Part of the university experience is getting to know and understand yourself. This takes some awareness and self-reflection. Reflecting on how your personality and skills relate to different careers can be helpful. Understanding your skills and interests early on will give you an advantage for career exploration and even course and program selection at uni.
Even if you already know what career you’re headed for, continue to learn about yourself and your career options during your degree. Every career is nuanced and you’ll have to pick what kinds of organizations you want to work at, who you want to work with, etc.
How can you get to know yourself better? Identify your aptitudes and interests by reflecting and speaking with those who know you to answer the following questions:
What are your Strengths?
Make a list of all your skills – everything you are good at. This isn’t easy. Sometimes, it’s much easier for us to identify the things we are not so good at. But it is also important to be able to identify your strengths.
Here are some suggestions that may help with your list, and there’s a list of some sample skills below in case you need some inspiration. →What do you think you are good at? →What do people come to you for help with or advice about? →Ask your friends, parents, teachers, coworkers: What do they say your top skills are? →Are there any school subjects that are easier for you? What are the tasks that are easier for you in your courses? →What can you do that not everybody can do?
Examples of Skills
Here are some examples of skills or strengths: →Language skills (such as reading comprehension, writing and written communication) →Critical thinking skills (such as research and analysis, synthesizing research, analyzing situations and contexts) →Creativity skills (such as communicating through a variety of media, looking at situations from different perspectives, and creating innovative solutions to problems) →Quantitative and logic skills (such as math, stats, coding, debate)
Make sure to read my post about transferable skills here for another list of skills you have likely acquired in your university studies.
What is your Learning Style?
What kind of learner are you? Think about the courses that you do the best at, and also, for topics that you find more difficult, what helped you finally understand? →Do you prefer courses that require memorization? →Do you like building logical arguments off of research? →Is it easy for you to analyze and synthesize information from a variety of resources? →Do you enjoy doing research and learning a lot on a specific topic? Do you get lost in a “rabbit-hole” when you start researching? →Do you enjoy writing and trying to find the best way to communicate an argument? →Do you like looking for and finding research resources and reading old documents to find info? →Do you learn best when you practice calculations until you know how to do them on your own?
What are your interests?
I used to have so much trouble answering this! I didn’t really do anything outside of school but read books and watch tv, so I wasn’t really sure what I was interested in. I would encourage any university student to go out into the world and try more things than I did until you can answer this question. Don’t just think about the activitiesthat you love, but what aspects of themyou enjoy. For example, the following activities may relate to these aspects:
Sports – Strategy, teamwork, physical activity Art – Interpreting and communicating the world in creative ways, practice & patience, improving skills Debate – building logical arguments, understanding different perspectives, analyzing situations Gaming – strategy, teamwork, planning Community activities (volunteering, school clubs, church groups, community work, etc) – teamwork, social support, giving back Working retail/food service – teamwork, meeting new people, making sales, helping customers
Ask yourself these questions to help determine your interests: →What do you get lost in and don’t notice time passing? →What are your favourite subjects in school? What do you like to learn about? →What do you like to do outside of school and what aspects of it do you enjoy?
Need More Help finding your skills and interests?
If you’re still having trouble understanding your skills and interests, there are a number of skills inventories or assessments you could do: Strengthsquest, MBTI, enneagram types, etc. Your high school counsellor or university career centre may be able to assist with this as well. They may recommend certain assessments or questions you ask in order to learn more about yourself.
There are many people who do not think that assessments like Strengthsquest, MBTI, or the enneagram are helpful. This is fine! Going through the assessments may help you realize something about yourself. And if the assessment tells you something and you strongly disagree with it, that may help you realize something about yourself or give you something to reflect on. I would encourage you not feel limited by these types of assessments, but to take what helps you and discard anythign that you don’t think is helpful. If you are really opposed to these types of assessments, you can also stick with talking to people who know you well about what they think your skills and interests are.
Use this time at university to explore your career options and gain the experiences that will help you achieve your career goals. You have so many opportunities and supports avaialble to you as a student – make sure you take advantage of them!
What are transferable skills and why are they important? Transferable skills are so important for students, and this is the best time to gain experience and build them. When you are just beginning your university journey, it may be difficult to identify and describe your aptitudes and experiences – but many of the aptitudes you are building are transferable skills. When I was doing my undergrad, I did not have a good understanding of the skills I was gaining and I could not describe them well on my resume or in interviews. It turns out that a lot of them were transferable skills.
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What are Transferable Skills?
Transferable skills, also known as soft skills, are general skills that are important for the majority of workplaces and careers. They are transferable, meaning that they can apply in multiple settings and situations. These are skills that you can build through your studies and work experience, even if those things are not directly related to your future career. Just by getting a degree, students will have leveraged many transferable skills, and you may not even know it yet. What are some examples of transferable skills? I’ve made a list for you below!
RBC published a report in 2018 called Humans Wanted. It highlights shifts in the job market and trends that may impact young Canadians, like a shift towards automation of rote tasks and an increased need for skills like “critical thinking, co-ordination, social perceptiveness, active listening and complex problem solving” (p. 3). These are all examples of transferable skills that students have experience with.
Think about which of these skills you are particularly strong at and what you have experience in. This can help you understand yourself, and your strengths, better. It will also help you articulate and highlight clear examples of the transferable skills you’ve built as a student on your scholarship applications, resumes, cover letters, and in interviews. If you are not sure yet, have a look at the list and keep an eye out for where you see these skills.
A lot of your work at university will be done independently. Are you skilled at organizing your time to get a long-term research project done? Do you find it easy to motivate yourself to work on projects? Can you figure out how to meet an outcome when you don’t receive detailed instructions? Most employers want to know that employees can work independently and will be able to ask a minimum of questions in order to meet their work goals, so these are all helpful skills.
Do you enjoy working with a team and collaborating on projects? This is a necessary skill in almost any workplace. Employers don’t want to hire people who are difficult to work with or don’t get along with others. Think about the best team projects you’ve worked on. What role did you take on? What were your main contributions to the team? How did you facilitate collaboration and support your teammates? How did you contribute to resolving any team conflict? There aren’t many jobs where you can avoid working with others, so being able to show that you are an agreeable, collaborative and supportive coworker will impress your future bosses.
