can I compare attending college to working a full-time job in my cover letter?

Since it’s a holiday, here’s an older post from the archives. This was originally published in 2016.

A reader writes:

I have recently graduated from college. I currently have no job prospects, but I am applying to jobs on a daily basis. I feel that if I can write a really good cover letter it will give me that extra boost, as I did not work very much during college due to having scholarships. I have been trying to spin my college years as actually working a full-time job in my cover letter.

What I mean is comparing attending college full-time to having a full-time job. For example, showing up to classes on time is just like showing up to work on time. Also, what you learn in the classroom is giving you experience in what you might encounter in your chosen field of work. For me, it was working with all the laws (i.e. FMLA, Title 7, COBRA, etc.) and how they might apply to situations. My courses also taught me indirectly the tricks of Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, and Excel.

I view my college years as my main job for the last four years. Here is what I have so far for my cover letter concerning my college years: “Attending college has been my full-time job for the last four years. Attending a full schedule of classes is very comparable to being employed full-time. I had to meet the expectations of solid attendance, completion of projects within expected parameters and prioritizing various assignments all while maintaining a good relationship with an ever-changing set of diverse classmates. My assignments were viewed as miniature performance reviews with the grade being the equivalent to a performance rating.” Is this a plausible way to go for my cover letter?

Yeah, no, don’t do that. Attending college full-time is actually not like having a full-time job, and you will come across as naive if you write that.

There are lots of differences between school and work that employers find significant. For example:

* If you mess up or neglect your work in college, it will only impact you. In a job, other people are counting on your work. (And yes, college has team projects, but the stakes aren’t the same.)

* In school, the emphasis is on exploring your subject and learning how to think. At work, the emphasis is about getting things done, often as quickly as possible. Learning is good, but it’s not the point.

* At school, you have someone guiding your learning. At work, you’re often expected to figure most things out on your own.

* In school, you have a whole cadre of people who are there to help you succeed — professors, advisors, counselors, etc. At work, whether or not you succeed is basically on you and you alone, and if you’re not succeeding, you’re probably not going to keep that job.

* At school, you can get away with a certain amount of slacking — skip a class you don’t feel like attending, throw a paper together at the last minute. You might not do as well as you otherwise would, but you can get away with it to a point. But if you try that at work, slacking will often affect other people, and it can get you fired.

* At school, effort often matters a lot. At work, effort doesn’t matter; results do. You’ll be judged by the quality of what you produce, not by how hard you worked to produce it.

So no, don’t compare attending school to working a full-time job. Also, don’t include that list of what you needed to do to succeed in school; employers know what school entails. Moreover, most or all of the candidates you’re competing with have probably had that same experience, so it’s not setting you apart from them.

Instead, talk about what makes you particularly qualified. Look at it from an employer’s perspective — when faced with a sea of candidates who all recently graduated, and some of whom worked jobs during that time too, what is it that should make them interested in hiring you? That’s what you need to talk about in your cover letter and resume. (There’s advice here on how to do that when you don’t have much experience.)

This is going to be more challenging because not working much during school is going to put you at a disadvantage when you’re competing against people who did (and it’s why I strongly encourage people to work and intern while they’re in school, although I realize that advice is totally unhelpful to you now). So the challenge for you now is to figure out what you have to offer employers and present that in a compelling way. Hopefully “didn’t work very much” does mean “did work a bit” — and you can mine those experiences for cover letter and resume fodder.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 106 comments… read them below }

  1. Peanut Hamper*

    I read the update to this one and it matches perfectly a meme I saw earlier today: “Cringe means that you have grown.” Well done, OP!

  2. School is harder than work*

    I find this interesting because I found that I worked way harder in engineering school than I ever had to once I got a “real” job. And slacking off meant failing classes. Not that we didn’t have loads of fun, but it was a lot of fun and challenging work

    1. Peanut Hamper*

      This just means that your engineering school gave you a good education and prepared you well for the work world.

      But failing classes…that’s on you. Fail a project at work and you bring other people down with you. (I have spent hundreds of hours cleaning up other people’s fails.)

      1. A. Tiskit & A. Taskit LLC*

        AND the consequences of failing badly at work can follow you for years! If the failure is spectacular enough to hit the news, well, it can follow you for as long as the internet is up and running. True, a crime committed in college will do the same thing – but most mistakes (at college or at work) aren’t criminal in nature.

        However, taking part in a bigoted event (e.g., being recorded wearing blackface, singing a racist song, etc.) can indeed follow you decades after you’ve grown up enough to realize how wrong it was. The moral of this may be that, at 18, you enjoy most of the freedoms granted to adults in our culture; the “price” you pay for this is the obligation to act and think like an adult as well.

    2. Jennifer Strange*

      I don’t think it’s a matter of what’s harder, but more how widely the consequences ripple out if you don’t do what you need to do. In school the consequence is really just on you if you fail. At work it can affect your team, other departments, and even clients.

