How to Get the Most Out of Your Undergraduate Degree?

undergrad Photo courtesy of Kevin Dooley

Undergraduate years are truly golden, be it making great friends for life, developing one’s personality or forging your own career path. However, most students tend to take the first two years of their college life relatively easy and then start thinking (panicking??) about their future in their third year of engineering (or second year, if you are in commerce, arts or sciences). By then a whole host of amazing opportunities in the form of learning and developing knowledge would have been missed. There is SO much you can do in these 4 years of undergraduation that can make your resume sparkle, help you develop immense knowledge and accelerate your education and learning process in your chosen field of major. In this article, we have outlined 8 critical factors that makes a significant difference to your education and career.

Internships/projects: Most students look at internships as a way to add a few impressive lines in their resume. This kind of an approach towards internships and projects is not going to serve you very well. In order to get the maximum out of your internships and projects, you first need to understand why you need to do internships in the first place. The goal of internships is to help you gain knowledge through practical experience in a real world setting. That pretty much sums up the importance of an internship. Working on a project for 3 to 6 months will help you develop valuable skill sets in your field of interest. These skill sets will later help when it comes to finding a job, getting admission with funding for MS or PhD degrees or getting into prestigious institutions for an MBA. Whatever your goal is, internships aid you in the process of attaining that goal. Apart from developing skill sets, you create a strong network by interacting with professors, engineers and managers from various institutions, universities and companies. A strong network will help you immensely when it comes to job hunting, specifically during hard times like recession. Now, many students tend to get confused with 2 to 3 week courses where you pay a certain amount of money, get trained for a particular duration, do a small project and finally get a certificate. This is really not an internship, this is simply a way to learn a new tool or a new programming language or some scientific technique that can help with your studies and projects. You can call it a certification but not an internship. An internship is where you work on a problem for 3 to 6 months of duration under the supervision of a professor in academia or a manager in industry and are actively involved in contributing towards their work in some form or another, be it developing a software, writing an algorithm to solve a complex problem etc. Some students go on to publish papers while some end up doing great work and getting recommendation letters from their supervisors for further studies. Apart from internships, you can also work with professors from your college on a particular topic. This is called an independent study and you get to work with a professor from your college on a one-to-one basis for an entire semester. Your responsibilities will involve reading research papers and articles on the pertinent topic and coming up with ideas and ways to solve the problem.

Unpaid/volunteer work: Volunteering is a great way to bag future internships and jobs provided you impress your supervisors by doing great work. Volunteering also gives you the opportunity to work on projects that you may otherwise not get to work on. Many students doing their master’s in the United States volunteer with professors in order to get funding in the form of research assistantships or teaching assistantships. It is routine for american undergraduates to volunteer in various research labs right from high school. Look up various universities, research labs and companies in your city or nearby and email the professors working there requesting more details about volunteering positions. You can volunteer during your semester (weekends) or during your summer/winter holidays. Apart from universities and research institutions, you can also volunteer in startups or small companies where there is a need for smart and talented students. At the end of the day, your goal should be to get practical real world experience where you can apply all the concepts that have been taught in class.

Networking: Networking is very important in today’s world and having a strong network of contacts helps immensely during hard times like recession and economic fluctuations. Create your profile on Linkedin, the most popular website for professional networking. Join alumni networks in your college, if there is any. Don’t hesitate to talk to your professors and seniors for advice or help regarding anything. Be social, be a team player and be open to asking for help and help others when the need arises.

Final year project: The goal of a final year project is to apply concepts and theories that you have learnt during your undergraduate years in practice. Final year project is also a great way to start specializing in a particular area within your field of interest. Most final year projects are of 6 months duration, but there are universities that give students the option of starting their project in the beginning of the final year, thereby giving them one full year to complete the project. If your college does not allow one full year, you can start doing groundwork by deciding the logistics like which topic to work on, where to do your project etc. However, even though the final year project is very important most students are very lax about their projects. The reason being, by the time final year rolls by, most students are usually placed or admitted to universities abroad for higher studies and therefore become very complacent with their project work. Given the significance of a final year project, one can always turn it around to suit their future needs. If your aim is to go for a masters degree, then do a project that will help you in graduate school. Since graduate school is all about research work, develop useful and indispensable skills like reading research papers and journals and implementing the methods from the research papers in your project and producing great results. This will help you with funding in graduate schools as you can impress professors with your research abilities. If you have been placed in a software company, then talk to people or seniors in that company and do a final year project that will help you develop skill sets the company you are placed in needs. Many students also do their final year projects abroad as well. This is a great idea as you will get the opportunity to be a part of a research paper or an international conference paper, provided you do good work. Papers published in journals or conferences will be very beneficial if you are planning to do your master’s or doctorate studies, specifically in terms of getting scholarships and funding for your graduate studies. At the end of the day, take your final year project seriously as it can really benefit you in more ways than you can ever imagine.

