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Don’t Wait Until Graduation to Launch Your Career Strategy

It’s never too early to build a job and financial planning strategy for the day you’ll grab that diploma and run.
Life after college isn’t all about the money you’ll make, but with the national average for four-year degree debt at $21,900, it’s never too early to build a job and financial planning strategy for the day you’ll grab that diploma and run.
The Project on Student Debt reported last October that students graduating in 2007 (the latest year with complete data yet well before the current financial crisis) were already battling a perfect storm of bad news. Universities reported that student demographics, high tuition, and low state and private endowments for higher education were forcing students to take on more debt.
Given these factors, it makes sense for today’s college students to get aggressive early about determining whether they are spending smart for college and in a degree program that will pay off in the long term. Some things to consider:
How will your major support your career goals? Granted, students going to the best public and private high schools tend to get a lot more college and career counseling than those who don’t. And no one expects a freshman to have their career goals settled. But it’s never too early to get a birds’ eye view on what certain jobs are really like and what educational choices will make you most attractive as a job candidate. The Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook is a great place to look up hundreds of careers and find such key data as:
  • Training and education needed to attract the best employers in that field
  • Average earnings
  • Post-graduation job prospects
  • What the job is actually like
Keep in mind that many fields now require graduate education at some point to assure future advancement. That’s both an educational and financial priority you must consider as soon as possible.
Intern, intern…and then intern some more. With the current economy, paid internships may be tough to come by in many fields, which makes it particularly tough to justify an unpaid internship against, say, a union-wage cashier’s job in a supermarket or on a construction site. But if you’ve chosen a career where pre-graduation job experience gives you a real leg up on your fellow graduates, try to snag a few more hours of work-study employment during the school year so you can score necessary job experience in your field and build an address book full of people who will want to hire you when you graduate.
If anyone tells you your post-freshman summer is too early for your first internship, just ignore them; it’s never too early to build that experience. Interning early also has another potentially huge benefit. If you start working in a field and realize you hate it, isn’t it better to make that discovery before you get your degree so you can take corrective action and get the training for the career you really want?
Remember that minors are anything but minor. It’s definitely OK to minor in an area that has nothing to do with your major (say, biomedical engineering and fine arts), but try to think big and see if there’s a way for your major and your minor to make you a more attractive job candidate. Say you’re a strong left-brain/right-brain type—like a biology major who just happens to have extraordinary skills in drawing. You just described the best qualifications for a medical illustrator, which can be a very lucrative job. Consider what unique complementary skills your major and minor might give you in a future job search.
Get advice managing your debt and spending throughout school. Ask your parents to give you an unusual birthday or holiday present. Let them pay for your first visit to a trained financial expert such as a financial planning professional. Make it a point to choose a planner who knows enough about college affordability to guide your decision-making while you’re still in school. (To find a planner with that particular skill, go to and click on “PlannerSearch.”) Planners who have expertise working with college students will keep you apprised of borrowing and scholarship opportunities that you might not have time to track on your own. This will not only help with your undergraduate money burden, but as an added bonus, when you start your first job, you’ll know how to manage that first paycheck so you can afford grad school if you need to.
Financial Planning Association