      1. Kalros, the mother of all thresher maws*

        Exactly, it’s not about how hard the task is, it’s about the stakes and the accountability. If you fail a class it’s no skin off anyone else’s back, but at work, in most cases, someone is depending on you getting your job done correctly and on time.

    3. Antilles*

      Sure, but from a getting-hired perspective, the biggest point still remains:
      Everybody else submitting resumes is also going to have that same degree *plus* Something Else (undergraduate research, internship/co-op, working nights to put yourself through school, athletics or other leadership experience, etc).

    4. Emmy Noether*

      I think it’s impossible to say what is “harder”. So much depends on the studies, and the job, and what the particular person finds stressful/difficult and their circumstances!

      For example, a lot of jobs won’t have the equivalent of exams, the cramming for them, the stress of them (some do). A lot of jobs will also allow you to go home for the day and be done (and others don’t). Some jobs are more, or less, intellectually challenging than some studies. A lot of jobs have more dire consequences for mistakes than college does (and sometimes not). Having a job often comes with other financial and life obligations that the average college student doesn’t have (and for some, not).

      It’s more that… they’re just not the same. Expecting them to be comes across as naive. And explaining they’re the same to someone who has probably done both and is better placed to compare is not a good look (come to think of it, that explanation adressed to someone who *hasn’t* been to college may be an even worse look).

    5. Irish Teacher*

      I think that’s sort of an additional problem with this approach, not only does it make the applicant seem naive about the working world, it also plays down their college achievements. Saying “college is just like work as I had to work in a group and get on with fellow students and those in positions of authority and I had to work to deadlines” makes college sound a lot easier than it actually is and…ignores the important stuff. You do more than just show up on time, work to deadlines and work as part of a team in college.

      And yeah, I agree, in some ways college is much tougher. In college, you are, at least to some degree, competing with everybody else. You are trying to get grades as close to the top of the class as possible, aiming for that 1st honours degree. At work, you rarely have to be the top performer. And you can often work with others whose strengths match your weaknesses.

      I think by trying to put college in terms of work, it plays down the significance of a good degree, which should show how much expertise you have in the area, not how good you are at things like showing up on time and being a teamplayer. Sure, they are important in both college and a job, but…they aren’t really the significant parts of a college degree and to highlight them overlooks the actual qualification you gained and…as others have said, they are often different at college.

      For example, while one has to organise one’s time in both college and at work, it’s often very different. In many college courses, it’s possible to skip certain lectures and “get the notes” afterwards, making a conscious decision that, for example in an English degree, “I will only have to answer on one of the texts, so I want to spend more time studying the one I expect to answer on, but will also get the notes and look over the other, just in case the question on the one I plan to answer on is particularly difficult,” whereas at work, you generally can’t just decide, “I’m just going to skip that meeting because it’s mostly about a project I’m not that interested in and I’ll just let my colleagues work on that one and focus on the project that engages me more.”

      They are just different and while some skills definitely overlap, a lot of those are basic life skills, such as organising oneself, being on time, meeting deadlines, working with others and…saying those are what one gained from a degree seems to both undervalue what was truly gained and seems naive about the skills needed in the workplace.

      I’m not disagreeing with you here, by the way, just going off on a bit of a tangent, much of which I was thinking about from the letter and some because of your comment.

    6. Who Am I*

      Yes, that’s always what I think when I hear people talk about how easy college was compared to their job. Oh, you went to a party school with a lot of “gentleman’s As”? Lucky you! Most college students need to work much harder to get their degree(s) than they ever will at work. The only thing that’s been truly hard about any job I’ve had in the past 40+ years (with the exceptions of child care, retail, and fast food which are all hard and exhausting both mentally and physically) was putting up with toxic environments or bullies. And it’s far easier and much kess expensive to get a new job than to transfer schools. Working us differently than being a student but it’s certainly not harder.

      1. Irish Teacher*

        The hardest thing I ever did as regards sheer workload was the Leaving Cert. (the exam we take at the end of our equivalent of 12th grade). There was no other time in my life when I was working 10+ hour days, five days a week and maybe 5 hours or so each of the two days of the weekend and took a complete break only on Christmas day. Nor was there any other time when my entire career plans depended on not just doing well, but outperforming maybe 85% of the rest of the country (I missed the grades for primary teaching by 20 marks out of 600 and therefore was unable to be a primary teacher; I ended up becoming a secondary teacher and am very happy in that role, but still 3% threw my life plans off course and delayed me getting where I wanted to be in life. I guess there are some jobs like athletes and some dancers who have to be right at the top or rethink their life choices, but I don’t think it’s widespread.

        That said, I would think it naive if somebody said that studying for the Leaving Cert. was “just like having a job,” not because it’s easier, but because it’s different. The skills needed to do well in an exam and the skills needed to do well at work have some overlap, but also quite a few differences.

