How to Tell If Your School Is Selling You an Empty Box

student studying college

When you’re in school, it’s hard to tell if all your effort, time, and money is worth it. What if after all your hard work and after taking out several thousand dollars in student loans, you can’t find a job in your chosen field? There are many reasons to go to school and earn certifications, and if landing a career you are passionate about—which will enable you to have financial freedom—is one of those reasons, knowing there is a job after graduation is important. Schools are not always as honest with their job placement statistics as they should be. For example, if you are still working the part-time retail job you had while in school, your alma mater may count you in their “hired” statistics when they count who has a job post-graduation. That’s why you as a student should be doing your own research to make sure you’re on the right path that leads you to your career goals. After all, YOU are the one paying for your education; your alma mater doesn’t have a financial investment in YOUR future. Only you do. Schools often imply a great future after graduating from their program, but far too often students buy an empty box without the tools they need to transition to a career.

This is a technique I used when I was 21 and having doubts about the steps I was taking to achieve my career goals. Once I started using this technique, I wished I had started sooner. To give you some context, a week and a half ago, I wrote about my experience with failure in higher education:

I was beginning my senior year and I had no idea how to make the next step from school to a career. I was told that going to school and getting a degree would unlock a stimulating career where I would earn a comfortable living. After 3 years at the university, I realized that wasn’t entirely true. Despite having some good qualifications on my resume, I was rejected over and over … and over—from internships and entry-level positions

Here’s what you need to do: Start applying to jobs as if you already graduated with the degree/certifications you are working towards. For example, if you are graduating in two years, list everything on your resume you hope to do in the next two years: clubs, internships, job, and your target GPA (this isn’t important for most careers, so only list it if it’s required or if you are cum laude or higher). Feel free to use an alias or alternate spelling of your name to mask your identity. All you are doing is testing the market to see if anyone is interested in the future you. If you get an interview, awesome! It means you are working towards something companies are currently looking for. Politely decline the interview and using your real name, send the company an email asking about internship opportunities.

If you don’t receive any invitations for an interview, what do you think is going to happen when you graduate? That’s what happened to me. Using my university email, I sent out dozens of emails to prospective employers. When I didn’t get a response, I tweaked my resume, experiences, and GPA. Still, no response. That’s when I had to accept a couple of truths I didn’t want to admit to myself.

  1. The industry was looking for something I didn’t have. I wasn’t going to get a job with the limited experiences I had. If I wanted to get a job writing or working with a publisher (I was going to school for writing and philosophy), I needed to write more, publish more, and gain more experience. I realized that a list of publications and/or industry experience was more important than a degree. And my degree alone wasn’t going to get me a job. (You never entitled to a job...with or without a degree.)
  2. My community didn’t have enough jobs in my career field. I had to cast a larger net and move out of state. The jobs and experiences I wanted didn’t exist in my home state.
  3. It was 100% up to me to seek & find my career. The school I was going to wasn’t going to spoon-feed me and hold my hand. If I wanted to be a writer and make a living at it, I was going to have to initiate a lot of it myself.

If the path you’re on doesn’t result in any interviews, stop spending your time, effort, and money on your current tactics. Instead, find the program or internship that does open doors to the interview rooms. If you think you have a great idea or career in mind, and you don’t see it listed on any job boards, build it yourself. Creating a start-up is incredibly easy and an LLC is a cheap way to learn how business works. If you’re in school and don’t want to start a company, talk to your school about creating a club to network with like-minded students (and companies) about whatever career you are interested in.

One final note: This isn’t a failproof technique. Industries may place a high priority on the certification or degree you are currently working towards, but by the time you finish, the industry may have shifted. In the Age of Agility, knowledge is growing so fast, industry demands change in what feels like overnight. The good news is, once you get your internship or entry-level position, you can experience first-hand how Industry moves and learn on the job how to keep pace with industry as it pivots. 

Andrew J. Wilt is the author of Age of Agility, a book that addresses the skill gap between school and work. He can be reached at and on Twitter @andrewjwilt

Image credit: "studying" by English106 is licensed under CC BY 2.0