Work & Volunteer Experience

A lot of students put off college because they're less than confident about their academic experience. Maybe you did poorly in high school. Maybe you dropped out, and later earned your GED. Maybe you tried attending college for a semester or two before quitting.

Whatever your circumstances, you don't have to give up on a college degree because of bad grades and false starts. Many colleges are willing to enroll students based on other factors. Work experience, internships, and volunteer roles are all useful qualifications for students who are hoping to get back on track.

When Is Work Experience Helpful?

Work experience gives you a frame of reference, in terms of your career goals. After trying a job for 3 to 12 months, you're better equipped to decide whether or not you want a degree in that field. If you do enjoy the field, work experience can help you zero in on a specific job title or function.

For undergraduate programs (associate's degrees and bachelor's degrees), work history is rarely a requirement for college acceptance.But if your high school grades were less than stellar, you can often use work history as a way of improving your application. Some colleges will waive their GPA (grade point average) requirement in exchange for an essay on work experience and letters of recommendation from employers.

For example, if you earned C's or D's in your high school science classes, you might have trouble getting into a nursing program. But if you've spent the past few years as an aide or an orderly, working with patients and learning the health care field, schools will be more inclined to admit you.

When Is Work History Required?

Certain MBA programs and graduate programs will only admit students who have relevant work experience. Unlike test scores or high school grades from years ago, work history shows college officials that you are responsible, focused, and motivated.

Master's in education degrees are often only offered to licensed teachers or licensed administrators, who have worked in schools for several years. Similarly, RN to BSN programs will only admit registered nurses, who have been working with their license for a given period of time.

Work history requirements like these help college administrators ensure that all students are working from a similar platform, with similar background knowledge. Without these requirements, classes might be full of students with varying abilities. Some would be bored and held back, while others would struggle to keep up.

When Is Work History Worth Mentioning?

Not all work history is worth mentioning on a college application. If you've bounced between several jobs that don't relate to your college goals, you can probably leave those off your application. Too much transition might lead colleges to believe that you can't commit.

On the other hand, you should never lie about your work history. If a college asks for a resume, or a summary of what you've been doing in recent years, it's better to include all your various positions than to leave holes in your history, which suggest that you weren't doing anything at all.

Ideally, you should highlight work history that amounts to at least one year at a single company. Staying with one organization for 12 months or more shows that the people there respected your work, and you were able to meet most of your objectives.

If you haven't been at any job for at least 12 months, don't panic. You can still highlight your accomplishments. You may wish to discuss your work history in the essay portion of your application. Even if you've only been working for a few months, you can relate a fair amount of information about what you've learned and why you're enjoying the tasks involved. You might also seek a letter of recommendation from a manager or supervisor. Be sure to communicate your long-term goals to him or her so that he/she can write a relevant recommendation.

How Should You Present Work History?

If you're applying to graduate school – including law school or business school – your college of choice will probably ask you to include a resume or curriculum vitae, also known as a CV. A CV is a longer version of a resume, usually used by researchers and Ph.D. candidates to outline their scientific/teaching experience. Resumes are typically limited to one page. If you've never written one before, you can find resume templates on job boards and within career guides.

Even if a resume is not required with your application, you should feel free to include one if it improves your profile. Some college applications don't include spaces for you to list awards, accomplishments, hobbies, and athletic achievements. These are the details that define who you are, and they'll help admissions committees to distinguish you from a pool of candidates.

Make sure you also list relevant skills and abilities on your resume. Some students take it for granted that they are fluent in another language or highly skilled in various computer programs. These are noteworthy distinctions! They speak to your potential and employability – so don't be shy about listing them.

When Is Current Employment Required?

Certain master's degree programs and vocational certificates require that applicants be currently employed. In other words, you're expected to maintain your job while you are in school. These programs are designed to incorporate real life job challenges into classroom assignments. Instructors need to be sure that students can relate their studies to their daily work.

The University of Phoenix, for example, lists its “current employment” requirement this way:

To enter a graduate degree program, you must… be currently employed. If you're not currently working, you must have access to an organizational environment that allows you to apply the concepts you learn in our courses. Select undergraduate degree programs require applicants who have less than 24 transferable credits to hold a job or have one year of full-time work experience.

Many other schools have similar requirements. Check with an enrollment adviser before you're ready to apply.

How Do You Find an Internship?

So how do you amass work experience if you can't get hired without a degree? Try pursuing an internship in your field of interest. Internships used to be reserved for 18-year-olds with family connections. Today, internships come in all shapes and sizes – for career seekers and students of all ages.

Internships may be offered as paid or unpaid opportunities. Unfortunately, they are not often advertised in the local newspaper. Employers either have relationships with colleges, and they recruit students directly, or they rely on employee referral networks. That means, you'll have to be proactive about securing a desirable internship.

Talk to friends and family members who work for companies that interest you. They may know of departments that need extra support. Investigate smaller companies in your area. Small companies involve less red tape when it comes to hiring decisions. They will probably be more receptive to unsolicited proposals.

Once you've located a good opportunity and a professional contact in that organization, outline what you'd like to do and how long you're available to help. Make it clear that your internship will focus on a specific task or a finite project. (You don't want to end up shagging coffee all day.) Agree on a work schedule and a timeline. Remember: the idea is to set yourself up for a tangible accomplishment, which you can then use to update your resume and refine your college plans.

Why You Should Consider Volunteering

In an ideal world, we would all find time to volunteer in our communities. Food banks, hospitals, after school programs, and eldercare facilities always need extra helpers. As a prospective college student, you can accomplish 2 goals at once through volunteer work: 1.) help others, and 2.) solidify your career goals.

Colleges look favorably on volunteer experience – especially when it relates to your major.  If you plan to apply for a health and medical degree, volunteer at a hospital. If you plan to attend a vet tech program, volunteer at an animal shelter. Volunteer experience looks great on a college application, and it can help you build your network of professional contacts.

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