        College is probably more like the working world than the Leaving Cert. is, as you have projects and so on and it’s rarely just “show everything you’ve learnt in the past two years in these 2-3 weeks of exams,” but there are still quite a few differences.

      2. NotAnotherManager!*

        I think everyone’s experience with this is different. I loved college and did not go to a party school. I certainly put effort in, but my work/career has been far more challenging – I lack control of my schedule due to deadlines beyond our control, I don’t get to work only mostly topics I’m interested in, and I work with a lot of demanding people on projects with sometimes ill-defined parameters. I long for the days where I could take a writing-intensive seminar with a rubric on a topic about which I’m passionate and lose myself in the library for a few days. If I won the lottery, would 100% go to law school or get a Ph.D. It would be a challenge, for sure, but generally something I enjoy more than working.

    7. uncivil servant*

      I’m not an engineer and my degree wasn’t as hard as engineering, but this is what I thought when I read the question! I found university much harder and more stressful than work.

      It doesn’t mean that they’re the same thing at all, or that I’d choose a candidate with a degree over the one with work experience, but I thought the wording of the response was a bit “You think school is hard? Wait till you get to WORK!” And that just isn’t the case at all for a lot of people.

      1. Parakeet*

        Yep, this. I agree with Alison that the LW’s plans for their cover letter were not a good idea at all, but there’s an implication that college is gentler than work, with all those people supposedly there to help you succeed and effort supposedly mattering so much, and that just wasn’t my experience of college. It’s true that other people weren’t depending on my work in the same way in college, but the personal stakes felt way higher (and I’m not newly out of college here; I’ve been through career ups and downs, job loss, etc).

    8. tangerineRose*

      I think college was generally tougher than work. I majored in Computer Science. One thing that was frustrating was that there was always more to do, like studying.

  3. Emmy Noether*

    First reaction: I’ve been to college too, dude. Why are you trying to explain college to me?

    Your competition has probably also been to college, so you’re not setting yourself apart here.

    1. Jenny*

      ^This. If you’re applying for a job you need to set yourself apart. Something hard or interesting your did in college like undergrad research or a co op job or student government, that’s worth talking about. The basics of going to class and studying? No.

    2. Cat Tree*

      Yeah, I had the same thought. As a hiring manager I would still consider this candidate if they had a good resume. I give recent grads a lot of grace and I wouldn’t cringe to see this although it would definitely seem naive.

      But even though it wouldn’t hurt them, it wouldn’t help them either. Unless they’re applying for a job that doesn’t require a degree but they think theirs adds something, it doesn’t set them apart at all.

    3. NotAnotherManager!*

      The second sentence here is the important one. I hire recent college graduates, and I don’t recall the last time I saw a resume that only included degree work. Most have internships, research assistantships, extracurriculars, or, at minimum, a part-time job.

      I spend the first six months of most of the new folks’ time trying to work them OUT of the college mindset and into the working world.

  4. Addison DeWitt*

    The main reason I wouldn’t peddle this silliness is that the person you’re selling it to has almost certainly been to college themselves. They don’t need you to sell them a sunshine-and-flowers take on what it’s like!

  5. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

    You’re also probably going to shoot yourself in the foot if you go on about how college is like a full time job and it turns out your hiring manager is one of the more-than-a-few-folks around who went to college WIHLE working a full-time job.

  6. no.*

    and it’s why I strongly encourage people to work and intern while they’re in school

    Kudos to anyone who can do that. I tried and found myself burnt out to a dangerous degree and had to make the delightful choice of employment or education.

    1. Daisy-dog*

      I interned in school and both my internships were not helpful at all. They both involved several not very impressive tasks with no real deadlines and no consequences for not completing the tasks. The job titles on my resume maybe helped, but my retail experience was much better for situational questions in interviews.

      1. Been There*

        Same. The summer job I got after graduating did much more for my resume and skills than my internship in college.

      2. NotAnotherManager!*

        I have at least two managers who pull the resumes of people with retail experience to the top of the pile for phone screens. If you can work with the general public, some of the insane people we deal with here will not be a problem.

        1. Anon for this*

          I remind my students of this all the time – they’re worried that “all” they have is retail or food service while other people have internships, and then I ask them, “did you ever have to help a customer who was angry with you or angry for no apparent reason?” Then the stories come out, and those are what make a good cover letter for their presentation of a workplace challenge, how the student resolved it, and what they learned from that experience.

          (I worked in a public library for a while and it definitely recalibrated my scale of What Counts as Weird.)

          1. NotAnotherManager!*

            Ha! I worked with lawyers for years, and my spouse tells me all the time that it’s totally warped my sense of “normal”, too.

        1. Peanut Hamper*

          A lot of us would have had to drop out of college because we didn’t have someone to support us. Not working has never been an option.

