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Marcia Y. Cantarella, Ph.D Headshot

College as the Dress Rehearsal for Your Career

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We tend to segment stages of our lives. We go from toddlerhood to pre-K to elementary school, then middle school, then high school, then college and THEN, as graduation speakers remind students, you enter the "real world." Excuse me -- wasn't all the rest of that pretty real? Certainly it felt that way. Each phase has its purpose in moving one along a developmental path. While our brains are not fully formed even in late adolescence, each stage sets you up for the next and so college is the dress rehearsal for the real world represented by your work life. Everything you do while in college will set you up for success or failure in your career.

If careers are built on networks then creating a reputation as someone who is great to be around, reliable, polite, and hard-working is something you want to cultivate while in college. There are movies about the class clown or nerd who trumps the captain of the football team when reunion rolls around. But in real life those who are leaders on campus are often leaders later in life. Drew Faust, President of Harvard was both president of her class and the student body when she was an undergraduate at Bryn Mawr. Hillary Clinton was a leader at Wellesley. Their reputations from those undergraduate days have followed them. It is no accident that classmates of heralded figures are interviewed by the media when someone like Sonia Sotomayer becomes a Supreme Court justice. In a more practical vein, faculty and deans will be asked for recommendations and character references for jobs, graduate schools, the bar association, the FBI and other fields. Make nice. Be that reliable, steady, sensible person with the ready smile that everyone remembers fondly.

Similarly, learning how to manage your time well is a skill you will have to carry until retirement at the very least. Add a family to your career plan and you have got to have a plan for managing your life. If you have practiced juggling things while in college it will not be as hard when there is a paycheck attached and a toddler at your hip. Organizing your work, adhering to deadlines, and setting priorities allow you to keep the high GPA while directing a play, being a member of a band, and keeping a relationship alive. Your boss will expect you to hand in work on time just like your professors do, regardless of what else you may have on your plate. You develop that muscle while you are in college. The expression that if you want something done you should ask a busy person is true. But you get to practice being both busy and good while in college.

Learning is a lifelong activity. Somehow, however, there are those that think that they can stop reading, writing, discussing and learning once they have the college degree. College teaches you how to do those things and keep doing them. You will always need to know the trends in your field -- and beyond. How will you have a conversation with the bigwigs if you aren't as well read and literate at age 40 as you were at 22? How will you manage new projects and technologies unless you are in learning mode? I remember a tech project thrown at me at one point in my career -- and I am not a tech person -- but my college skills of research and reasoning and writing got me through (with a little help from my network of techies). Blowing off the Art History or literature courses may bite you later because you lack that cultural capital and the skills that such courses bring in literacy and observation. It is all good. It is all dress rehearsal.

Making a mess of things can also be part of the dress rehearsal. The question is what do you learn from mistakes and how did you recover? This is a frequently asked interview question. The assumption is that we all make mistakes and you will, but how did you handle it? Ideally you want to avoid disaster and certain precautions can assure that to some degree -- not being a drunken idiot might be one. Often college is the first time no one is telling you what to do every minute. So how you handle that freedom is a sign of maturity -- or not. I was told early on that when I had made a mistake it was best to admit to it, acknowledge what I had learned, and set forth a plan to assure it did not happen again. The goal was to not repeat the same mistake. College is a pretty forgiving environment to make mistakes where dire consequences like getting fired are less likely to occur. The assumption is that this is a space to learn. Picking yourself up from the ashes with grace, dignity and humility would be a wonderful thing to learn how to do in college.

College is not separate from your life. It is where you get to practice being who you will be.

Visit www.collegecountdown.com to learn more about Marcia Cantarella and her new book I Can Finish College.