10 essential career tips for first-year university students

Start now: take these important, yet easy steps in your first-year at university to set you up for graduate career success.
Jaymes Carr
Jaymes Carr
Team GradAustralia
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Isn’t first-year university way too early to be thinking about a career? As a matter of fact, there are certain things you can do, even in your first year, that will give you a significant edge later on—and some of those things, such as planning an exchange or finding a mentor, are even fun. So, without further ado, read on to learn our ten essential career tips for first-year university students.

1. Take stock and ask yourself the difficult questions

It could be that you’ve entered a general degree, such as a Bachelor of Science, and must, therefore, prepare to confront difficult questions about your future majors: will you pursue physics or chemistry, biology or mathematics? Alternatively, you may have entered into a degree with a more specific focus, such as a Bachelor of Laws, in which case you’ll eventually need to think about the various specialisations available within that field, from commercial law to community legal work.

Either way, there’s no particular rush to know the answers to such questions with any degree of certainty: your first year is a time to try out different things (and, in many cases, the courses you complete will be part of a mandatory curriculum over which you have little control until later on in your degree). However, it’s still important that you pay close attention to, and respect the validity of your feelings towards different options. You can always change what you’re focus is later on, so why not start with what you’re enthusiastic about and switch if that doesn’t work out? If this all sounds too vague, or you’re not sure where to start, here are some things to consider during your first year:

  • What are you good at? In which subjects do you excel? Are you, perhaps, surprised to find yourself achieving great results in unexpected courses?
  • What are you passionate about? Or, at the very least, what interests you? Bear in mind that interests change over time, and, as such, there’s a risk that your passing interests at university will have a disproportionate effect on the shape of your future career options. So, if you’re uncertain, talk to friends, family members, or academics, all of whom may be able to help you clarify where your enduring interests lie (or, at the very least, how you can make a well-informed bet).
  • Where will my choices lead? In many cases, the best options are the ones you can’t predict: your career could take off because of a chance meeting at a career fair, or a significant opportunity offered by a lecturer, or any number of other things. Be open to such events. However, try to develop a general idea (at least) of where you’re headed: do you have a career in mind? Are you more interested in graduate studies? Are your choices going to advance you towards the accomplishment of a goal you’ve had for years, such as drilling for core samples at an Antarctic research station, or publishing a novel, or working as a human rights lawyer?

What if I don’t yet know what I’m passionate about?

The idea that you should do what you love permeates modern working culture, so much so that it can come as a disappointing shock to realise that you don’t really know what moves you. But take heart: several influential careers counsellors have convincingly advanced the case that the pursuit of ‘passion’ for your work is misguided, and may lead you, not towards fulfilment, but further away from it.

For example, in his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You, the Georgetown University academic Cal Newport draws on recent research in psychology to argue that career satisfaction results primarily from the mastery of ‘rare and valuable skills’. The development and execution of such skills, he writes, is inherently fulfilling and leads also to greater career opportunities and autonomy.

Of course, if you’re absolutely certain that you want to be the next President of the International Criminal Court, then go for it: choose every course available in international law, intern at a war crimes tribunal, master French, and so on, following your passion as far as you can ‘when you become better at what you do, not only do you get the sense of accomplishment that comes from being good, but you’re typically also rewarded with more control over your responsibilities.

However, if passion eludes you, then Cal Newport’s advice offers an alternative approach: ignore passion and pursue mastery instead. Passion will follow.

2. Develop your soft skills

Soft skills (also known as ‘employability skills’) are skills that are not specific to any one industry or organization. Though long considered secondary to more industry-specific skills, recognition of the importance of soft skills, for both individuals and the organisations that employ them, has grown considerably. For example, when the World Economic Forum published its 2016 report on the 16 skills every student needs, ten of them were soft skills: critical thinking/problem solving, creativity, communication, collaboration, curiosity, initiative, persistence/grit, adaptability, leadership, and social and cultural awareness.

According to a 2017 report by Deloitte Access Economics (‘Soft skills for business success’), ‘soft skill-intensive occupations will account for two-thirds of all Australian jobs by 2030, compared to half of all jobs in 2000’. However, ‘a quarter of entry-level employers report difficulty filling vacancies because applicants lack soft skills’.