          1. Not a plant*

            It depends really. I couldn’t work when I was studying, because I had severe mental health issues and it would have literally killed me. I lived in complete poverty as a result (because my family is poor and couldn’t help) and relied on a mixture of loans, scholarships and government assistance. It meant that when I did graduate, it was significantly harder for me to get a job that one could turn into a career and of course I was in a lot of debt. I did manage it eventually but it took much longer than people I know who don’t have a disability and were able to work and study at the same time.

            So, it isn’t always a choice based on privilege. Some people have no real choice and no supportive background to fall back on and are just forced to find a way through as best we can.

    2. E*

      Yes. I am wondering if it’s also a thing of expectations changing with time. I graduated from undergrad in 2010 and almost no one I went to school with took an internship, maybe 2 or 3 people out of my wider social group of 45-50 people. And the people who did intern took it very seriously and it looked to be a very demanding unpaid position.

      It seems like now, more often than not, students are expected to have an internship.

      1. nona*

        I graduated in 2003 and had 2 summer internships (BA, Science major) while at school. 2 was probably overkill, but it definitely felt like the expectation was to have at least one.

      2. Ana Gram*

        Same! I graduated in 2004 and no one I knew had an internship (well, except one classmate but it was paid). Now I’m in hiring and practically all the college students who apply seem to have internships on their resumes. It’s been a real shift.

        1. Anon for this*

          I would be interested in knowing whether the rise in students with internships correlates with a rise in, say, companies/orgs realizing that they can have students work for free rather than hiring an actual employee. Unpaid internships are a huge/systemic problem these days; the push for them had to come from somewhere.

      3. lemon*

        Honestly, I think it was after the 2008 recession when that trend started to shift. Before that, just having a degree from a decent school was enough to get your foot in the door. But after the recession, you had to do something extra to stand out from the sea of other recent college grads all applying for the same entry-level positions.

        1. Jenny*

          Especially in fields like engineering or lab sciences. You have to have work experience under your belt.

          1. DataSci*

            But in the sciences, at least in my undergraduate days (pre-recession) you got that experience by working in a prof’s lab, not with an external internship. It is in fact part of why nobody in my major (physics) and none of my close friends (all science majors of some sort) had an internship – we were all working in labs!

      4. 1-800-BrownCow*

        Could be tied to your degree too. I graduated in 2001 with a BS in engineering and it was pretty much expected to have minimum of 1 internship, 2 or 3 were better, before graduation. I didn’t know a single person in my program that didn’t have an internship. Although internships were paid and were often summer employment, so only a few months of work. Probably 1/5th of my class did semester long internships, where they took a break from school and worked an internship during the semester and over the summer break, so they’d get a 6-7 month internship somewhere. A few people, like myself, worked PT at their internship during the schoolyear and then FT during breaks. This practice seemed very common and expected for engineering, but a couple people I knew who were in college for BS in Business did not have internships at all. The only other degree program I knew of that did some kind of internship was education, which is required, but not typically a paid position.

      5. Adam*

        I suspect it also varies a lot by discipline. I graduated in 2005 in computer science and summer internships were par for the course. Most people would have interned the summer before their final year, and lots had two or three summer internships under their belt.

      6. Cat Tree*

        I think it depends on the industry. I went to a school with internships built into the curriculum, but folks with similar degrees in other schools all do internships (engineering). It is standard in our industry and would be really unusual to not have one. It has been like this for decades so it’s not new.

      7. 2011*

        Same, I graduated in 2011 and most people in my BA disciplines did not do an internship. Many had some kind of job but many did not. Internships and working while in school were not pushed as hard as they are now. (If you could afford not to then) school was your job, and extracurricular experiences were important.

        In a way I think it’s sad that we have to start work earlier and earlier in our lives, just to get ahead on future work.

    3. School CAN be a full time job*

      I also was in this trap, which made finding a job difficult after university, because the only way I could continue to afford my studies was to maintain an A average so I could keep my scholarship. No part-time job would ever have made up that difference in funding, and so school really was my full time job. Every class had to be essentially treated as pass/fail on whether I received an A in it or not, and it was more difficult, time consuming, and stressful than any job I’ve had in the 15 years since finishing my degree. No single project has ever been as high stakes as taking an exam that could determine whether I would essentially be “fired” from university with nothing to show for it.

      It made all the advice I got afterwards that nothing in university counts towards job experience all the more frustrating.

    4. Emmy Noether*

      I didn’t work much while I was at university (I did two or three summer jobs, and one semester of tutoring). Frankly, that was because I didn’t need to financially, and I didn’t want to give up my free time. I don’t believe one needs to live one’s life to optimize one’s CV.

      Can interesting jobs and internships give a leg up in hiring? Certainly. Did it matter in my case? It doesn’t appear so. It’s mostly irrelevant after the first one or two post-college jobs anyway, so the effect is short-lived.