Teamwork and working independently are not opposites. You may prefer one over the other, but you need to know how to do both in order to get through university and in the majority of workplaces successfully. Your future employers will likely want to know that you can do both. Even if you are planning to have your own business or be your own boss, it’s very likely that you’ll have clients or other people you have to work well with, so don’t disregard teamwork.
The traditional view of the leader as the “boss” is no longer accurate. The leader is not necessarily someone who tells others what to do. Leadership includes motivating, coordinating, and supporting others. You don’t need to be in a formal role of “leader” to do these things. Do you have other examples of ways that you’ve helped others find motivation? How do you coordinate and support others on your team? These are all important leadership skills.
Leaders are also ready to make decisions when needed, and to take responsibility when something goes wrong. Making decisions for a team can be difficult when you don’t have formal authority (when you’re not an actual “boss”), so you may need to rely more on convincing and persuading your teammates. Taking responsibility can also be difficult – but the best way to deal with an issue is generally to accept your role in it and figure out how to move forward.
As a student, you will have multiple opportunities to organize longer projects. Maybe it’s a research paper that you start in September and submit in December, requiring you to figure out all the steps and then track the project over the semester to make sure you get it done on time. Maybe you join a club and get to organize the end-of-year celebration, or a case competition or a mentorship program.
The RBC Skills Report talks about “co-ordination” as a skill that’s going to increase in demand. Sometimes there are too many minute decisions and nuances in a process and that makes it difficult to automate. This may eventually change, but in the meantime, being able to coordinate the millions of small details for a project or event is an in-demand skill.
Research and Analytical Skills
Every research paper you write will help build these skills! This is about being able to research a topic, and then distill and synthesize what you learned into an argument of some kind. Research and analysis isn’t easy, but putting the time in to do this well at the start of your degree will benefit you until you graduate and probably beyond. Your university library is likely to have research resources, and your university might have a writing centre that can help you with this, too.
Quantitative analytics skills are also increasingly in demand. Organizations have an increasing amount of data about their customers, clients, or environment, and will need more people to be able to make sense of all that data, so if you have a the chance to refine your quantitative research and analytics skills, you may want to take advantage.
Organization and Time Management
You are going to really struggle with your degree if you don’t figure this out early on! As a student, you won’t have a lot of extra time, so managing your schedule and organizing yourself will be very important. Perfecting these skills and knowing how to organize yourself and your time will benefit you for the rest of your life. If you have to juggle university courses, a part-time job, and a role in a student club, then you can use your organization methods as a great example in future employment situation.
I know sometimes we picture employees working alone in cubicles, but this is not realistic. Even if you do work alone in a cubicle, you’ll be required to communicate with others. This includes speaking with others, active listening to understand others, organizing and participating in meetings, composing emails and documents, and doing presentations. These are all things you’ll get to do in your time at university, so make sure you focus on building the skills and collect examples for your interviews in the future.
Presentations and Public Speaking
Apparently public speaking is one of the top fears around the world, but in a lot of careers, you’ll be expected to communicate information to an audience that may have multiple people in it. I used to be incredibly nervous to speak in front of crowds, and I definitely still get nervous, but I’ve presented to groups of 400+ students, and I can tell you the key is practicing a lot and continuing to do presentations. Embrace your fear and do it anyways – it will benefit you in the long run.
Information Technology and Adaptability
I am what I have seen described online as a Geriatric Millenial: I grew up without cell phones and the internet, but I’ve watched them both grow in popularity through my young adulthood. I didn’t have a MySpace account, but I could have (if that makes no sense to you, just keep going, it doesn’t matter). I had to adjust to all these forms of technology as an adult. I can tell you how my workplace phased out its fax machine; I can talk about scanning and digitizing all the records in one office I worked in; I can tell you about how another office I worked in shifted from paper memos to email; I can explain to you how a pager works. When I need examples of adaptability and learning new technology in a job interview, I can talk about any of these examples and many others.
You are probably much younger than me and much better at new technologies. What are you skilled at? What have you adapted to or learned? Think of examples that can showcase these skills, and remember to highlight any new technology that your future (older) boss may not be familiar with.
The whole reason an organization hires employees is to solve its problems! You will have a better university experience and career if you can effectively identify problems and then solve them. Part of this is about your analysis and critical thinking skills – how do you identify and evaluate the problem – and part of this is about being able to come up with an appropriate solution to whatever problem you uncover.
You can gain experience in problem-solving by resolving issues as they come up. Did some issue happen in your group project, and you figured out how to resolve it and move forward? Maybe you got to do this in an internship, co-op, or in a student club. Try to find examples where you’ve managed to identify and resolve a problem (maybe even before it became a problem) so you can highlight them later on.
Critical thinking is really about being able to look at a situation and context thoroughly and understand what’s going on (or what could be going on) outside your line of sight. One way to do this is through a SWOT or PESTLE analysis (or similar – there are dozens of iterations of these). Using these models regularly will help you assess situations quickly without them, eventually. This is esentially about being able to see a situation from multiple dimensions and perspectives.
Attention to Detail
When I used to post jobs, I would get hundreds of applications, and every time there were dozens that listed the wrong employer or position on their cover letter. Usually, these would get discarded because they indicated a lack of attention to detail. Attention to detail is about being able to find errors in documents, spreadsheets, and datasets, and being able to verify that everything is ready for a client. But you want to make sure, if you are going to tell someone you have an eye for detail, that there are no small errors on your application. Quadruple-check for typos and errors before you apply! Get a friend to read over your application before you send it in, too.
Who would want to work with someone who is not dependable? Everyone has had to work with what I call a “flake.” The “flake” is the one who doesn’t show up, takes forever to reply to messages or doesn’t reply at all, doesn’t follow through on their portion of the project, and then shows up late on the day it’s due. Don’t be that person! Be someone who does good work and is known for it – you’ll be able to build a network much more easily, and you’ll get good references and recommendations that may lead to promotions and new positions.
Check out the RBC Skills Report from 2018 here for more information on the transferable skills that students need and how they are increasing in demand. Highlights include: →Descriptions of possible career paths that include education and various jobs/careers over time. →Summaries of shifts in hiring that are anticipated in the next ten years. →Anticipated demographic and employment trends that will have a larger impact on the economy and future careers. →Honestly, even if you don’t want to read the full report, just flip through and look at the infographics and you’ll probably find some helpful info!
