Why Gaining Work Experience Is More Important Than Your Education

There's a difference between studying hard and working hard. My friend believed his grades were all that mattered for admission to graduate school or to land a good entry-level job. I'm here to tell you he was wrong. In fact, colleges are the first to tell you that you need more than a degree to get hired.
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"Hey man, what did you do this summer?" I asked a college classmate at the start of the fall semester.

My friend looked at me like I had two heads. "What do you mean?" he replied. "I work hard all semester long. I deserved a summer vacation, and I took one."

He was taking pre-med courses and also considering other professions. While other classmates had spent the summer working in hospitals, doctor's offices and other jobs in fields related to their degrees, he never worked a single second as an undergraduate.

There's a difference between studying hard and working hard. My friend believed his grades were all that mattered for admission to graduate school or to land a good entry-level job.

I'm here to tell you he was wrong. In fact, colleges are the first to tell you that you need more than a degree to get hired.

Graduates with work experience are more attractive than those without

After reviewing numerous studies, California State University concluded that work experience began becoming more crucial in hiring in 1980. By 1993, 93 percent of interns in work-study programs were offered jobs by their employers, according to a Northwestern University study that was part of California State's review.

A 2013 report by High Fliers Research concluded that college graduates without work experience have "little chance" of getting a job. High Fliers Research managing director Martin Birchall told The Huffington Post that work experience is "now just as important" as a college degree.

"New graduates who've not had any work experience at all during their studies are increasingly unlikely to be offered a good graduate job after university," said Birchall.

How work experience helps -- even if it's unpaid

Many ambitious young adults disrespect the value of work experience because they've had jobs that have no connection to their future plans -- and pay poorly.

But working can teach you many valuable lessons, even if your job isn't intellectually challenging. Try to get a job in a field you're interested in, even if the job itself seems like a dead-end.

Anna Alanko, the career services advisor at Rasmussen College, lists five reasons why an internship is a valuable work experience. They include learning more about the industry you're interested in, impressing a potential employer and learning about your own strengths and weaknesses.

Perhaps you'll find the industry so interesting that an internship will cement your career decision. Perhaps you'll find the industry so boring that your internship will lead you to change your career plans. But it's better to learn that lesson during a one-semester internship than as a full-time employee.

Performing well as an intern can also lead you to the next step in the industry. Your manager may write you a recommendation for graduate school or for a better internship. You could even get a full-time job offer or a job lead from a coworker who was impressed by your work. Don't discount the opportunities that working for free can provide down the road.

Plus, interning can give you a chance to learn what your best job skills are, which skills need improvement and how to work with people.

Work experience and your degree go hand-in-hand

Many ambitious young people think that lower-level jobs are an impediment to success because they're time-consuming and cause employers to stereotype you as someone with lower-level skills.

Several schools disagree. In fact, these schools represent so many different fields that it's fair to say their advice might be pertinent to dozens of careers.

Iowa State University's Engineering Career Services reports that 90 percent of students who earned a bachelor of science degree in engineering after being in cooperative education programs that alternate semesters of work and study got jobs after graduation. This compares to 80 percent of graduates with a one-semester internship, 75 percent who worked during the summer and 50 percent who didn't work.

Students pursuing a master's degree in business administration from Davidson College are advised to work full-time for a few years after graduating college because "MBA programs rarely accept students directly from college." Davidson notes that work experience is important because its MBA coursework analyzes everyday business problems and is one of three criteria for admission.

The University of Mississippi's Croft Institute for International Studies trains students who will hopefully attain atypical jobs in embassies as foreign affairs experts, but the school nevertheless recommends that students get "real-world experience" before applying to its master's degree program.

Students who make the jump without work experience "are less competitive for employment when they finish their degrees than their classmates with work experience," according to Croft.

Future employers want more work experience

Colleges aren't the only ones weighing in. Even future employers -- in a variety of fields -- feel that real-world experience is the only thing standing between some graduates and their dream jobs.

Take it from Oklahoma City plastic surgeon Dr. Tim Love: "Whether it is a paid or volunteer status, this involvement [in your desired field] will increase [your] confidence and savvy while exhibiting dedication and responsibility."

That's right -- even medical professionals want to see you put in a little legwork. Besides showing them how responsible you are, it gives you an idea of what to expect from yourself.

Jack Gloriod from Becky Gloriod Real Estate in Colorado Springs also speaks to the value of experience, regardless of career field: "I believe that a person should focus on what they are good at and what they enjoy. My own staff had prior experience to show that they were highly skilled and motivated before joining me."

Don't be afraid of spending your summers putting in a few hours in your industry, no matter how menial the job may seem. The few weekends at the lake you miss will be well worth it when you graduate with job offers and your lake buddies don't.

Thad Baker is an outdoor enthusiast, musician, writer and food junkie. He likes to write about many different topics, ranging from digital marketing to career advice and even men's fashion.

Brazen Life is a lifestyle and career blog for ambitious young professionals. Hosted by Brazen Careerist, we offer edgy and fun ideas for navigating the changing world of work. Be Brazen!

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