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Planning For Success: Smart College Choices

For most college students, it takes at least four years to complete a bachelor's degree. That might sound like a lifetime, but it goes by fast. If you don't start preparing early, college can fly by before you've taken advantage of all its opportunities or prepared for the next step after graduation. Whether you're planning to attend school for the first time or going back to college for a career change, it's vital to make sure you get the most out of your tuition dollars. Here's how to maximize your time in school.

Step 1

Getting the most out of college is a lot easier when you know what you want. That means thinking about your educational goals, the professional field you'd like to work in and how that field might change, says Peter Littlefield, director of undergraduate admissions at Saint Leo University in Florida. If you can consider those things before enrolling in college, all the better.

"It always makes me smirk at the number of students who end up going to colleges where that school does not offer their top degree choice," Littlefield says. "Don't pursue a school because you've always looked up to it when, in fact, that institution doesn't have anything related to what you want to study."

If you're not sure where to begin, that's OK! Your high school guidance counseling office or college career services department will be more than happy to help. For adults going back to college, the admissions offices of universities that interest you can be extremely helpful in finding out whether the school is a fit. Don't be shy about contacting them.

Step 2

Now that you've got a goal in mind, it's time to make a plan — and the earlier the better. Getting the classes you need may be harder than it sounds. At many campuses, certain required courses are only offered once a year and may have limitations on the number of students that can enroll. Wait too late, and you could wind up sticking around for an extra semester or even a full year. If you have to take remedial courses to qualify for a specific major, those will need to be factored into your schedule as well.

"Many students miss out on key opportunities because they did not take the time to plan in advance," says Kate Lehman, assistant dean for student success at Otterbein University in Ohio. "For example, studying abroad can be a significant experience, but you'll need to plan how it will fit into your academic curriculum as well as how you will pay for the experience. That planning should happen at least a year in advance, if not even two years."

The same is true for research opportunities and popular electives, Lehman adds.

Planning your academic track starts with meeting with your academic adviser as early as possible (preferably during your first year) and mapping out how you'll get the classes you need.

Step 3

The right classes (and grades) can provide you with the credentials to land a great post-college career. But your alumni network can provide you with invaluable insider information on the industry, and who's hiring interns and entry-level employees.

"It's essential that students early on, from the very first semester, start to reach out to alumni as they begin to firm up their career ideas," says Roy Cohen, a career coach and author of "The Wall Street Professional's Survival Guide." "The most important question that students need to ask folks early on that they're networking with is, 'If you were me, how would you make the most of your college experience?'"

Your school's alumni office and your academic department can connect you with graduates who are working in your field of interest. You can also track down future alumni friends through LinkedIn and Twitter.

Step 4

"The job market is highly competitive now, and a bachelor's degree just isn't cutting it on its own," says Peter Littlefield. "Students emerging from college need to show that they have substantive work experience in that field in addition to their degree."

Being prepared for life after college means carving out time during your last two years to gain actual work experience through internships, research opportunities, service learning programs, externships, summer jobs and job shadowing programs. A survey of more than 700 employers by "The Chronicle of Higher Education" and Experience.com shows that work experience, especially internships, is more valued by hiring managers than GPA. Internships can be highly competitive — this is where your alumni network connections can help — so think about applying to local programs during the school year.

"It's often easier to get an internship during the semester than in the summertime because there's far more competition in the summer," Roy Cohen says.

Your professors, career services department and alumni pals can possibly help you find internships. You can also reach out to companies where you'd like to work to research internship opportunities.

Step 5

Now that you've got a plan for getting the right classes, doing the right internships and making the right industry connections, all you've got to do is stick to the plan. Unfortunately, juggling everything at once is oftentimes easier said than done, especially if you're also involved in campus clubs, social groups or sports. If you find yourself getting stressed out or overwhelmed, seek help as early as possible from the learning support or student success advocates at your institution, Peter Littlefield suggests.

"Being proactive about time management is key," he says.

Sources:
1. "The Role of Higher Education in Career Development: Employer Perceptions," The Chronicle of Higher Education and Experience.com, December 2012, http://chronicle.com/items/biz/pdf/Employers%20Survey.pdf
2. Roy Cohen, Career Coach and Author of "The Wall Street Professional's Survival Guide," Interviewed by the author on Dec. 16, 2014
3. Kate Lehman, Assistant Dean for Student Success at Otterbein University in Ohio, Interviewed by the author on Dec. 17, 2014
4. Peter Littlefield, Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Saint Leo University in Florida, Interviewed by the author on Dec. 16, 2014