      1. Environmental Compliance*


        The experience I had coming out of my undergrad was really just summer internships.

    5. lemon*

      For some folks, it’s just not an option to only do school, even though the burnout you mention is incredibly real. During my undergrad, I had to work to support myself because I had no family support and financial aid only covered tuition and not living expenses. I was able to find flexible work– I did freelance writing and also had a campus job, which tend to be more flexible than other jobs– but I still had to drop down to 3/4 time (took 3 classes a semester when most folks did 4). For my master’s degree, I worked a full-time time job and attended class part time. That meant a 2-year program took 4 years, and I agree, it was exhausting. But it was my only option.

      1. Nobby Nobbs*

        And if you had to work to support yourself through college and wound up with a degree (or two!), you’re still more fortunate than the people who worked to support themselves and dropped or flunked out. The problem with misery poker is there’s always someone with a “better” hand.

        1. Hungry Magpie*

          I heard this concept expressed as “nobody wins at the Suffering Olympics” once, and I really like that phrasing. Misfortune, suffering, or bad luck isn’t invalidated just because someone else has it worse! (Though, of course, it’s necessary to be considerate when discussing such things…flash back to my co-worker who tried to equate my spinal fusion surgery to the one time he hurt his back and couldn’t play volleyball for two weeks…yeesh.)

    6. Ana Gram*

      It’s not really optional for some of us. I would’ve loved to not need to work and just concentrate on school but it wasn’t possible.

      I worked as an EMT, so I did two 24 shifts/week. I (usually) got to sleep and study at work and the money was pretty good but, like you, I was super burnt out by the end of college.

    7. Kalros, the mother of all thresher maws*

      This is very real and it’s a problem. “Work while you go to school” isn’t bad advice, per se, but for a lot of students – especially scholarship recipients, as LW was – it’s really an either/or. This depends on a lot of factors including but not limited to a student’s course of study and their support system outside of the school.

      1. Jenny*

        Funnily enough my scholarship required work. My law school scholarship was also contingent on me working for a professor second year.

        1. Kalros, the mother of all thresher maws*

          That also happens, it depends on the specific scholarship stipulations. But the bigger issue at hand is that students can be mentally, physically and financially strained in any number of scenarios while trying to stay afloat in college. Students sign on with the expectation of better job prospects and/or some degree of class mobility on the other side, but if they don’t have the support to both excel academically and also gain work experience are disadvantaged, one way or the other. Plenty of students will find their way, as LW did, but at scale it’s a strain.

    8. Irish Teacher*

      And it assumes jobs are available. During the recession in Ireland, there was concern over the fact that only about 50% of college students were able to obtain a job (and honestly, I strongly suspect a lot of those were people with “connections” who got them “in,” so quite likely the students least likely to have an actual financial need for the job), because quite frankly, there were numerous people with years of experience, good references and full-time availability applying for most jobs and the chance of a college student who is only available temporarily or part-time and has limited work experience, being chosen before them…wasn’t great.

      Not to criticise Alison’s advice, as yeah, I can see why it is beneficial if your first professional, out-of-college job is not your first time in the workplace, but just to say it’s not always a choice.

    9. Stuckinacrazyjob*

      My dad revealed that he totally thought that I could work a totally insane job and go to grad school at the same time and both me and my mom just laughed.

    10. tusemmeu*

      Yeah my chronic illnesses made that impossible. I couldn’t even work summers because those were spent recovering from the previous semester. And then I ended up having to drop out because I just couldn’t cut it.

      Thankfully I’ve found working much more doable. I guess I’m lucky that it’s the thing that pays money instead of costing money that ended up being easier for me (though I still have the loans with no degree to show for it). But getting a job after finally giving up on school was tough since they all wanted to know what I’d been doing with my time up until then.

    11. mlem*

      Yeah, I pieced together multiple jobs to keep my loans down … and my schoolwork suffered as a consequence. I was lucky enough to scrape out a degree, but I often wonder what I could have learned and done if I’d spent my university years actually focusing on university.

    12. Anon for this*

      Yeah, I lost all the benefits of mine because of the fallout from a stay in a mental health inpatient facility senior year that delayed my graduation for years. The internship wasn’t the root cause, but it certainly set me up to burn out on my senior thesis (required for my program) due to not having any time off between years (as well as it being a particularly involved internship).

  7. Sunflower*

    Putting that down “student” as a full time job on a resume is like putting down “homemaker” instead of a previous paid position of “housekeeper at XYZ hotel” or “childcare worker at ABC daycare center” or even volunteer work.
    Student and homemaker are hard work but I’m afraid it’s not something you put down as a job since the reaction is “Yeah, so am I” or all the other applicants are students too or have previous job experience.

    1. Artemesia*

      Or worse yet ‘CEO ‘ of the household managing shopping, cleaning, child care etc. It projects out of touch like nothing else. Yet a woman who has been a SAHM for a time can often parlay volunteer work into job — through contacts and by selling people on the skills involved in the club fundraiser, or whatever. I know many women who have done this.

