The Real College Cheating Scandal

06/06/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Even if you are smart and earn great grades, you might be falling into the trap of doing what you're told. If you do, you are cheating yourself. You are blowing off priceless aspects of college that could easily jumpstart your career -- and that's critical today. You might be failing to develop relationships with your professors, the very people who are paid mentors. Or you might be neglecting other perks which colleges traditionally provide, the not-so-obvious opportunities that can similarly speed you to your dream jobs...sometimes even before you graduate.

Most students are not good at being good consumers of their college experiences. I know first hand from my career-coaching practice just how desperate students can be when it's time to graduate and they didn't bother to show up after class -- for volunteer work which could provide valuable experience, for clubs and other activities in which leadership could be learned and personal networks could be formed and, perhaps most significantly, for those discussions with their professors who could have provided great advice and recommendations for internships, apprenticeships, or terrific first jobs.

Most students are getting some things right. By graduation, they know they have to write a resume, go to career fairs, and some know that there is a career center on campus. But because there is little emphasis in college on using college as a personal laboratory, they don't know how to do that before graduation. You think that if you just do what is required and act like a normal, passive student, you will automatically be promoted to a good job at the end. But life isn't anything like that. You need to learn success skills in addition to academics.

To help you acquire those skills, here are some of the suggestions I detail in Launch Your Career In College. All of these recommendations require you to be proactive, even if that's initially outside of your comfort zone.

I want you to figure out ways to write papers on topics that truly interest you, asking special permission if necessary. The reason? Because such papers could actually excite you -and could result in research that would give you an edge when it's time to apply for a job related to the paper's topic. The same homework might help you qualify for door-opening internships before graduation. And, such a paper might be worthy of publication while you are still in college -- and wouldn't that look great on your resume!

Apply to work in areas related to your interests, maybe even passions -- for free if all else fails. Working for no pay is still better than not working at all. It provides experience. That means several things: an inexpensive way to test if that given career is right for you, to start you networking, to learn how to link to ideas and people, who might, in turn, help, even inspire you.

Once you find professors whom you respect, it's up to you to initiate the relationship. The best way is to visit during office hours and talk to them. You are not bothering them. They expect you to visit and talk because it shows you are committed to learning.

No matter your major, you can begin to try out these strategies and learn to make them work. This is not a one-stop-come-in-and-get-a-recommendation deal. Rather, it's a sincere relationship cultivated over time. Every university has within its faculty a core of people who are respected in their field. It's your job to get to know them, build genuine relationships with them, and make them want to include you in their academic families. You can't go in and bluntly state, 'I want you to help me with my career,' and expect them to do it like your parents would, but there are ways to create that result without being demanding.

For those who maintain that talking with professors brings up too much fear and anxiety, use gentle steps to get over the fear and learn to interact with authority figures. What can you say to them? Ask them to share how they got started, surprises they found along the way, trends they recognize, advice on your best academic or career bets, names of people, organizations, and books that can guide you, your major, even your career recommendations

As a coach who has counseled receptionists all the way up to CEOs, artists and therapists, I know the life-long importance of being able to assert oneself and develop alliances. If you can't talk to professors, it means that later on, you probably won't be able to talk to your bosses or the president of your firm. If you don't develop the skill of finding mentors while you're in college, you probably won't be able to do it later on without thinking you're manipulating people or sucking up.

So, what sort of difference might talking to a professor make? In the case of Frank Gehry, the world's most celebrated living architect, a professor's suggestion resulted in his changing his intended career from chemical engineering to architecture, a field he had never even considered. I interviewed Gehry about how he came to switch his major. Gehry said he was working hard on a project to develop glaze fittings. His professor realized that while Gehry would make only a mediocre engineer, his real talent lay in another field. He arranged for Gehry to enroll in a colleague's architecture class. The results were instant. "For the first time I was a great student," Ghery recalled. "I was skipped into the second year."

Gehry then got to know his architecture professors so well that he became included in "everything from working on projects to dinner at their homes." The dean eventually became a mentor as well and helped Gehry to get a job with a well-known, progressive architecture firm. There's more: he got paid for writing a thesis, which, in turn, led to Gehry's actually taking part in the development of a Mexican town.

He's not alone. Legendary feminist Gloria Steinem originally thought her years at Smith College in the 1950s were "a washout." Steinem did not even think she'd had any college mentors. But when I asked her if she had any favorite professors, the founder of Ms. Magazine and co-founder of the National Organization for Women, remembered the profound influence of a professor who taught a class on the history of India. When Steinem was nearing graduation, the professor recommended that Steinem go to India on an experimental fellowship -- a far cry from what Steinem was considering: getting married and working as a researcher for what is now Time Warner. The professor considered these to be dead end jobs and suggested that, at the very least, the venture in India would teach her how to "quell caste riots." Steinem went to India. And when she returned a year later, she discovered she had fundamentally changed. "It was the beginning of my political life," she recalled. It wasn't long before Steinem would become one of the world's most renowned political activists.

Gehry and Steinem's careers started in college. Both of them had pivotal professors in their corner, professors who helped transform their lives. Yes, they were lucky, but note that it all starts with not only showing up, but even more, showing interest.

Make your luck happen! Adele Scheele is the author of Launch Your Career in College.