8 Crucial Things to Do Before You Graduate College to Get Ahead of the 99%

How to level up your life and career while still in college.

Most people’s trajectory of life looks like this:

  1. Be born (without wanting to)
  2. Grow up a little
  3. Go to school
  4. Go to college
  5. Get a job
  6. Stay at the job
  7. (Maybe) get married
  8. Die (without wanting to)

But the fun part is you don’t have to follow this exact trajectory, you just think you do. There’s a lot you can do in the middle. In this article, I’ll tell you what you can do when you’re on #4 i.e in college.

Keep in mind, though, if you’ve graduated already you might regret reading this because you probably never thought you could do all of this stuff while in college. If you’re still in college though, good news. You still have time. What I’ll share with you now will get you ahead of the 99% because, as I said, most people don’t even think they can do all of this cool stuff.

And I’m not telling you this stuff because I heard it from someone else and thought it would make a great clickbaity article. I’m telling you everything I did during my last three years in college. And how it leveled up my life.

Let’s dig into it.

1. Apply to Cultural Exchange Programs

Wondering why? Let me explain.

In 2019, I flew to the US from Pakistan for a cultural exchange program for writers. Attending a writing program when you’re a psychology major doesn’t make sense if you think of it, but then a lot of things don’t make sense while you’re doing them, only later.

I met people from India, the US, and Haiti. Apart from learning creative writing, I learned about cultures, global citizenship, and fulfilled my dream of solo travel.

When you’re on a cultural exchange program, you enjoy a range of things- exploring a different city, learning a subject you’re passionate about in a thrilling environment, enjoying late-night movies and cupcakes with strangers who turned into lifelong friends, and spending time alone getting to know yourself. You also build something called ‘cultural intelligence’ which is defined by Harvard Business Review as:

“An outsider’s seemingly natural ability to interpret someone’s unfamiliar and ambiguous gestures the way that person’s compatriots would”.

It’s a skill that will be in high demand in workplaces in the future but more on that later.

Bottom line: Cultural exchange programs are once in a lifetime opportunities. You don’t even need thousands of dollars to attend them. Some of them are fully-funded and the one I attended was one.

Here are a few websites where you can explore exchange programs:

2. Attend Virtual and in-person Events

When I was in my sophomore year, I attended a startup event where I pitched a business idea in a room full of people. I thought my idea was stellar and would wow the audience. Instead, it flopped miserably. I felt so embarrassed that I stuffed sandwiches in my mouth and ran home before the event even ended.

But looking back, it was a huge learning experience and my first taste of entrepreneurship.

I’ve also attended workshops where I learned photography, calligraphy, and writing. There I connected with people who introduced me to more learning opportunities and more people. It was brilliant.

By attending events, seminars, and workshops you learn practical stuff from industry experts and professionals that you can’t otherwise learn inside your classroom. You also connect with like-minded people.

3. Talk to Your Professors Outside of Classes

Your professors aren’t just there to deliver lectures and grade your assignments. They’re also professionals in their areas of specialization. Some of them are doing things or have done things that you aspire to do one day in your life. Go the extra mile and approach them during after-class hours to get advice on career, jobs, business ideas you may have, etc.

Not all professors will welcome you and not all of them will give the answers you’re hoping to hear but you have to find the right ones and make them your mentors.

When I was in my freshman year, I wanted to become a life coach. But after talking to one of my professors, I realized it wasn’t really a viable career path in the country where I live. In subsequent years, I consulted my professors to learn about different career paths in my field and gauge their practicality. Even though I didn’t agree with them sometimes, it was good to hear a second opinion on things from people who had relevant knowledge and experience.

4. Start a Side Hustle

One of the best decisions I made in college was starting a blog. Even though it didn’t turn out as expected, I learned a lot of business lessons at a very young age that most people learn too late when they’re not in a position to take huge risks.

While my blog failed, I succeeded in freelancing and make a good income from it.

The point is your college years are the perfect time to take risks, experiment with different side hustles, and learn business lessons. Once you graduate and start working a 9–5, you don’t get a lot of time to do side projects. Secondly, you’ll then be an adult who’s responsible for paying bills, rent, and putting food on the table so you can’t take many risks.

Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash

Starting a side hustle in college doesn’t mean you have to model Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Larry Page, and the like and build huge companies.

It simply means you invest in one or several passion projects that will make you money but most importantly, allow you to do what you love. You can choose to work a 9–5 after you graduate or grow your side projects into a full-time business or do both.

5. Do Internships

This is contrary to the previous point I discussed. Why do internships when you’re starting a business?

Because you never know.

You never know if you’ll want to keep your business several months later. You never know if you’ll want to work in a cubicle after you graduate. You never know if you’ll want to do both.

So do both.

Get work experience. Learn professional skills. Explore different sides of your career. See what kind of job suits you, what lifestyle you would prefer. College is the best time to experiment with all of this.

Sure you’ll get the opportunity to work different jobs once you graduate but by then you will be under a lot of pressure from family, friends, and society to settle down, earn a hefty salary, and marry. So you’ll work just for the sake of money and conforming to the norms.

