows you around for the rest of your life. But once graduation is here, it’s going to become heavily overwhelming. Eat cheap ( or less ), miss that hair appointment, ditch the Jordans, get a roommate for a year or two, but cut corners and have a little money ready to pay off those loans in chunks and try to escape as much interest as possible. The sooner you get them paid off, the less you will pay in the long run. If you can sacrifice luxury now to devote everything to paying off your future debt, you can enjoy more freedom in your finances later. With everything you’ll have going on once you’re out of school, having a head start on your loans will ease your load and boost your confidence. Yay! In the words of the ever satirical Cat in the Hat, “Isn’t this fun?!” If you are blessed with parents who aim to pay those loans for you, make sure they are the kind of parents whose word you can depend upon. Because if they fail, it’s still your ball and chain.
Don’t get caught up in that “just-to-get-me-through-school” retail or fast-food job. It’s a trap! Promotions, false promises, emotionally abusive management – it’s all part of their scheme. They don’t actually care about your future. But they were trained to give you the minimum, the kitty-cat treat to bamboozle you and entice you to stay – well, blatantly – because “good help is hard to find.” You have rent, gas, and bills to pay like everyone else and retail is often regarded as the only option for college students because of availability, but at least try to keep yourself detached from mirage goals like “corporate” promises. Maybe you’ve heard some of these before in overly-enthusiastic store meetings: “If you work full time for (insert retail company name), you can move up to corporate in no time!” or “We will take care of you.” I’ve had two different retail jobs and worked in the food industry as well, and at all three jobs I’ve been fed the same lines. One manager went as far as recommending me take time off from school to advance my career in fast-food, that my job at this particular restaurant would bless me beyond what I could ever achieve in college. Now, this girl can put away some nuggets and Polynesian sauce, but beyond making some extra cash throughout school, fast-food jobs have nothing to offer writing students. But back up a second: In most cases, not all, your manager doesn’t want you working above them, especially in the company that they were roped into serving, making $12.38 an hour for the rest of their life. People in corporate offices have business degrees. Kids who drop out of school to work 50 hours a week at the local mall often get transferred around to other stores making minimum wage forever. Your management experience at Aeropostale means nothing to your potential writing career and even though you can put “service” or “sales floor experience” on your resume, it’s not something you can put in your portfolio as a journalism major. An ideal solution is to look for entry-level jobs that utilize your communications skills, such as secretarial or front office work. Here you’ll be able to study and write papers for school while answering phone calls or doing desk work tasks.
Land and endure an internship or two – even if they’re not paid. This might sound bleak or impossible, especially if you already have a paying job or two, but trust me on this, internships are necessary, and for some, required by the study plan to graduate. Working night shift at a grocery store to pay the bills while you’re interning somewhere else and gaining experience hours would still benefit you more than working at the outlets for the duration of your last year of college. Because internships are hour-based, the more you work towards the max hour limit the faster you’re finished. The faster you’re finished, the closer you are to getting hired to do what you’re passionate about – writing. Even though the thought of going to school, making good grades, working night shift to pay rent, and working as a part-time intern sounds brutal, it’s more difficult to land a writing internship once you’re no longer a student. So, now is the ideal time to gain experience. You’ve seen the relatable yet exaggerated community school commercials: “I can’t get a job because I don’t have any skills. I don’t have any skills because I didn’t go to school. I can’t go to school because I don’t have a job.” Once you have succeeded in finishing that internship, you have experience to put on your resume, making it easier to get another – maybe even better – internship or to get hired in your career field after you’ve graduated. This is my strategy to avoid the deathly viscous cycle you see in those commercials.
Start building a kick-ass portfolio. If you combine all of those essays you’ve written for your professors in college, you’ll probably have a HP series size stack of papers. They’re all yours. You’ve spent hours grinding the gears of your brain to create those and you’ve learned a lot along the way. Use them! They don’t have to be perfect because even if half of them are the product of procrastination, they can be edited and polished. Besides, we all know that gems are created from extreme pressure and those last-minute, stay-up-all-nighters are some of your best work. They show off your aggressive, fact-driven writing style, creativity, and ability to BS. That’s what we are: creators, editors, perfectionists, and we are dang good at improvising! If you have luck like I do, your computer will crash right about now in your college life and you’ll lose all of those wonderful gemstones that were stored in your “school essays” folder. Fret not. Email your professors. In most cases, they still have your final revised papers stored away on a drive or in their email and because they’ve graded (and in their minds, perfected) those papers, they will be more than happy to send them back to you to use in your portfolio. If your tech-savvy, another idea is to create a digital flip book portfolio in InDesign or another digital book maker. This shows off digital skills and a knack for organization.
Find excuses to write and enter your writing in everything. If you see advertisements for composition competitions in the paper, do it! Even if you think you don’t stand a chance at winning, the purpose of the entry is to get your work published and accessible to the public. Visit your local library and ask about any competitions or opportunities to get your short stories, poems, or articles in the paper or on public websites. You can include these experiences in that killer portfolio for your future employers to look up and see where they’ve been published. If you’re into technical writing, which hopefully you are because most writing jobs require a bit of it, find a local home-grown business and ask if they need technical writing done for their products, or even advertisements like flyers or brochures. These are creative ways to beef up your portfolio because they encase your writing and are publicly distributed.
Build a website or a blog. Companies have started requiring this as part of applications. Blogs give them a peek at who you are when you’re writing to express yourself, not to solely impress. When you’re relaxed and writing about what you want to write about, your writing style is going to be quite different from those essays from school. Most the time, employers look for writers that can go from formal to casual as fast as their assignments change. Be flexible and show off how versatile you can be. Include your website URL in your portfolio for easy access for potential employers.
Build relationships with your professors and stay connected. It takes little to no effort to stay in touch with your professors. If they don’t do social media, send them the occasional email – and by occasional I mean it can be as little as once a year. You’re going to want references later and a good word from someone with a PhD can work wonders. But if you haven’t spoken with someone in a year or two, it can feel intimidating asking them to write a recommendation letter for you. These relationships also come in handy if you just have general questions about writing or need advice. Your past professors are just an email away.
Okay, here’s my last word of advice: Take advantage of your university’s career services. Make appointments for mock interviews. Take your resume and portfolio by the office for them to look over. Ask them for advice! That is what they were hired to do – to help you prepare and land the job of your dreams. They know what is ahead. At my university, career services hosts seminars and student meetings that focus on building resumes and working internships and if I could go back and change one thing about my college history, I would attend more of those events – and use the school gym more, but that’s a story for different day.
It’s a lot to let soak in. But pray, meditate, breathe – whatever helps you relax and gather your thoughts and NEVER ( I’ve been saving my all-caps moment for this ) give up on your goals. We are all in this together. We all move at different paces, but we are headed in the same direction. See you when I get there. I’m OMW!