I hope you found this helpful! Transferable skills are really important for you to build, and while you’re a student you have so many opportunities to do it. Learn what they are, and how you use them, and then you can also talk about them in job interviews.
I have been answering lots of questions about study skills for university students over on Quora, so today I’m sharing all my top tips on university studying techniques. If you’re looking for the solution for low grades, read this post and try updating some of your study habits!
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Active Study Methods Are Better than Passive Methods
Active study methods are those that require you to DO something: recall information, apply a formula, perform a calculation, etc. They help build connections to knowledge in your brain, which is what allows you to actually build your knowledge.
Passive study methods are those that require you to ABSORB: watching or listening to lectures, reading and re-reading notes or textbooks, writing and re-writing your notes, etc.
Both active and passive study methods are important, but when you are looking to master a topic or material, the active methods will help you gain a deeper understanding much more effectively and efficiently.
This is not to say that reading and lectures are not important – these are the first thing you’ll want to do. You need to know the information that you want to retain, or the formulas you want to apply. These will come from lectures and readings. But once you have this basic understanding, you have to engage in deeper learning by applying the knowledge you’ve gained.
Below are the study methods and techniques that work best for me, and I’ve provided some other options I’m familiar with, which brings me to my first point…
Experiment and find what works best for YOU.
How university students study will vary from student to student. One of your university study skills will be getting to know your own strengths so you can leverage them. For example, I am not a morning person! I very rarely get up early to study, but there are millions of morning people out there who prefer to study or work in the morning, and there are dozens of productivity gurus telling us we should get up early every day in order to accomplish more.
We also each have a different capacity for how much we can focus each day, and how long we can focus for. These characteristics can even change from day-to-day; One day you may be able to focus all day, but the next day it could be impossible. Experiment with what works for you, and be kind to yourself becuase sometimes it’s going to be hard. Don’t compare yourself to others, either. That’s always a recipe for feeling defeated!
Break your day into “blocks.”
I tried 3-hour and 4-hour blocks, but I usually work in 2-hour blocks on busy days. Then I pick what tasks I want to fit into each of those blocks. I might work on four tasks over the day, in 2-hour blocks with breaks between them. If I am in the zone and everything is going well, I might spend more than two hours on something.
I find that this method works best for me when I have long, open days with fewer interruptions. If I have a lot of meetings or appointments that interrupt my day, then I find time-blocking works better. On the other hand, for days when I am having trouble motivating myself or focusing, I sometimes reduce the length of the blocks and take more breaks. For more information on this, see the Pomodoro Method below.
Time-blocking is a method for scheduling your day and to-do list together. I typically do this when I have a lot of meetings or appointments that I have to work around.
Essentially, time-blocking means you add your tasks to your calendar as though they are appointments – because committing to doing a task is really making an appointment with yourself!
If you need to study for an exam, then you estimate how long that will take or how much time you’d liked to spend doing this today, and you pop it into your calendar: eg. “12-2pm – study for history exam.” You can use your phone calendar, Google calendar, or a paper planner – whatever works for you.
How do I do this? First, I write all my appointments on a sticky note. I love sticky-notes, and don’t like crowding my Google calendar, but you could easily use a calendar for this. Once my appointments are written down, I will use another colour and map my tasks into the gaps between the appointments. Then I cross them out as I go through the day.
Here’s an example of what this might look like for me (using bold text for appointments instead of another colour):
8:30-9:30: walk dogs 9:30-10: shower, have breakfast 10-12:30: online writing group (work on research assistantship) 12:30-1: lunch & break 1-2pm: meet with PhD supervisor 2-4pm: research for thesis proposal 4-5pm: walk dogs 5-6pm: study group with students
Hopefully that illustration helps you see how I do this! Give it a try and let me know if it works for you. Like I said – this is only something I do when I have a more challenging balance of tasks and appointments. Most days I work from a traditional to-do list.
You can also see how I manage my time and priorities in a to-do list in this post (I even added photos of how I organize my weekly planner!):
Make sure you are taking breaks! This can help you feel refreshed and give you energy to study for more of the day. I like to take long-ish breaks and take the dog for a walk, get outside, or FaceTime a friend. It’s important to get off the computer and away from your desk. Most of my work is on a computer (even my reading), so I also make sure I don’t spend my whole break on a screen. Sometimes when I’m really swamped, I’ll clean or do household chores on my breaks because it’s more active than studying and makes me feel accomplished. I can’t do that every day, though, because eventually I need a more restful break.
Pomodoros are a study technique where you set a timer for a certain amount of time, and then take a short break when it goes off. I’ve practiced this technique using 25-40 minute work sessions, with 5-10 minute breaks. I usually use this method when I’m feeling particularly unfocused. It’s easier to focus for 25 minutes than being faced with a 2-hour study block! Sometimes I use the timer on my phone, but there are tons of Youtube videos and apps for this. I recently found out about the Study Bunny app, where you keep your bunny healthy and happy by logging study hours. It’s adorable!
The Controversy of Pomodoros
Some folks love pomodoros and others hate them. My suggestion is to figure out what works for you.
I find that if I am in a flow state and actually getting work done, then being interrupted every 25 minutes can be really challenging. In these cases, I will just turn off the timer and keep going. I have also worked with longer pomodoros. One of my study groups does two 40-50 minute pomodoros with a 5-minute break in between. Again, sometimes I’ll just work through the break if things are going well.
I find pomodoros to be the most helpful when I am having trouble focusing or sitting down and doing work. Sometimes this is because I am just distracted, and sometimes it just means I’ve had too much coffee, and sometimes it’s because I have so many things to do I don’t even know where to start.
If I have too much energy, I will alternate 20 minutes of forcing myself to focus with 20 minutes of something more active (such as cleaning my apartment). This is less productive than focusing for longer, but much more helpful than not getting any of my studying done. Often, after a while, I will get more into the work and be able to focus for longer. But if not, at least I got something done that day.
If you are spending a long period studying, I would recommend swtiching the subjects every few hours. Working on different projects or subjects throughout the day can be a way to refresh yourself. On days when I work in 2-4 hour study blocks, I would work on at least two different topics (unless I am trying to meet a deadline). This also helps you do different types of work. For me, I might read a bunch of articles for a lit review, and then work on data cleaning for my research assistantship, and then edit a paper or presentation for another project.