    2. Anonymous For Now*

      It reminded me of that letter writer, too.

      I’m sorry to sound dismissive, but considering that back in the old days you had people who didn’t even graduate from high school running households, taking care of multiple children, and even doing such things as cooking/baking from scratch and making everyone’s clothing, for someone to make it seem as if their time as as “home manager” was equivalent to work experience is unlikely to go over well.

  8. Call Me Wheels*

    How big of a deal is not working a proper part time or summer job during college/university when it comes to getting a graduate job? Due to health issues so far I haven’t been able to but I do worry a bit. I had a full time job for a winter before uni at least but that was a few years ago now.

    1. Artemesia*

      Not having work experience is a big deal when seeking work so you need to figure out how to sell the skills you have but this will put you at a disadvantage. But as soon as you get the first job, you will be in a better place for the next move.

    2. Emmy Noether*

      It really depends a lot on the studies, the job, the location, the market… so no universal answer. I wrote elsewhere that I didn’t seem to matter much for me, but that’s not necessarily the case for everyone. What’s your cohort doing? What will be your competition?

    3. Chidi has a stomach ache*

      It’s so depending on the kind of work/schooling. For one case study: my husband didn’t work at all until he graduated his masters program, because his family was staunchly of the “your job is school” mentality and actively discouraged him from summer internships, etc. But, he was in engineering, and he had done a lot of research/design projects as part of his schooling, which he was able to use for his job applications. So when he went on the market, he found a job just before graduation — but also well behind the rest of his cohort, who mostly got offers from places they interned with 3-4 months before graduation.

    4. Tricksie*

      If you can find a way to work at least part-time in the summer or to get some sort of a part-time internship, it would help you!

      1. Call Me Wheels*

        I managed a 15 hour a week internship at a local store through the uni last summer and I’m hoping to go back this summer :) and I’m applying for a big internship program specifically for disabled students at the moment so I’m hoping that would count for something. But none of my jobs have ever been really in a ‘professional’ office style setting which I’m worried about holding me back, I feel like I pick up most of the info about that sort of stuff here at the moment :)

    5. Don't Call Me Shirley*

      I screen resumes and interview on and off for new grad engineering jobs.

      Unless the job was programming, engineering tech, or mechanic, idgaf if you worked or traveled or camped during school breaks, or took courses year round to graduate early. It would be better to take part in concrete toboggan than to have a generic office job, as far as experience goes.

      1. Don't Call Me Shirley*

        “I had to work 5 jobs to keep my family alive” might mitigate a bad average if you pass the technical screening. But it won’t help if you can’t do the math or whatever…

      2. Call Me Wheels*

        Oh that’s really interesting thanks for sharing :) I’m not in STEM anymore I’m in the humanities so I dont know if that’s much different but it’s still reassuring to hear

        1. Analytical Tree Hugger*

          Word of caution, this is very much a, “Ask ten different hiring managers, get twenty different opinions.”

          So how heavily (or not) work experience in school is weighed will vary.

          1. Don't Call Me Shirley*

            I am sure some folks hire based on job experience – but if it isn’t relevant, it doesn’t matter to my large engineering employer. We need people who absorbed control systems and math and coding well enough, who can speak and write reasonably well.

          2. NotAnotherManager!*

            Yep. I routinely hire recently college graduates into the professional services industry, and I find that nearly any generic office job or retail/food service work or even volunteering with a congressional office (the people you get on the phone when you call to complain are often college volunteers) will give you a leg up on those with zero work experience. Those folks require less coaching on not irritating the shit out of their coworkers and, particularly the ones who’ve had public-facing roles, are much better at dealing with a variety of personalities and having better customer-service skills.

    6. UrsulaD*

      Super field dependent and program dependent. If you do a pure science and write a senior thesis it can be equivalent to lab work, but in other programs it’s nothing like a job.

    7. A person*

      Depending on what you’re looking for you could consider being open to a temp job for experience. They tend to accept candidates with very little experience more readily and then you get a little work experience too. It can be a quicker way to get some experience.

  9. Kalros, the mother of all thresher maws*

    The update made me smile. I hope LW isn’t too hard on themselves, we all look back on some novice job-seeker moves we made and wince, at least in this case they had the wherewithal to get some advice.

  10. learnedthehardway*

    If you’re detailing your educational accomplishments on your resume, stick to:
    – good marks earned / dean’s list / etc.
    – scholarships / awards earned
    – papers delivered at conferences in your discipline / articles published in peer-reviewed journals
    – a thesis project (ie. a major multi-semester project) that directly relates to the job you’re applying to
    – possibly clubs/activities that show you’re a well-rounded, team-oriented, community-minded person who has been finding opportunities to get some leadership where you can.

