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Why You Should Work In College – And It’s Not All About Money

by Kevin Mercadante

Balancing college with work is a tough juggling act. But even if you don’t need to work in order to help pay for school, there are benefits to doing so that go beyond money. Most of those benefits will help you later in life, both when you are out looking for your first career-type job, and even later still, as you are adjusting to a permanent move into the ranks of the employed.

What can working in college do to help you later on?

Learning to Earn a Living

Why you should work in college

A part time job offers a lot more than just a pay check.

As a college student, most of what you are learning are technical skills. Those skills will form the basis of a future career, but one thing that you will not learn from them is actually how to earn a living. That’s something that you can only do through direct experience – and that’s what working while you’re in college will help you to do.

Though it seems like a very subtle connection, learning to earn a living is really about learning the process of exchanging your time, effort, and expertise for money. That can look very different than the time and effort you put out in order to earn a grade.

When it comes to earning a grade, you’re mostly focused on the end result – the grade that you earn on a test, a project, or a final semester grade. That can allow you to work at your own pace – to put in the big effort when it’s absolutely necessary, and maybe to relax the rest of the time.

But when you are in a job, you have a boss, there are customers and clients, and money is on the line - you’ll be expected to turn out a consistent performance each and every day. That’s a long, slow process, but one that is far more typical of the adult work world than college is. It takes some getting used to, and you’re better off if you do that before graduation.

Learning the Basics of Work

This is an often underappreciated skill, and may in fact be one of the primary reasons why new college graduates find it so difficult to find employment. If you have never worked a steady job during your college years, an employer may be reluctant to hire you fearing that he or she will have to train you in the most basic aspects of the work world.

For example, while punctuality is often optional in an academic environment, it’s a requirement in the workplace. Getting your work done on time is expected – extended deadlines for lower grades don’t apply. You also have to learn that it’s absolutely important to be able to take orders, and that includes the many times you’ll be given work that you may not like.

The sooner that you can learn these basics, the easier it will go with you when the job stakes are much higher.

Learning how to Deal with People

When you are in school, you can often get by through pleasing your instructors, and maybe a small group of friends. Out in the work world, you quickly learn that you have to please just about everybody! That includes managers and supervisors, coworkers, and customers and clients.

Even the way you interact with people in the business world is very different than what it is in school. In the business world, you have to learn to be polite, but not necessarily making friends with everyone you deal with. In the work world there is a need for professional distance. You want to be friendly enough to get the job done, but not cross any forbidden lines. Learning where those lines are is an education in itself.

For example, you have to learn that while you may be friendly with the manager, you have to be careful exactly how much you say to that person. As a manager, he or she represents the company; in any disputes they will be likely come down on the side of the company, in spite of any apparent friendship. Something you say to a superior as a “friend” could be grounds for termination.

Once again, this is a subtle skill, but one is best learned before you get into a career type position. Think of it as training for the majors by working in the minors.

Making Important Contacts

When you are working in a job, even a part-time job in a retail store, a restaurant, or an entertainment venue, you’re meeting all kinds of people. It is likely that some of these people will represent important future job prospects. You can only get so close to people on the web, but on a face-to-face basis, you can meet people who could have a material effect on your ability to land your first career type position.

That also makes a strong case for treating everyone you come in contact with on the job with the utmost respect. You can never know which of them might hold the key to your future.

Learning to Balance Multiple Priorities

In college, your primary purpose of life is to get good grades and to graduate. Adult life however, is something of a relentless balancing act. Not only will you have a career to maintain, but you will also have bills to pay, a home to maintain, and eventually a family to care for.

If you can balance a part-time job with your schoolwork, you’ll already be well on the way to learning how to maintain such a balancing act. It can be rude awakening if your first exposure to this comes after graduation. You can take small steps now, by working in school, so you’ll have it licked by the time you get out.

Building a Portfolio of Job References

It’s sometimes thought by college students that jobs held during college hold little prospect for “legitimate” job references. But if you have no other professional references at all, a supervisor or coworker from any current or previous part-time job could prove to be a valuable reference to a future employer.

Personal references – like family friends and old school buddies aren’t always considered in high regard by employers. They much prefer business type references, which is exactly what part-time jobs will offer.

A future employer will be concerned about your work habits, punctuality, attitude, and leadership ability. A couple of good references from some part-time jobs can provide exactly that. It could be the difference between landing the job of your choice upon graduation, or a very long period of time in the employment line.

Even if you don’t need the money, give serious consideration to working while you’re in college. If you are working already, think about the topics we’ve discussed, and about how you can focus your efforts on your part-time work in a way that will enhance your post graduation job search.

Photo credit: Memphis CVB


Published or updated April 21, 2014.
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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Roger@The Chicago Financial Planner

I concur both from own experiences through college and as the parent of two college grads and a current college junior. In all cases the working experience has been an added part of the overall educational experience for all of the reasons you mentioned. A meaningful work experience during college goes a long way towards completing a well-rounded education and provides many lifetime benefits once you enter the post-college work world.

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2 Kevin Mercadante

Hi Roger – Me too – this article is written from my perspective as having worked throughout my college years. Even though none of those jobs were related to anything after graduation, the basics still apply. I always felt ahead of the game after graduation, when comparing my work skills to others who didn’t work in college. Many of them seemed uncomfortable dealing with customers and clients, while for me that was fairly easy.

As you point out, college should be about more than just getting an education. You’re preparing for life, and work will be a part of that life.

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3 Michelle

I worked several jobs during college. It was great because I graduated with a full resume with a variety of different positions. In interviews, I could actually talk about real experiences that had meaning.

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4 Kevin Mercadante

Hi Michelle – Excellent point! A lot of people don’t realize that one of the ways to win over an interviewer is to be able to “talk shop”. You can only do that if you have work experience. Even if your college jobs weren’t related to your ultimate career, you can still talk about common employment issues, like customer service, product lines, interpersonal work relationships and specific interesting experiences. The ability to connect with the interviewer on a work related level can be the difference between getting a second interview or a form letter rejection.

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5 Andy@artofbeingcheap

Couldn’t agree with this more. I worked at a bank in college and many years later that was a major factor in me getting a job with a company whose clients are banks.

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6 Kevin Mercadante

Hi Andy – Sometimes just being able to “speak the language” of a business opens some door for you. In your case, it was the bank connection.

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