Here then is a straightforward way to distinguish yourself as a graduate, and you can lay the foundations even as a first-year by choosing to actively develop your soft skills. Every class, or group assignment, or presentation, or club activity offers an opportunity to develop a target attribute (such as teamwork or communication) while giving you something you can use as an example later on when employers ask you for evidence of your soft skills. It could just be the thing that gets your application over the line.

3. Join clubs and societies

Clubs and societies are two of the best things about university, running the gamut from sports teams to social groups united by shared interests in everything from debating to Pokemon Go. More than anything else, clubs and societies can be a whole lot of fun, providing an opportunity to make friends, pick up new hobbies, and get involved in university life. However, they can also give you an edge when you pursue a graduate career later on. For example, involvement in a club or society readily identifies you as a well-rounded team player with the time management skills necessary to balance your academic obligations with your personal interests.

Clubs and societies also provide a fun way to start building a professional network, with many groups (such as the Young Lawyers Society or the Engineering Students Association) bringing together students who share a vocational pursuit. Finally, by seeking election to an executive role for a club or society, you can hone your leadership skills and also make it easier to show future employers that you possess both ambition and initiative.

4. Research vacation work and internships

Most major graduate employers offer internships and vacation work to students in their penultimate (usually third or fourth) year. However, it can be helpful to do some research even as a first year: you may discover work experience opportunities with smaller employers, or, at the very least, gain a better sense of the skills, marks, or experiences you’ll need to make a competitive internship application later on in your degree. A good place to start when researching internships is the search tool on the GradAustralia website. Alternatively, you can check with your university’s careers service to see if they can recommend any local opportunities for first-year students from your field of study.

5. Get to know your tutors or lecturers

It can be hard to develop a one-on-one relationship with your lecturers or tutors, especially when you’re just one student among many. However, these teachers can be an invaluable resource, providing feedback about any specific concerns you have about their course, helping to clarify academic goals, and, very often, able to supply career advice that’s specific to their discipline (and yours). Importantly, they’re the people who, if you know them well enough, can help you launch your graduate career by providing a credible reference that cuts through the noise by giving you an endorsement that counts. They can also become (or connect you with) a mentor: somebody who is willing to play an active, ongoing role in helping you to establish your career.

So: find out when your lecturer or tutor’s office hours are (they’re usually listed in the course syllabus) and then take advantage of them! The chances are very high that their network is more extensive than yours, so you’ve got little to lose, and much to gain, from making an effort to join that network. If nothing else, you’ll give yourself the opportunity to explore complex ideas in the company of somebody who can guide you towards new insights and a deeper understanding of what you’re studying—which is, ultimately, what university is all about.

6. Consider an international exchange semester

The benefits of participating in an international exchange program are numerous: you’ll get to experience a new culture, make friends abroad, develop your independence and initiative, demonstrate the ability to cope with change (something employers value greatly), and expose yourself to new ways of learning within a new setting and among new peers. An exchange can also lead to unforeseen research and career opportunities, both while abroad (you never know what connections you might make!), and later on, when, as a graduate, your exchange could be the very thing that distinguishes you from other candidates in the eyes of an employer.

Importantly, exchanges in the second year (for one or two semesters) are not uncommon, so you’ve got nothing to lose by starting your research early. Most universities have an office dedicated to their international exchange programs and staff members there will be able to help you identify suitable exchange opportunities and prepare a competitive application.

7. Make a budget

As a first-year student, this tip might sound like a bit of a joke: a budget for what? Mi goreng rations? Yes, being a student can be tough, but it’s also a good time to build positive habits that will serve you well when you start a career later on. Whether you move straight into a well-salaried graduate role or spend some time working odd jobs while you figure out what to do, life after university (and especially the aspect of that life which involves repaying any student debts) will force you to rely on prudent personal finance skills.

While personal finance skills are occasionally taught through campus careers centres or counselling services (it’s worth checking to see if any such courses are available at your university), they tend to be excluded from ordinary courses. So make it your own mission to develop a budget, put in place some positive finance habits, and stick to them tenaciously.

There are many helpful books on the subject and the Australian government provides an introduction to many fundamental skills on its Money Smart website. Recently, many apps have also emerged that help you to automate certain personal finance skills, such as making regular contributions to your savings account. These apps include Raiz (formerly Acorns), Spaceship, the Commbank app, and the IAG app. While ‘make a budget’ mightn’t seem like a career tip, it can make a world of difference to have your financial habits firmly in place when your career takes off and money, at last, begins to flow in your direction.