I have also read that it can help us to avoid procrastination when we leave work unfinished. Although normally we like to get to a logical spot to finish working on something, apparently our brains retain it better and want to return to it when we leave the project “open” or unfinished. I haven’t tried this since I read it, but if it works for you let me know!
Build a semesterly schedule and map out all your work, exams, and deadlines. This will help you to start working on everything ahead of time. It will all take longer than you expect. Be realistic in your planning as well! Planning to study for 20 hours per day in the week leading up to an exam is not going to go well, so don’t plan for it. I won’t pretend that I never end up studying or finishing work last-minute. This still happens. And it could still happen to you. Being a student is hard, and sometimes at certain points in the semester you will have a lot of deadlines. Work through it by prioritizing daily, and know that it’s hard and everyone goes through it! And if it doens’t work out, do your best, forgive yourself, and move on.
There are two types of study groups: study groups where you work together to understand course content, and study groups where you hold each other accountable by showing up (a study group could also be both of these).
Working with classmates to study course material can be really useful. You will probably each understand different parts of the course material, and sharing with each other will help you learn. Plus, explaining things to others is a good way to learn. Plus, if you go to office hours for help together, you can help each other understand what your prof tells you. You can also make some great friends. My closest friends are still people I studied with for a French Linguistics course nearly 20 years ago.
Accountability groups can help you show up and stay focused. Basically, this is where you meet with a group of students, set goals, and then work for a determined amount of time. Then, at the end, you all say whether you met your goals (and it’s okay if you don’t meet them!). You can do pomodoros, or you can just work through, depending on the group. When I was doing my Masters, I met with a classmate on campus every Saturday (because we both worked full-time) and we would just do homework all day. Now, with my PhD, I have been attending accountability groups online through Zoom. Some of the ones I attend are organized by the learning centre at my university, but sometimes we organize informal ones between classmates by sending messages in our group chat.
Use Feedback to Improve.
When you get your exams and assignments back, make sure you’re reviewing them and figuring out how you can improve. If you have questions, many professors and TA’s will be happy to give you more information because they want to see you succeed.
You don’t just have to focus on what you lost marks for – you should also look at what you did well. What are your strengths in the course? Make sure you celebrate those, and then take some time to look at where you lost marks.
Active Recall Methods.
Active recall is an active study method that you can use to review most topics. Basically, active recall means that you are forcing yourself to retrieve information from your memory rather than just re-reading it. The process of retrieving material from your own brain builds knowledge and helps you remember material more effectively than just re-reading your textbook or notes. Study methods like self-quizzing and writing practice tests are great active recall methods.
Active Recall Braindumping
Braindumping is exactly what it sounds like: dump everything from your brain onto a page! For example, if you were studying a textbook chapter, after you read the chapter (or you can do sections of the chapter first), you’re going to write down everything you can remember, withough looking, and leave some extra space on your page.
Then, you’re going to review these new notes against your textbook and fill in the key points you missed in a different colour – this is where you should focus your review. Not only does doing this help you review, it also narrows down your focus so you know exactly what you should be studying.
After doing a little more review, go through the process again. Each time, you should be remembering a little more, and filling in a little less!
Doing this once right after lecture, with your lecture notes, can be really helpful, but then you want to space out your review a little bit because it will help you really retain the information. You can do this over a few days, even.
How I Used Braindumping & Flashcards to Prepare for an Exam
Part of my PhD program includes a comprehensive exam, where we have to write three research papers related to our thesis topic. This is a closed-book, time-limited exam, and I had to still cite all my sources. How on earth could I remember 60+ journal articles well enough to do this? I used active recall and made flashcards!
First, I read all the journal articles (of course) and did my highlighting and made notes. And they were all articles I had previously read, so this was already a form of review.
Once I had all my articles, I made cue-cards for each one. The cue-cards were colour-coded by topic. For example, three of my topics were organizational change, whiteness at Canadian universities, and equity policy. Each of these topics had a different colour cue card.
One one side of the cue card I put the author’s name, title of the article, and year of publication. Then, on the back, from memory/without looking at the article, I used bullet-points to summarize the main points. I would then check this against the article and add any points I missed in another colour pen.
In order to continue my revision, rather than continually making new cue cards (although that would have also worked), I would self-quiz. I would pick a cue card and read the author, year and title, and then I would say, out loud, the main points of the article. After I finished, I would flip over the card and check my response. Did I miss any points? If I did, I would read it out loud.
Having these flashcards allowed me to easily review for short periods each day. I would do some review every morning when I woke up and at night when I went to bed but before I fell asleep. I would review on short breaks between tasks, even just for 10-20 minutes.
As a student who has always struggled with memorization, I found this very effective and helpful as I prepared for my exam. I am happy to say that I was able to recall at least 2/3 of the articles and cite them in my exam, and I think if I had just started this method a little earlier I could have fairly easily remembered all of them. (Also, I didn’t cite some of them because I was having trouble building an argument on one of my three topics, which was not related to memorizing the articles).
This quote from Gretchen Rubin (author of The Happiness Project and host of the Happier podcast) helps keep me on track when I have a bad day. Some days I sleep through my first planned study block and get up at noon. Some days I take a break and suddently it’s four hours later and I haven’t gone back to work yet. But most of the time, what I would consider “every day,” I work really hard and am a very productive student. Remind yourself of your successes, remind yourself of what you do most days, and remind yourself of what you have accomplished.
If you get derailed, first, remind yourself of the quote above. If you are off track for a few hours, or a day, then forgive yourself and just get back to work. When I wake up late, sometimes I think it’s not worth it to start studying. But it is. Even if it’s 8pm and I will only study for two hours, that’s better than nothing, so if I can get back into it, I will.
Next, ask yourself if there is a reason you ended up off-track.
Do you need a break?
Sometimes when we need a break, our brain will just take one. It will be less stressful if you plan for that break and fit it into your schedule.
Are you getting enough sleep?
As a university student, you are very likely to sometimes be sleep-deprived. But we can only function properly for a short time if we’re not getting enough sleep. You are not leveraging your best university student study skills if you’re not well-rested. I’m a huge advocate for sleep. Given the choice between studying all night or getting a good night’s sleep before an exam, I will almost always choose sleep.
