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5 Ways to Establish a Career Path Before Graduation

If there is one thing I never did during my college years that I should have, it was to plan for life after graduation. You may immediately balk and ask yourself, “What?! What kind of person goes to college without a plan in place?”

This girl. But you’re right; it sounds ridiculous!

In college I lived in the moment, probably too much. I spent all four years of my undergraduate career commuting to school, working a part-time job, writing fiction on the side, and studying abroad a few times. College was the best chapter of my life, to date. I didn’t live on campus and I didn’t have a ton of friends from school, but I was the happiest I have ever been. I loved learning in the classroom setting. I genuinely enjoyed writing papers and creating PowerPoint presentations. I blushed when my professors would grade my work with high marks. I graduated top of my class and literally cried on my graduation day because it felt like the best part of my life was over.

My biggest mistake? Well, I didn’t realize the best part was yet to come. I neglected to set a career path for my future self, which left me wandering for years post-graduation.

If I can offer any advice to you, college kids, it’s this: establish a career path before graduation so you have some idea as to what the heck you want to do with your life.

Here are my five tips to you:

1. Explore internships.

Internships are way different today than they were years ago. Sure, you may have to clean the office or deliver coffee to the employees to earn your keep, but these days many internships require real work and you are typically either paid or offered college credit in exchange for your efforts.

Not only are internship opportunities a key angle to get your foot in the door at a company, but they’re also great to make a few bucks or even earn some credits toward your degree. Years ago most internships were modes of free labor for companies. Today, companies are far more generous to their interns, so take advantage if you have gaps of time available in your schedule. Working as an intern is a great use of your time and skills, and these opportunities are bound to help you investigate if a position, company, and/or industry is a good fit for your long term career goals.

Pro-tip: visit to find an internship in the world’s largest marketplace. You can narrow your search results by selecting a particular zip code or field to find the right fit!

2. Job shadow.

This idea is different from interning at a company because you likely won’t be paid in money or college credit for your time.

However, job shadowing is an equally smart way to establish a career path before you graduate. Why? Well, shadowing an employee gives you a day-to-day snapshot of what their work day is like. You can observe job functions and duties that employees are responsible for on a daily basis.

Job shadowing is a great tool to teach you the responsibilities and expectations that come with a particular role, which will ultimately help you decide if a job is an ideal match for your skills and interests. Job shadowing can be as little or large of a commitment as you like.

Reach out to a company you’re interested in and see if they offer job shadowing for college students. They may extend an invitation to you to shadow a particular employee for a whole day to learn the day-to-day tasks involved, or they could have you rotate between colleagues on a whole team to give you the big picture of how a team operates.

Pro-tip: Send thank you notes to the person/people you shadow, as well as to anyone who helped set you up with a job shadow opportunity. A thank you note makes a huge impression and it could lead you to a job offer down the road. Networking in settings like these is absolutely essential.

3. Interview established professionals.

Many managers and even top-tiered professionals like CEOs, CFOs, etc. are happy to help young professionals navigate their career interests and skills. Do your research by investigating companies and professionals you feel inspired by and aligned with career-wise. Asking for an informational interview is not as hard as it seems!

Learn where they started and how they worked their way up the corporate ladder. Most times, professionals are more than willing to meet with college students to offer advice, give guidance, and ultimately position you in the right direction. The best part? If a real connection is made, the professional you meet with might have some pull within the company to get you an interview when the time comes. Again, networking is absolutely key, so never underestimate how much pull a person has to help you out with a career move.

Don’t forget that it’s a two-way street! If you’re asking someone not only for their time, but their knowledge as well, absolutely buy the coffee and ask if you can help them with anything. Feel out the situation to find the best fit.

Pro-tip: Send a thank you note to the professional(s) you meet with, thanking them for their time and guidance. Emphasize how much you appreciate that they took time out of their busy schedule(s) to meet with you. A thank you note is never inappropriate after a meeting like this. 

4. Attend job fairs.

Many colleges, universities, and communities host job fairs on an annual basis. Attend a few and speak with professionals about the companies and positions they’re there to talk about. You can learn so much information this way and explore your options.

Many companies will have brochures, informative slideshows, and even some freebies like water bottles, magnets, and more for you to take. Be sure to come prepared with questions to ask the professionals that attend to learn more about the companies they’re there to represent. Questions like “What’s your mission?”“What is the longevity like at your company?”, and “What skills and qualifications make an ideal candidate in your company?” are great questions to ask at job fairs.

Pro-tip: Come prepared with business cards (if you have any) and copies of your resume. Be sure to introduce yourself to professionals, leave your business card and/or resume with them, and shake their hands during introductions. These key steps can leave such a powerful impression. Take their business cards in return and write that thank you note (yes, again!) to thank them for their time and information if you’ve really connected with their brand. This conversation could lead to an internship or even a job interview down the road. Network, peeps!  

5. Meet with your professors.

If going out into the real world either seems intimidating (which you’ll have to overcome at some point) or doesn’t produce any immediate leads, another great way to establish a career path for your future is to invite your professor(s) or counselor(s) out to lunch to pick their brain. They are experts in their fields and can guide you.

Schedule a meeting and come prepared with questions. Most times, professors are professionals themselves with abundant career experience prior to becoming a university employee. They can shed light on what the workforce is like, where you need to begin, how to grow, and what types of industries your degree is best fit for. Don’t be shy around your professor(s) and/or counselor(s). These are key contacts linked to your college or university that present incredible networking opportunities to you. Take advantage of this while you’re a student!

Pro-tip: Again, write a thank you note after you meet with your professor(s) and/or counselor(s) to show you appreciate their time and guidance. Also, be sure to leave a review on if your professor has an account (most professors do). Write a kind review describing your professor as the kind of teacher who leads beyond the classroom. These reviews can help future college students and your professor is bound to appreciate the praise! 

All in all, there’s no single correct way to establish a career path before graduation. However, by using some of these tips or a combination of a few on the list, you’re bound to build a solid foundation before others do.

I was never the type of person who knew exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up. Some people just know. If your career path seems a little hazy like mine, be sure to try some of these tips to get started. At the very least, you’ll figure out what types of jobs you definitely don’t want to end up in long term, which is great lesson to learn early on. Good luck, young professionals!

What tools did you utilize to establish a career path prior to graduation? Share your tips in the comments!

About the Author

Rachael Warren (Tulipano)

Rachael is a University of Southern Maine graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication and a minor in Sociology. She remotely works full-time as a Senior Content Marketing Specialist for Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont. In her leisure time, Rachael enjoys traveling with her husband, finding the next Netflix series to binge, and taking too many photos of her dogs Jax and Kai. Rachael is obsessed with chapstick, favors the Oxford comma, and is a proud Mainer. You'll likely find her exploring New England + beyond.