    You can list internships as employment experience. Same with part time jobs done on campus or if you were a TA or research assistant.

    If you want to, you can put in a cover letter that you completed your degree in Engineering with an average of X% while working part time as a research assistant and participating in marathons. Or whatever shows you can walk and chew gum at the same time.

    This is also a place where you can point out that you completed your degree in Engineering part time by taking night classes, while working full time to support your family.

    The point is to show what you did that makes you a hard-working employee, and to explain any mitigating circumstances that might have prevented you from finishing your degree in 4-5 years or why your marks might not be as good as your more privileged peers’ marks were.

  11. nnn*

    The major difference I noticed between school and work is that school was less time-bound. There was a class schedule, of course, but I could do homework/assignments/studying whenever I wanted.

    1. sundae funday*

      The thing I miss most about being a student is being able to go grocery shopping at 2:00 PM on a random Tuesday when the shop isn’t crowded. For real, the main drawback to working a 9 to 5 is you have free time when everyone else has free time, so places are so much more crowded!

  12. Kat*

    No. University was a breeze for me because I like to study. It’s not equivalent to work. Plus I knew which classes I could miss without penalty.

  13. Millennial*

    I remember this letter and I always feel for the letter writer. When I graduated, I felt the same way this person does. But I also can understand why college isn’t like a job.

  14. WillowSunstar*

    I can understand not having a job if you have a demanding class load. But most college students, myself included, at minimum had summer jobs. Unless you had extremely generous/doting parents, even if living in their basement, most would strongly encourage a job during summer. I always temped from June-end of August and built up references that way. Also had a few part-time jobs during the rest of the year, just to get work experience and some extra cash.

  15. Dances with Flax*

    If an applicant at least has a good record of volunteer work, that can go down on their resume as well as long as it’s clear that this WAS a volunteer position. Bonus points to you if you’ve been able to launch and see through a project of your own while you were there! (It won’t be an earth-shaking one, but even a modest one will show that you established yourself as a valued, trustworthy team member.)

  16. Snowfall*

    If an applicant at least has a good record of volunteer work, that can go down on their resume as well as long as it’s clear that this WAS a volunteer position. Bonus points to you if you’ve been able to launch and see through a project of your own while you were there! (It won’t be an earth-shaking one, but even a modest one will show that you established yourself as a valued, trustworthy team member.)

  17. Ridiculous Penguin*

    I am a project manager who left academia to get my PMP, all of which was a lot of work (paying off quite well now that I’m in industry).

    My alma mater keeps telling PhD students they can get PM jobs directly after graduation because “writing a dissertation is exactly like being a project manager.” I’m also in a job group for people who want to exit academia where that’s said over and over again.

    I don’t deny that there are transferable skills between writing a dissertation on romantic love in 17th century British literature and managing projects *in a general sense*, but it really annoys me when people think that writing that dissertation automatically qualifies them to get a 6-figure project management job.

    1. Wes*

      Uhhh, writing a dissertation does not prepare you in the least for the main task of a project manager, which is dealing with your coworkers’ and your organisation’s bullshittery.

  18. Slowpoke*

    The thing that strikes me about this article/the comments is that my experience has been the exact opposite. Maybe it’s because I really struggled in college, but I always felt like I was adrift without help when school inevitably became overwhelming (whereas now I know exactly who to ask for help when I get stuck) and like I needed to work at a pace far faster than I was physically capable of, leading to constant stress (whereas now, I’m in a slower paced job where quality matters more than absolute efficiency). Anyway, that doesn’t make any of this wrong advice, but if you’re a struggling student who gets discouraged reading about how things will only get harder, know that working a job actually can feel a lot easier, if you find the right fit.

    1. Peanut Hamper*

      Most colleges and universities have some sort of help available to students who find themselves flailing, but how good those programs are or how well they make them known can vary widely. At least at work if you have a good boss, you can always let them know you are struggling.

    2. Ellis Bell*

      I felt exactly the same about my time at university! To be fair, they did step in and help when I was going through a period of struggling but I wouldn’t have had that struggle except for the fact that I always felt a bit fish out of water and like I didn’t understand the set up. The whole being an individual who doesn’t affect anyone else was actually quite isolating. Work felt completely different and a much natural fit and I felt the support of the team immediately.

  19. ListWhatsRelevantSkipWhatIsnt*

    Sating someone has to work in school us just a silly as saying no one should work. Some people are disabled and can’t do both. Some people get scholarships that don’t allow outside work/work unrelated to your degree. Some people can’t find jobs that fit their class schedule.

    Most jobs worked in college have nothing to do with the work you intend to do after graduation. If you put those jobs on your post-graduation resume most people I know would think that shows a lack of understanding of the jobs you’re applying for. Focus on those things that are relevant, be they classes or jobs or volunteer work or extra curriculars.