Courses: Having the right skill sets is extremely important when it comes to finding jobs. Finding an employee with the right skill sets is a major bottleneck for organizations. How can you make their lives simpler? Start by researching about the kind of work you want to do. If you want to work in a software company, look at the various programming languages and software tools they use. Yes, it is difficult to predict where they will put you but having a general idea helps and is a great starting point. If it is a master’s degree you are aiming at, you can do some short term course to develop practical skills in the area you are interested in specializing in. A great way to build skill sets would be through the 2-week or 3-week certificate course offered by companies and institutions that will give you an overall view on how to use a particular tool or a programming language. However, please remember to add these skills in your resume only if you feel qualified in that topic. Do not add skills just to impress employers. When they start asking you questions in the skills you have listed in your resume, you don’t want to be tongue tied. Another great option to enhance your skill sets is by taking free courses from online MOOCs. Please read this article for detailed information on the various MOOCs that are available online and free to use.

GPA: Considering how competitive today’s world is, a good GPA does make your resume stand out. Think about it, when you read someone’s resume and it says “Gold medallist”. Doesn’t that sound impressive? It sure does. A great GPA helps immensely when it comes to admissions, funding and scholarship for your master’s and doctorate degrees and admissions for MBA as well. If you take a look at the profile of students from top institutions, you will notice that many (not all) students are gold medalists or university rank holders from their undergraduate institutions. However, please remember that a great GPA is just a means to an end, not the end itself. Yes, it may get you into a prestigious university or a company, but beyond that you need to prove yourself by performing well at work. There is very little point in being bookworm but not being able to apply your knowledge in real world problems that you will be facing at work or in graduate school. Learning how to apply concepts taught in class in a real world environment will benefit you in the long run.

GRE/GMAT/CAT Exam scores: Again, like the GPA, great exam scores also help with funding and scholarships for graduate schools. However, just because someone has a great GRE score doesn’t mean they will be successful in graduate school. A good score helps in giving your resume an edge over others but please remember that GRE or GMAT is just a part of the application package, not the entire package itself. Your GPA, research experience, statement of purpose, internships etc. will also be given equal importance in order to be considered for admissions to graduate programs. For exams like CAT/GATE, you need to get a great score as that is the only way you can clear the cut off for interviews.

Extracurricular activities: This is a very tricky subject because it is often misunderstood. Most students have no clue what to put in this section and end up writing something that sounds superfluous like “participated in cultures, volunteered in old age homes” etc. This is what you need to know the most about extracurricular activities. They are there for a reason and that is to give you an edge over other applicants in today’s highly competitive environment. Students include this section in their resume and statement of purpose primarily to stand out from others. So write activities that are in relation with your academics. If you have learnt piano, then talk about how it taught you discipline, focus and concentration. This will show you as a dedicated student with great work ethic and will help you stand out from hundreds of other profiles. So, whatever activities you want to put down in your resume, make sure it aligns with your professional goals and does not look like a last minute addition.

Now that we are done looking at how to maximize your undergraduate studies, let us take a look at some of the things that you dare not do during your undergraduate years.

  • Do not fail in your semester exams. It does not look good when you apply for graduate school or jobs.
  • Take internships seriously. Do them for the sake of learning.
  • Many students take the first two years lightly thinking they can catch up later on. Please don’t do this as it will bring your GPA down. You can still have fun while being disciplined and dedicated right from day one.
  • Maintain a proper balance between academics and extracurricular activities. Try out different activities that helps you relax and destress, like playing an instrument, singing, dancing, arts etc. Too much stress and work can burn out many students and you will end up with no energy or motivation soon.