Common sense and basic math says that finishing college quickly equals a less expensive education. The longer you take to graduate, the higher semester fees and housing costs will pile up.
But what’s left out of this purely dollars-and-cents equation is the potential effect of completing more internships — and thus building more experience and establishing more contacts – if you stay in college for five years rather than four; or four years rather than three.
In fact, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) 2010 Student Survey, seniors with internship experience had 12% more success in landing a job for which they applied, and their starting salaries where nearly a third higher than seniors who hadn’t completed internships.
In other words, rather than rushing through the academics at school with the idea of graduating as soon as possible, some students might actually fare better if they focused on getting actual work experience while in college. Even if that meant spending an extra semester, or even year, in school.
There is, of course, no fixed formula for what we’re about to discuss below: whether you’ll be better off graduating in three years with little work experience or taking four of five years and lining up an impressive list of internships will depend on your chosen field of work, career goals and even your personality. Here are the main factors to consider:
How Slow to Go With Internships
Interning won’t interfere with your schedule if you plan to graduate in four years. However, interning every summer would keep you from taking summer classes – if you wanted to finish in three.
And while the NACE study compared students with no internship experience whatsoever to those with some experience (in other words, NACE didn’t study the effect of completing several internships versus just one), experts agree that interning every summer increases your workplace savvy and improves your network of contacts when it comes to finding your first post-graduate job.
“One experience gives you one experience,” says Dr. Pat Schwallie-Giddis, the Counseling and Human Development Department Chair at George Washington University. Interning at several places, meanwhile, exposes you to different work environments, she says. When you interview for your first post-graduation job, you’ll look more attractive to employers because you know whether you work best in a team or individual environment, you know how much creative input you need to feel fulfilled, and you’ll have realistic expectations of what your first year of employment will be like.
As far as networking, you’ll create a real-world Facebook. Your references will be able to say they’ve worked with you or know someone who’s worked with you in your career field. The more internships you have, the bigger network you’ll be able to build. Dr. Schwallie-Giddis recalls a student in George Washington’s counseling program who had internships in three different states. Because her network was vast, she was able to land a job in the same state her husband found employment.
Traditional co-op programs, meanwhile, where you alternate working in a job within your field with school semesters or quarters, will likely keep you in school for five years. You will work for one employer only, so your network may be smaller in size, but your ties to that particular employer will be stronger.
Discovering Yourself in College
Finally, many college students change majors during the course of their school work. In those cases, obviously, graduating takes longer. But the good news is you’re less likely to graduate with a degree in a field you don’t want to work in after graduation. NACE Research Director Ed Koc mentions a former engineering co-op student who didn’t enjoy the work portion of his program. He switched majors in his sophomore year to biology. Now, he’s a successful orthopedist.
Making Room for Work Experience in Your Schedule
There is, actually, a middle ground: carefully planning your course load speeds up your graduation without decreasing time you could spend on work experience.
* Use credit from advanced placement courses as time for further career exploration. If you earned advanced placement courses in high school, you may have your basic courses covered. Talk to your admissions officer or academic counselor in your major to see where your course credits best fit among your college’s course requirements. Returning to school more than four years after taking AP tests? You can order your score records by filling out an Archived AP Scores Request Form. When I returned to school in 2004, I was able to get out of courses using scores from 1995.
* Check out professors before taking courses. Each class and professor requires different time spent outside of class. Contact each professor you plan on taking a class from prior to registration. Ask about time requirements. With this information, you can take extra courses when time allows.
* Prioritize pre-requisites based on when the following course is offered. For instance, if Marketing 101 is a pre-requisite to Marketing 305, it isn’t wise to take Marketing 101 in the fall if marketing 305 isn’t offered till the next fall. Especially if Economics 201 is offered in the fall, and Economics 202 is offered in the spring. Meet with your academic counselor every semester to help you plan your courses for optimum graduation time.
Consider Major-Related Work Experience and Coursework a Package Deal
Besides internships and co-op program participation, make sure your coursework best supports both your ultimate career goals and career exploration. Take at least one course in your major per semester. If you don’t like your major choice in semester one, you won’t have to postpone your graduation at all by changing majors.
Seek counseling from the career center as much as your department advisor. Since your ultimate goal in earning a degree is to find a career you love, your university’s career center should be as involved in helping you pick electives as your college’s academic counselors.
With major-related work-experience and an academic path focused on your future career, you’ll have a competitive edge in any job market.
Reyna Gobel is a freelance journalist who specializes in financial fitness. She is also the author of Graduation Debt: How To Manage Student Loans and Live Your Life.