    1. anna*

      Maybe this is different in your field but when I hire entry level jobs, applicants with work experience, even just summer jobs, are WAY more competitive than applicants with only school and nothing else. It’s hard to think why they wouldn’t be but maybe there’s some field out there where it’s not the case like the person above who mentioned engineering.

      1. Nesprin*

        Am an engineer, can confirm that having some work experience >>> not having any work experience.

        Recently tried to hire, and our top candidate was our top candidate because she’d managed a gas station during college.

    2. just some guy*

      I strongly disagree with this.

      I work in a technical area and now and then I take part in hiring; I’ve reviewed quite a few applications in my time. We invariably have a degree requirement to cover the technical side of our field, and a lot of my focus is going to be on their technical skills, but I’m always happy to see some work experience outside a structured educational setting.

      I’ve encountered too many people who were quite capable of earning a degree, but didn’t have the interpersonal skills to work successfully in a team, or the ability to translate theoretical knowledge into practical solutions (vis. Feynman’s comments about his experience with Brazilian physics education), or the judgement to figure out when a simple answer is better than an exact one. That kind of skill tends to be developed and demonstrated better in a workplace than in education, at least up to Bachelor’s level.

      (Exceptions apply; some degree programs do put effort into training these skills.)

    3. Anthony-mouse*

      I should add here two of the most prestigious and academic universities in the world (Oxford and Cambridge) do not allow their students to work jobs during term time. You can get in a lot of trouble if it’s found you do. Summer internships are fine and anything else in the summer is tolerated but no part-time or year round jobs. And it doesn’t seem to be hurting their graduates

      1. NotAnotherManager!*

        Attending either of those schools is an outlier situation. Those who are able to get into two highly selective and, for international students, quite expensive schools with globally-known names are not analogous with the general population. Those are exceptions to the rule, and, if similar to the Ivies in the US, the ability of Oxford and Cambridge graduates to get jobs is not harmed by their family’s socioeconomic status of connections either.

      2. just some guy*

        When you say “doesn’t seem to be hurting their graduates”, are you talking about overall well-being, or only in the sense of career/earnings?

        As discussed at this kind of policy can in fact be quite harmful for students from less privileged backgrounds.

        It’s a bit like the unpaid internships thing – any sort of “you must be this rich to do X [without starving]” bar means that people who do X are likely to do well in life (financially, at least) because it selects for people who were *already* likely doing well.

    4. allathian*

      Right after college, any work experience is relevant, regardless of whether it has anything to do with your future plans or not. Even babysitting or cutting lawns for pay counts for your first job out of college. I do agree that for your second or third job, these experiences are irrelevant.

  20. Just me*

    As someone who graduated college in the “prehistoric era” (late ‘60s) with a degree that was irrelevant to what I ended up doing job wise after graduation, I’m really glad that things were much different then! I had gone to summer school all three summers, taking the classes that required the most reading/writing. During the regular semesters I had lab classes almost every day in addition to lecture classes. There would literally have been very little time available for me to have had any type of job other than the handful of term papers I typed for friends and hemming someone’s skirts or pants that were too long. My kids ended up working part time throughout most of their schooling, including high school. Totally different worlds in such a short time.

  21. rudster*

    I feel bad for the LW. If a string of low-paid, low-stakes service jobs is going to tell an employer more about a 22-year-old’s potential than their academic success than 4 years of hard effort, this only underscores the fact that for the vast majority of people college is useless and/or a rip-off. Seriously, why even bother? And I disagree with the relative assessment of group projects in school. If anything, the stakes in school are higher. In the work world, your manager has at least some incentive to care about dysfunction in the team if it affects results, because poor results make the manager look bad. In group projects, no one in authority really cares about the slacker on your team and the fact that s/he is bringing down your grades.

    1. abca*

      Thank you I was thinking the exact same thing and wondering if there is some cultural difference here because it seemed so strange and I thought it was well known how awful and high stakes group projects in college can be. Professors do not care, they see this as the kind of thing you should really be able to solve for yourself when you’re 19 (as if “in the real world” you would also absolutely never be able to go to a manager if your coworker refuses to work or completely messed up their part of the task). This can have huge consequences, for example if follow-up education demands high grades in your bachelor. Or it can cost you a year, if this is a subject that’s a requirement for taking a minor for example. This can also cost a lot of money, can be the difference between getting a “with honors” degree and not getting it (even one “passing” instead of “good” grade on any subject means you’re disqualified for that in some colleges, again no exception for group projects because it’s again seen as your responsibility to also make your teammates work well – without having any authority over them)

    2. NotAnotherManager!*

      It’s not an either/or, it’s an and. Being able to go to school and successfully hold down a part-time job requires time management and more skills than simply holding the job OR going to school alone. School gives you better research, writing, etc. skills; holding a job gives you showing up on time, working in a team environment, and, in the case of service jobs, experience dealing with the general public.

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