Do you need to reprioritize your work?
Sometimes when I have a lot of things on my plate, I feel overwhelmed and don’t know what to do next. Updating my priorities and to-do lists can remind me that I don’t have to do everything today. Then I can plot my work over the week and feel more in-control.
Were your goals realistic?
Did you think you could write a paper in one day? Did you plan to study for 24 hours straight? If that’s not what you usually do, how is it going to work this time?
Are you procrastinating?
Procrastination happens to the best of us! It can happen for a number of reasons, and identifying the cause of your procrastination can help you overcome it. Check out this blog post for more on procrastination:
It takes some experimenting to find your university student study skills groove and the study techniques that will work for you. Just keep trying new things, and abandoning the things that don’t work for you. University learning can be more difficult than it was in high school. Keep trying new things, and working on your study habits, and you’ll see it pay off in your grades.
Share your top tips on study skills for university students in the comments below or visit @chooseyouruni_ca on Instagram to share them there!
Career exploration is the act of intentionally starting to plan for your career after university by engaging in different types of career development activities. Sounds simple, right? Well, it can be! You have your whole degree to come up with your professional goals and learn more about the jobs and careers available to you after graduation. Plus, as a student, you have access to resources like your university’s career development centre and advisors. This post provides suggestions on how university students can begin career exploration.
Trying Out Different Careers
In an earlier post on university student career exploration, I mentioned prototyping, which is a term from this book by Bill Burnett & Dave Evans that means trying out different careers. Prototyping is a career exploration skill that will support you as you build your professional goals. Even if you are certain about the career you want, make sure you try some aspects of it out before you graduate! Your student years are a time to build skills to impress your future references and future employers. Do this work now to help your job search after graduation.
As a university student, you are in the ideal time of your life to be trying out different roles and finding new career development opportunities. Your university can connect you with multiple opportunities, you don’t have to stay in any role for too long, and you can build your resume at the same time!
Work that you do as a student can help build your transferable and technical skills. Plus, it’s a great way to network and find some supervisors to ask to give you references. Start your career exploration now so you can focus and refine your professional goals as you go through university. According to this article, a huge number of students end up working in fields that are not related to their degree, but this can be offset by starting your career research during your time as an undergraduate student.
What are some methods for university student career exploration?
Co-operative work terms
Also known as just “co-op,” these are semester-long work terms organized through your university. You still have to apply and compete for the roles, but the organizations know that they are hiring students who may have less experience. Students will typically have the support of your university’s co-op office in the application and competition process, and they can provide guidance on which jobs to apply for. They can also advise on crafting your resume and cover letter, and interviewing well. These are all skills you’ll need after graduation, so it’s helpful to get feedback and guidance as you build them.
Some institutions don’t have co-op for all programs, so if this is something you definitely want to do make sure you do your research when you’re applying to universities. University student career exploration should begin early.
Internships can be paid or unpaid, and this is up to each province’s labour laws. Federal laws DO permit unpaid internships, so some provinces can have them. For example, in B.C., unpaid internships are illegal and you must be paid for your work. In Ontario, unpaid internships are still permitted. However, this varies from province to province so make sure you check your local laws. An internship is basically a junior position in an organization. The employer is aware that you might not have as much experience and they’re willing to support you as you gain the experience. In some industries, this is the best way to make connections and build your experience to get hired after graduation.
This one is tough, because some institutions and employers don’t value part-time work as highly as they might value a co-op work term or an internship. It will be up to you to articulate the skills and experience that you gain through part-time work. You will have to communicate the value to any future employers. Your university’s career centre should be able to help you with this.
Many students work in retail positions, food and beverage service positions, or office administration roles. You may also be able to find temporary work on your school breaks, like December retail and summer jobs. I’ve met students who worked at Starbucks, bubble-tea shops, as receptionists, in call centres, at department or clothing stores, as bartenders or restaurant servers… the possibilities are endless.
One of my regrets from my undergrad is working at a low-paying retail job where I gained all the skills in the first year. I could have looked for a higher-paying job that would help me build new skills and give me additional references. But I did not realize the value I could gain from that. Don’t be like me! Take the time to find roles that will help you move forward in your career.
If you don’t have a lot of work experience, volunteering can be a good place to start. Volunteers are not paid for their work. Non-profit organizations will often take on volunteers with less experience, and you can build your resume that way. Many websites offer volunteer opportunities (for example: volunteertoronto.ca, volunteerconnector.org). Just make sure that you are volunteering at a legitimate non-profit, and not at a company that should be paying you. You can find this out by doing some research on the organization to confirm they are a non-profit.
You may also be able to volunteer on your campus. Universities often take on student volunteers to help with events, orientation, and other tasks. Your campus career centre should be able to connect you with these opportunities. Longer-term opportunities will typically be more advantageous on your resume than one-day events. Longer commitments allow you to build and showcase your aptitudes and get references.
Volunteering can be a good place to gain the first entry on your resume. This is especially true if you don’t have other work experience. Make sure you behave professionally and perform well so that you can ask for a reference.
One of the benefits of on-campus work is that it can pay quite well. Compared to some of the minimum-wage positions students with less experience may qualify for off-campus, this is important. Since you are probably already going to campus, it may also be really convenient for you to work there.
You may have the opportunity to apply to be a teaching assistant (TA) while you are a student. A teaching assistant supports instructors by marking assignments, teaching tutorials, holding office hours, and other course prep tasks. Most of the time, teaching assistants are graduate students. Sometimes higher-year students with good grades can also have these opportunities. If you are planning on going to grad school (a Masters program), this experience can be especially valuable. Search your university’s website or ask one of your TAs to find out more about this.
Research assistants (RAs) help professors with research projects in different ways. This may mean conducting a literature review, research in a lab or through other qualitative or quantitative methods, or writing a paper or chapter for publication. Like teaching assistants, they are usually grad students (Masters or PhD students). Sometimes there are opportunities for undergrad students. If you are planning on going to grad school, this kind of work can be extremely valuable for your application. Search your university’s website, and talk to your TAs and professors for more information.
