THE BLOG
10/14/2014 07:18 pm ET Updated Dec 14, 2014

Why Out-of-Classroom Experiences Are Critical to Your College Education

College isn't all about what happens in the classroom. It's a time to try new things, have new experiences and discover who you are and what you value. With each passing year, it's getting increasingly more difficult for young professionals to stand out from the thousands of other graduates who have turned their tassels and entered the workforce. Though grades are important to graduate, it's what happens outside of the classroom that gives you the tools to succeed after you leave campus. Now more than ever, college graduates are banking on the power of out-of-classroom experiences - like community service, clubs, internships and study abroad - to set them apart from the crowd during a high-stakes job interview process.

According to research completed by my company, UChic, a social commerce company, 86 percent of young women believe that extracurricular activities (e.g. internships, trips abroad, industry conferences, etc.) are important to their future careers. Does this sound like you? More than just résumé fillers, out-of-classroom experiences benefit you in ways you may have never considered.

You cultivate intangible skills.
Every student sits through hours of class, learns the basic principles of the subject and recalls general information for tests. But can you meet deadlines where excuses won't help? Thrive under pressure? Deal with the occasional setback? Work well with a team of people who are different from you? Throw caution to the wind to take big risks that are often necessary to gain big rewards in the professional world? These are the intangible skills employers are looking for, and coincidently, these are the skills you gain through out-of-classroom experiences. You quickly learn to navigate - through trial and error - situations you'd never face in the classroom. Take advantage of the opportunity to access these experiences to shape your education! Where to start? On-campus resources like the career center and student activities office are usually a good starting point. Professors, academic advisors and mentors can help guide and provide access to these life-changing opportunities as well.

You find your passion.
Get involved in those extra-curricular activities, organizations and professional clubs that relate most to your unique talents and interests. Why? College is a time of self-discovery, so you have to try a lot of things to know what inspires you. Alternatively, these experiences can serve as a test run to help you weed out what is NOT for you. You may dream of becoming a politician only to find that after a summer internship on the campaign trail, you prefer writing about politics over participating. Through experimentation comes self-discovery.

In school, I was fortunate to receive unique opportunities out of the classroom - like interning in Washington D.C., presenting research in Paris, playing with the symphony, and more. Not only did I pick up some useful career-ready skills like how to take a collaborative research paper from start to finish at my government internship in DC, I also learned that I was probably better suited to the fast-paced world of business.

You earn your bravery badge.
The thought of spending a semester studying and exploring a culture different from your own or taking a summer internship in a new city can be downright terrifying. However, these are the moments and opportunities that prepare you to face much bigger challenges down the road. By stepping way out of your comfort zone and, at times, addressing fears head on, you set yourself up for big payoffs.

For me, all of these lessons took form in Music Mentors, a nonprofit I started while in college. Though I was fortunate enough to be able to take private music lessons growing up, many kids are not as fortunate. Our program aimed to bridge that gap by connecting eager college musicians with elementary students, providing them with weekly one-on-one lessons. Our organization grew and we were eventually invited to perform as a group at the White House for a holiday event. Not only was I able help give these kids experiences they may never have had otherwise, I gained valuable leadership knowledge and skills I never would have gotten if I limited my education to the classroom.

Run for student senate president, start your own non-profit organization, take a semester abroad - whatever you decide, aim as big as you can dream and it will be worth it no matter what.

You get the ball rolling.
The best part about out-of-classroom experiences? They build on each other. Each one opens the door to a future opportunity. They grow your professional network, connecting you with others who may be able to help your future career search, and provide you with valuable skills and lessons you can carry and build upon with each subsequent opportunity. If you don't start the ball rolling, you never know what you might miss.

You may not succeed 100 percent every time, but you'll never fail when you work towards achieving your dreams.