But in college, you can experiment with different job positions, explore your interests, get hands-on job experience, and connect with professionals who can potentially give you job leads.

Here’s a list of websites where you can hunt internship opportunities:

6. Focus on Learning Skills, Not Building a Multimillion-Dollar Empire

When you’re 20, it’s easy to compare yourself to Kylie Jenner who built a multimillion-dollar empire at your age, and think you suck. But it’s also easy to overlook that her whole life was architectured for her before she was even born. So yeah, Kylie and you have different lives.

So instead of trying to build a multimillion-dollar empire when you’re in college, focus on building skills that will pay dividends in the long run.

There are two kinds of skills: hard skills and soft skills.

Hard skills are technical and quantifiable skills that you typically write in your resume and cover letter. Programming, database management, data analysis, web development, etc are hard skills. You learn them in your college classes.

Soft skills are not easily observable or quantifiable. They can be thought of as ‘people skills’ and include communication, problem-solving, teamwork, time management, persuasion, and emotional intelligence.

You need to develop skill sets in both of these categories. When you graduate and start hunting for jobs, you’ll need to bring a mix of these skills to the table. Employers today are not just looking for certificates and degrees but someone who’s able to work with teams, handle tasks under pressure, and demonstrate emotional intelligence. If you’re only adept at hard skills, you’ll soon be replaced by robots. It’s the soft skills that will ultimately give you an advantage over AI and other humans.

Even if you don’t plan to work a traditional job, you’ll still need these skills in your business, in your home, and in relationships.

Here’s a list of skills that will be in-demand in the future according to Forbes and Inc:

  • Creativity
  • Emotional Intelligence
  • Analytical (critical thinking)
  • Active learning with a growth mindset
  • Judgment and decision making
  • Interpersonal communication skills
  • Leadership skills
  • Diversity and cultural intelligence
  • Embracing change

If you’re still in college, work on getting these skills under your belt. The good news is you don’t have to pay thousands of dollars to learn them. Take free courses from websites like Coursera, edX, and FutureLearn. If you want to level up and go for paid options, try Skillshare, Udemy, and Masterclass.

7. Befriend People Who Are Passionate About Something

Bill Gates and Paul Allen, co-founders of Microsoft, were college buddies.

So were Jerry Yang and David Filo, co-founders of Yahoo.

There are a dozen other examples of companies that were founded by friends who met in college.

College is not like high school where you’re too naive and chill to think about the future. And it’s not like corporate where you’ve already figured out what to do with your life and beginning to settle down. It’s somewhere in the middle.

Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

In college, you meet people who are in the process of figuring things out and have big goals and dreams. These are the people you should befriend. Together you can help each other achieve their goals and dreams. They don’t need to have the same goals as you. They only need to be ambitious so they can motivate, uplift, and inspire you.

Of course, not all people in college will be ambitious. Most of them would rather hang out in bars and run Netflix marathons. That’s the type you want to avoid.

Even if you befriend four to five passionate people, you’ll level up your life.

8. Become a Better Version of Yourself

I recently met some of my childhood friends who are now in college. Most of them have the same habits, mindsets, and energy. It totally sucks that I don’t vibe with them anymore because I’m on a different level mentally and emotionally. During the past four years, I’ve worked my ass off to become a better version of myself, and being with them feels like I’m slipping back to my older version.

It’s the story with most of us. We strive to get 4.0s, land mediocre jobs, live on autopilot until one day we look back and realize we’ve been living someone else’s life. We never took the time to understand ourselves and live our best lives. Maybe life would have been different if we’d changed our habits. Maybe our career would be different if we’d taken the risk. Maybe our relationships would’ve been different if we’d made the effort. Maybe…

Life becomes an obituary of maybe and what-ifs. But it’s too late to change things.

Don’t make your life an obituary. Live it while you still can. Your college years are the best time to do this. When you’re young your brain is able to make new connections because of something called ‘neuroplasticity’. As you age, neuroplasticity decreases meaning it becomes harder to change yourself.

So when you’re in college, work on becoming a better version of yourself. I did this by:

  • Reading lots of books on a wide range of subjects
  • Listening to podcasts
  • Watching YouTube videos
  • Reading personal growth blogs
  • Starting a journal
  • Tracking my habits
  • Stepping out of my comfort zone
  • Traveling solo
  • Leaving toxic relationships
  • Changing my circle of friends
  • Working on my passion projects

If the person who leaves college after graduation is not the same person who first entered it, then congratulations, you’ve come a long way.

Final Thoughts

Your college years can be a defining period of your time depending on how you choose to spend them. You can either spend them buried in lecture notes and Powerpoint slides or taking your life to the next level. Or maybe you can do both.

Don’t feel bad if you can’t do all of the things I mentioned above. Even if you do a few, you’ll graduate as a better version of yourself. Little things make a huge difference.

4X top writer. Words in top Medium pubs. Open to gigs. Join my value-packed newsletter: https://bit.ly/3yfiuln • Reach out: sadia@sadiamahmed.com

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