Other on-campus opportunities
In addition to the two opportunities mentioned above, universities will often hire students for a number of positions. For example: library work, events, student orientations, student advising, co-op positions, temporary positions, data entry, and more. Your career centre can let you know where these get posted – or you can search for the job postings on your university’s website. One benefit of these is that since they know you are a student, they may have more flexibility for your schedule than off-campus jobs.
A side hustle is work you do on the side, that is typically more entrepreneurial and independent than a part-time job. I read Side Hustle: From Idea to Income in 27 Days by Chris Guillebeau, and he gives tons of ideas of side hustles and tells stories of folks who have been very successful. The idea of the side-hustle is that it is something you can do in the time you have (for students, that would be a minimal amount of time) and on your own terms.
A side hustle can be literally anything. Personally, I have signed up for the Rover app and I look after dogs when their owners are out of town. I heard about this app from Chris Guillebeau’s book. Uber and Lyft can be side hustles, or food delivery work like Skip the Dishes or DoorDash. I have also met a student who started an entrepreneurship courses for high school students that they then were hired by high schools to come in and teach. I knew another student who designed items for in-game purchases for a particular online game. Many students also tutor high school students (independently or through an agency). The possibilities are endless! If you want to learn more about side hustles, I would recommend Chris Guillebeau’s website, or I Like to Dabble for more ideas.
Caution with Side Hustles
A caution with side hustles: Depending on the type of work you’re doing, it may be less valuable to future employers. For me, it would not be useful to list my dog-sitting experience on my resume or CV. I won’t really get any professional references out of it. I just happen to love dog-sitting, and I can make some extra cash with it. But I have also done tutoring through an agency. In that case I was able to get a reference from the agency and the parents of the students I tutored, so it really depends what you do.
Informational interviews are a great way to learn more about the diverse career options available to you and also build your network. Basically, this is where you meet with someone working in the field you are interested in to find out more about their own career. Someone once told me that “everyone loves talking to students,” and it is my experience that people love to share their career journeys and advice. Ask everyone you know about their careers – family, your high school teachers, professors, TAs… and you can also reach out to other contacts, such as at networking events or on LinkedIn, to learn more, too.
Finding a Mentor
Having a mentor is a key component in your career development journey. Whether this is an official mentor (through a program) or someone you meet who gives great advice, having people supporting you in your career is important. My biggest mentors were some of my bosses – one in particular who was really good at finding ways for me to develop new skills in the roles I was in so I could build towards the next role. Mentors can help you see what’s beyond the horizon in terms of your own professional development and take steps towards it. They can help you build your network and connect you with important people and positions for your future. Check what kind of mentorship programs are available at your university and also in your industry, and take advantage of them!
What to keep in mind
These are opportunities for career growth: building your skills and experiences, establishing your network, and getting some excellent references for future positions. You can focus on specific skills for a role, as well as yourtransferable skills. You also want to start building relationships with supervisors and colleagues. This will expand your professional network so you know people who can be mentors and provide positive references for you when you are applying for jobs in the future.
Research shows that students who feel a sense of belonging on campus are more likely to be successful in their studies. Building strategic campus connections will also help you succeed in your degree. These are the top 5 people to know at your university:
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Number one of the top 5 people you should get to know at your university, you should get to know at least one student in each of your classes. This will be helpful in case you miss class and need notes, when you need a study buddy, and also when you just need to vent about how much homework you have.
But you should also get to know students outside your program. You might meet them through orientatino, clubs, elective courses, student government, or other places on campus. These classmates will help give you some perspective when your own program is driving you crazy, and know what’s going on in other parts of the university.
It can also be really helpful to get to know students who are in higher years than you. If you have opportunities to meet these students, you should definitely do it! This might be through orientation and events for new students, mentorship programs, or other programming. Higher-year students can support you because they’ve already navigated some of the challenges you’ll be facing, and they survived to get into third and fourth year, which can give you hope for your own future. They’ll also be able to give you tips for studying and course selection, and the low-down on the professors.
2. TAs (Teaching Assistants)
TAs are definitely one of the top 5 people to know at your university! When you are a lower-year student, you may be working with TAs as much or more than you work with your professors. TAs are usually grad students (or sometimes higher-year students) who are hired to support professors i. Because they are working in a course, they can help you with your course material, and because they are also students, they can help you with student advice and navigating university in general. They will usually be your first point of contact (before the prof) if you need help with course material or if you have questions.
If you are even faintly considering going to grad school, you should definitely get to know your TAs. Many of them will be grad students, and they can tell you about their own experiences. What did they do in their undergrad to be more competitive? How many tiems did they have to apply to grad school? What tips and advice can they give you about getting into a grad program?
A lot of students are afraid of their professors. They’re so smart, they know everything, and they control your grades! But they are human, too, and many of them will be happy to help you and get to know you. Office hours are specific times when they are prepared to meet with students, and often students don’t take advantage and go see them.
If you’re nervous about going to see your professor in office hours, plan out your questions. Be as specific as you can. Don’t just tell them that you can’t understand the course. Go through the material and ask detailed questions to show that you have put in the effort to understand. Try to find the answers to your own questions so that you can tell them which sections or specific topics are not making sense to you.
Remember that your professor is a person, too. You can ask them questions about their research or about how they became a professor, and they are likely to appreciate you taking the time to get to know them.
Finally, you may need a professor reference one day, whether it’s for and exchange, a research position, grad school, or a scholarship, so you want to make sure that at least a couple of your profs know you well enough to provide a supportive reference.
Librarians are the under-appreciated hero in this list, but they are definitely one of the top 5 people to know at your university. Did you know that librarians specialize in supporting academic research? This means they can also support students who are learning how to do research. If you are having trouble finding research resources on a specific topic, or can’t figure out how to use a journal database, they can help!
Your university library probably offers online resources and workshops to teach new students how to do this work. You should definitely sign up for these! Academic research strategies are very unlikely to have been taught sufficiently in your high school. The librarian can also help you learn how to reference your papers properly and avoid accidentally submitting plagiarized work (which you can get into trouble for). Learning these skills early on will help you for the rest of your studies.
Many libraries also provide support for study skills. Many new students think they don’t need to learn how to study, but university is very different from high school and the adjustment can be difficult. Attend as many study and learning strategies sessions as you can! (And if you can’t access these through your library, see if your student services or student success office has anything).