8. Stay on top of careers advice and make sure to attend on-campus careers fairs

New opportunities arise all the time, and the job that suits you best may turn out to be one that you’ve never heard about. In fact, while calculating new jobs is notoriously difficult, one estimate holds that ‘65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in jobs that don’t yet exist’. So, here are two easy ways to stay abreast of the job market, even as a first-year student, and increase the chances that, if the perfect career for you comes along, you’ll be in a position to hear about it.

First, make a regular habit of reviewing the advice distributed by on-campus careers services or online resources (like GradAustralia). This will alert you to any new opportunities, including internships and graduate employment programs. You’ll also be able to hear what recently employed graduates have to say about their new careers, which could give you a sense of which career paths (and employers) you find appealing in terms of lifestyle, culture, and other factors.

Second, take advantage of on-campus career fairs, most of which are attended by representatives of major graduate employers, who can answer your questions, share their personal experiences, and even recommend ways to get a foot in the door if, as a first-year student, you’re not entirely sure how. Remember that the job market is constantly changing, so it can be helpful to drop by more than one career fair, even if only to see if any new opportunities catch your eye. If nothing else, you’ll leave with a clearer sense of your options and a collection of branded pens, stress balls, and other paraphernalia.

9. Draft a CV and cover letter

Draft a CV and cover letter? In my first year? Are you crazy? Yes, in you first year, and, honestly, it’s not that crazy. Even if you’re not planning to apply for jobs any time soon, drafting a CV and cover letter during your first year can be a valuable exercise for several reasons. First, it’s a great way to take account of any skills you already possess, while identifying gaps that you can aim to address as a student. Ask yourself: how does the CV I have now compare to the CV I’d like to show prospective employers by the time I graduate? This can lead to the generation of achievable goals and offer a valuable sense of focus to your studies. Second, by preparing a CV and cover letter that you can update as needed with new achievements and experiences, you’ll be better placed to seize upon job openings when they emerge and take advantage of opportunities to develop whichever skills will make your CV/cover letter more competitive. For advice on how to write a cover letter, see the application advice section of the GradAustralia website.

10. Make sure to look ahead at postgraduate opportunities and, if necessary, complete any prerequisites

For many careers, an undergraduate degree is not enough. Would-be architects will need to complete a masters program; aspiring lawyers, their practical legal training; psychologists, an honours year followed by extensive supervised clinical practice. Of course, where postgraduate study is necessary for career advancement, it’s almost always highly competitive: compare the number of students in, say, an undergraduate psychology course to the number of students admitted to honours and it will become immediately obvious why this is the case.

So, if you plan to pursue a career that requires postgraduate study, make sure to familiarize yourself early on with the admission criteria, be they the completion of certain courses; the attainment of competitive marks (as measured by a grade point average or weighted average marks); or, in the case of degrees like medicine or (at some universities) law, the completion of entrance exams such as the Graduate Medical Admissions Test (GMAT) or Law Schools Admissions Test (LSAT).

Many a student has reached the end of their degree only to realise that they skipped a crucial course, attained too low an average mark, or missed the deadline for an important test or application. Don’t make the same mistake!

Have fun and look after yourself

Let’s finish with two very important pieces of advice. First, the transition to university can be very difficult, especially if it coincides with other major changes, such as moving out of home for the first time or living in a new city. As always, the best thing you can do for your future self is to look after your present self, so if you feel overwhelmed or worry about your ability to cope, then don’t hesitate to avail yourself of the support provided by on-campus counselling services. Alternatively, you can access free and confidential support from organisations like BeyondBlue, ReachOut, and HeadSpace, or consult your GP to receive subsidised appointments with a psychologist under a mental health care plan.

Second, while thinking about your career during your first year can give you a huge advantage later on, it shouldn’t distract you from your chief prerogative as a first-year student, which is to make new friends, enjoy new experiences, and broaden your horizons by throwing yourself into whatever interesting opportunities come your way. If there’s one year in which you should be prioritising yourself over your career, this is it: so, yes, think about the future (it really will help!), but don’t let that distract you from living in the moment and, frankly, having a little fun.