Your university probably has all sorts of staff and faculty advisors who can help you: Career and/or Co-op, Academic and Financial Aid Advisors are just a few that might exist. Take advantage of these resources while you are a student! Of course, these will vary depending on your institution, but here are some of the roles that exist at many Canadian universities:
Career Advisors can typically help you explore and prepare for your career. They can give advice in terms of selecting a career path and then building towards it, and also with more tangible skills like writing resumes and cover letters, networking, and interviewing. Their offices may also organize workshops to learn these skills and events where you can network and meet future employers.
Co-op Advisors are similar to Career Advisors (and at some institutions they may be the same), but they can focus specifically on helping you with co-op roles. This means they will guide you through finding, applying and complete co-op work terms. Like career advisors, they will probably help you with resume, cover letters, interviews and networking, as well as supporting you in finding an appropriate work term.
Academic Advisors’ roles can vary quite a bit depending on the institution. At a minimum, their role is to help you make sure you are meeting the requirements for graduation (required courses, electives, units/credits, grades/GPA, etc). They may also be able to help you plan more complex degrees (double majors, adding a minor, etc). They may be able to go into even more depth and help you explore different elective courses that may be of interest, alternative degrees, majors, or minors, and then you can leverage those conversations into career discussions.
Academic Advisors may be staff, or they may be faculty members (professors). Sometimes departments might have a Progam Assistant who supports students, rather than having Academic Advisors. They may be in your faculty or department or in a student services area. Make sure you seek out the folks who can help you stay on track, though! I have worked with students who applied to graduate but had to cancel to go back and finish one course – nobody wants that to happen!
Financial Aid Advisors are there to help you explore different funding options for your degree. They can help you with student loans, bursaries, scholarships and awards. And remember, financial aid is not just for students with financial need! Some funding options are highly competitive and can be prestigious – including them on your resume can highlight your excellence as a student to a future employer.
I’ve met students who paid for their entire degree (upwards of $40,000 of tuition) entirely with many smaller scholarships. Some are only $500-$1000 but these add up over the four years of university. These applications can take a lot of time and require you to write essays, gather references, and provide detailed study and career goals, so make sure you manage your time to make room for this.
Those are the top 5 people I would recommend you seek out on campus in order to build a support system for you at university. Have I missed anyone? Let me know in the comments or contact me.
Career development is something you should work on throughout your education and career. How can you explore your career options while you’re a student? Undergraduate students can start setting professional development goals and working towards them while they’re still at university.
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Read job postings
Start your career exploration by reading job postings to see what’s out there. LinkedIn and Indeed.ca are both great resources for this, as is Google. Search by keyword to see what’s out there (marketing, graphic design, programming, etc), and then take a look at the skills required,description of the role and the duties it will perform to find out more about the job. What appeals to you about this role? What doesn’t sound very fun?
Make sure you also look at the requirements so you have an idea what the qualifications are and also the level of role (entry-level vs. senior management) and think about where it could fit in your professional development plan. What are the educational requirements? If it requires further education beyond a bachelors degree, is that an option you want to keep open? What kinds of experiences does it require? Which of those can you build during your undergrad?
Learn about others’ career paths
You can do this through LinkedIn, and also through networking, including informational interviews. People are usually happy to talk about their own careers, so you can see what led them on their path. Talk to people in a variety of careers so you can see the different paths people take. There’s not just one path you can take to reach a particular career, so take this as an opportunity to explore all your options!
The goal here is not to find a career path that you can copy. You have to find your own path and opportunities, and career paths are not one-size-fits-all. But seeing how others got into their careers will give you ideas about what kind of options you have and help you set your own professional goals.
As a student, you have access to additional resources that can help your career growth. In high school, your guidance counsellor can help, and most Canadian universities have a career centre that can provide support once you’re a student there. They will be able to help you on your career exploration journey by providing resources and asking effective questions.
People pay big money for career counselling, so take advantage of the services at your university while you are an undergraduate student! Career counsellors can provide advice, ask you helpful questions, and point you to new resources.
Try career assessments
There are many assessments you can take that will prompt you to look at certain careers. Your high school guidance counsellor or the career centre at your university may be able to refer you to some. These assessments can guide you to some different careers to explore, and may either broaden your choices, or help you narrow them down.
Remember that these assessments are based on algorithms, and don’t know you as well as you know yourself! If the results don’t resonate with you, you don’t need to listen to them. It may be worthwhile to try and understand why it recommended a particular career to you, but it also may not. Make sure you exercise your own good judgment.
Try new things
The authors Bill Burnett & Dave Evans talk about prototyping in their book Designing your life: Build a life that works for you. Prototyping is trying jobs out to see how much you like them. The best time to do this is when you’re a student! You can do internships, co-operative work terms, and other types of part-time work. These are all opportunities for you to sample different types of jobs and meet people in industries that are of interest to you in order to make decisions.
Co-operative work terms, also called co-op, are organized through your university, and you may get additional credit or a certificate for completing them. Some programs require you to complete a certain number of co-ops. A co-op is usually a semester (or maybe more) where you work full-time. Employers can get extra funding for hiring university students, so they are motivated, but they are also interested in helping you develop because they know they’re hiring a student who may need more guidance than a more experienced employee.
Internships are typically less structured than co-ops, and they can be paid or unpaid. There is no federal regulation about paying interns, but some provinces require that they get paid. The internship is usually whatever is agreed upon between the employer and the employee, so the number of hours and the tasks can really vary. Make sure you check out your other options (and your provincial laws) before you accept an unpaid internship – there may be a better option. Unfortunately, in certain industries, unpaid internships are more accepted or even the standard.
Part-time work is any kind of work you do that’s not full-time. Many students work part-time to supplement their incomes. There are pros and cons to this. Cons: you may not be able to take time off to pursue some of the opportunities of university (exchange, co-op, etc). Pros: you can supplement your income consistently and gain work experience. Most campuses have on-campus employment opportunities, which may be worth exploring. If you are going to work part-time while going to school, ideally you should look for something that gains experience that will benefit you later on, pays as highly as possible, and allows enough flexibility so you can accommodate your studies.
Maybe it’s time to start planning for your undergraduate degree, and you have to start asking the big questions about which degree programs and universities you should apply to. Or maybe you’re an undecided student already at university. If these sound like you, you are probably thinking, I don’t know what to study! What should my university major be?
Nobody but you can choose your path. Part of university is about learning more about yourself and your role in the world, and you can begin this self-discovery when you choose your major and degree at university!
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What is a major?
This is the model I recommend for exploring your options and choosing the best major for you in university. The three things you should consider when choosing a major are your aptitudes, interests, and career options. Find something in that middle zone of your aptitudes (skills and strengths), interests (what you enjoy), that has career options (that appeal to you).
You may also find that one of these categories is more important than others for you. I focused on studying something I was very interested in, that I was moderately skilled at, but wasn’t sure what career options it would give me. Other students may prioritize a certain career above the other areas, but you should definitely be thinking about all three of these for success – I wish I had been more aware of the career options I would have before I graduated.
It takes some work to figure out what’s in that middle point, but it will help guide you when you’re planning your degree and choosing your major (and possibly a minor).
How to choose your major based on your Aptitudes
Spending your time as a student or a worker, slogging away at something you really struggle with will be a long, uphill journey. That’s not to say you won’t have to sometimes take courses or do work that you’re not the best at, but it shouldn’t be your main focus. Figuring out your strengths can help you focus and enhance those, rather than spending all your time challenging yourself.
If you don’t already know what you’re good at, it’s time to do some reflecting! What have others (teachers, parents, friends) told you that you are good at? What comes easily to you? Think about school and anything you are involved in outside of school: arts and crafts, hobbies, sports, clubs, volunteering…
And remember, you may develop new skills while you are a student, so giving yourself some space to change your studies may be helpful. If this is something you can see happening, you may wish to choose a university and program where there are more options to change programs.
We have to work for a long time. If you graduate from university at 23, and retire at 65, that’s 42 years of working, so you should definitely do something that you like! You will also enjoy your classes more if you are interested in the content and not just trying to get through.
This isn’t the same old “find your passion!” advice. This is about finding where your interests, and hopefully one of your passions, can also align with a career outcome you are interested in. Unfortunately, some “passions” and interests can be more difficult to turn into successful careers, or may not be a good fit for you based on your skills, which is why we are trying to find where these meet.
You are probably still discovering your interests. Hopefully, you continue to discover new interests for the rest of your life! Think about the things that you get wrapped up in – what are the activities that stop time from passing when you’re doing them? What would you rather be doing when you’re bored?
How to choose your major based on your Career Options
This is important because it’s the main reason we go to university. And it’s challenging because there are so many careers out there that we don’t even know exist! We all know about doctors, lawyers, architects and engineers – but what about all those other people out there in fulfilling careers? Doing some research on the careers that are of interest to you before and throughout your time at university will help you make decisions about your own career.
And remember, this is career research, not choosing one specific job. The idea here is to remain open so you will have lots of options when you finish your degree. You want to make sure that there are career options waiting for you that you are interested in, and that you will be able to work towards and eventually qualify for.
You have a lot of time to explore your career options, but starting to do research early in your university degree will be helpful.
Here are the steps you can follow to start exploring career paths:
Start with a really open search of job postings. You can go on LinkedIn or Indeed or any other job posting website, and just do some keyword searches based on careers you are aware of as well as your interests and aptitudes. You can also look at organizations you have heard of before to see what kinds of jobs are available.
When you find a few postings that look interesting, look at the details. Start with the role description and the responsibilities. What appeals to you? What doesn’t sound very interesting? Does this role work independently or with others? Are they a leader who has to motivate and manage people? Notice which are transferable skills (which you can gain from any university degree) and technical skills (which may require specific training and certain university programs).
Next, look at the qualifications (requirements) for that role. What kind of education and experience do you need? What skills do they want you to have? You can use this to guide some of your activities during university so that you can build your resume towards these jobs. You should try to find some entry-level positions that require less experience, as well as positions for later on in your career.
Finally, use LinkedIn to look up some of the people who have these positions. You don’t need to contact them yet (we’ll talk about that later), but have a look at their education and past work experience to see how they ended up in those jobs. Career paths are not one-size-fits-all, but looking at the paths of others will give you some idea of how to advance in your career.
You may want to start saving some of these job postings so you can look at them later. These are just to provide guidance for you, and if you go through this process every semester or two as you go through your degree, you can continue to update your career goals. You can change your goals as you go through, but this activity will give you some basic knowledge of the kinds of roles that are out there, and what you need to access them.
If you aren’t finding any jobs that appeal to you, that’s still helpful. Early on, even knowing what you don’t want to do will be helpful. Hopefully, you will eventually find some roles that are of interest to you! Just keep searching and trying new things.
As you gain experience and build your network, you can start reaching out to people who are in positions that you would like to learn more about. But early on, just build your knowledge and understanding of what your career path could look like.
About the Salary
Salary may also be something you want to research, which you can do on sites like Glassdoor.ca. However, remember to keep your interests and skills in mind. Having a high salary is great, but having a slightly less high salary in a job you enjoy will probably make you happier. If you retire at 65, you still have to work for another 40+ or so years after you graduate, and you’ll likely be working around 40 hours a week. That’s a lot of time if you’re spending it in a job you dislike, even if you make a lot of money. Don’t make the salary the only reason you chose a particular career path.
If you picked your Career First
A lot of students already know what career they want to go into, and focus on that when they go to college. If this is you, I encourage you to still think about your interests and skills and how they align with that career. As I mentioned above, struggling to get into a particular field may indicate that you will also struggle at that career. Even if you’ve already picked a career, I encourage you to still do some exploration to confirm that it is indeed the best career for you.
Careers that require additional education
Some careers require additional education. For example: lawyers, doctors and professors all have to go beyond a bachelors degree. For other careers, it will depend on where you study (institution and/or province), for example: teachers and architects. If the career of interest to you requires additional education, it will be helpful to do that research early on so you can make sure you meet the requirements.
Connect Your Skills, Interests, and Career Goals with a Major
Your next step is connecting everything you’ve learned from the steps above with one or more majors so you can continue your research.
Not sure what your options are for majors? Everybody knows about majors like English, Biology, and Computer Science, but there are hundreds of other options! Get a list of over 400 examples of university programs available at Canadian universities – click here: