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Five pieces of advice for my younger self at university

Book open Reading time: 6 mins

Don’t get me wrong, I had a wonderful time at university. Like many others, I look back very fondly on those days – balancing the many demands of work and play, through countless late nights, library stints and cups of tea. I left with a good degree, a raft of great friends and as a relatively employable individual – having managed to pick up a few life skills alongside my English degree.

However, the three years flew by and looking back there are always things I wish I’d done more or less of (and I’m not even going to mention the pesto pasta addiction here). Without wanting to sound too much like my mum, it strikes me that ‘these days’ leaving university with a degree, good social skills and a clear view of what you want from your career, is a very big ask. 

And so – if I could give myself, as a graduate in 2014, five pieces of advice for university, here’s what I’d say:

1. Get as much experience as possible

University is the perfect opportunity to try out new things – new sports or societies, unknown modules or specialisms in your chosen subject, or different roles and responsibilities in a project or team. The breadth of opportunities available at University means it is a great setting in which to try new things and give yourself a master class in what makes you tick.

Like many eager Freshers I signed up for a multitude of teams and societies at the University Freshers’ Fair in my first week. Whilst the Fencing Society and the Fine Wine Club were quickly forgotten, to my credit, I rowed for four terms (until a broken wrist prevented me from doing so and, if I’m honest, I never looked back). However, I remember signing up and going along (tentatively) to that first training session because I felt a strong sense that this was a unique opportunity and something I should try out.

Whilst the rowing itself was not something I decided to pursue long term, I realised very quickly how motivating I found the team work of rowing and also how productive I was after an early start in the morning. Long after my rowing days ended, I am still someone who works best in the morning – something that I initially realised back in those first weeks of university.

For many students, University is a great chance to try out a new role. A friend of mine became Entertainment Officer for our college in our second year – a role which entailed organising a termly event for all the students. As part of this he came to realise how much he enjoyed working with suppliers and performers, managing a budget and coordinating all of the various components of the event – a completely new experience and a level of responsibility he couldn’t have imagined taking on elsewhere. Unintentionally, the role helped him to identify what it was he would look for in a career and he attributes his early start as a producer in TV to that hands on experience.

2. Do stuff you enjoy

It sounds obvious, and hopefully many of you are doing it already but doing lots of what you enjoy is a really important use of your time at University. Finding activities that motivate and stimulate you, whether it be playing for a certain team, attending a particular series of lectures, writing about a subject that fascinates you or leading a favourite society, is a great way of better understanding what you might look for in a career.

There is very little value in spending time doing things you feel you ought to if you derive no pleasure from them – not least, because you are unlikely to do them well, and more importantly because there are so many different activities to get involved with at university that it is a madness to spend time doing something that you don't enjoy.

In particular, when doing things you enjoy, ask yourself what it is about that particular activity that you find stimulating. Is it the subject itself, or the people you work with, or perhaps it’s the particular environment in which you thrive? Knowing the answer to these questions will give you a great head start when it comes to thinking about the sort of environment and culture you are looking for in your career.

3. Ask stupid questions

One of my biggest regrets from University is not asking enough questions for fear I’d look silly. I crossed things off of my list of career possibilities without really knowing what they were or what they involved and without taking the chance to ask someone who might know. It was only in the early stages of my Consulting career that I revisited various sectors and industries I had previously dismissed and found there were things I really enjoyed which I hadn’t dared to ask about previously.

The career landscape is loaded with acronyms, buzzwords and specialist knowledge and no undergraduate can possibly be expected to know everything about an industry. Instead you should take every opportunity you get to ask the questions you want to – especially if the person you’re speaking to is currently working in the sector or indeed doing the role you are thinking of doing. Don’t forget they probably once asked those same questions too!

When it comes to ‘stupid questions’ the only slightly daft ones are those which you could easily research or look up online as they belie your interest and commitment to the area or role. However, just about everything else including culture, working hours, perks, types of clients and progression opportunities, is absolutely worth asking about.

When it comes to asking about pay, I would advise being open with HR managers and those on the recruiting side of a company – they will not always give you a straight answer but will likely be able to indicate a band. Clearly, asking an individual about their pay could be sensitive and so I would avoid asking the question unless you know the individual well.

Otherwise, remember – if it’s important to you then it can’t be stupid and it’s worth knowing the answer.

4. Meet as many people as you can

University is a networkers' dream. You might not particularly like the idea of networking or what it entails, however, building your network through friends and acquaintances that do different things will stand you in fantastic stead for your career.

There have been many times over the last few years when friends, enthusiastic to understand more about a particular career or sector, have caught up with someone they knew back at university who is doing that now. Knowing a wide variety of people in different careers and industries can be incredibly valuable when you want the inside view on a particular career path.

A Partner at a Professional Services firm once told me that he'd made his career with the help of five great university friends who each went on to do great things in different sectors. They remained good friends and he kept in touch. Over time he advised them in a professional capacity on different business areas. The success in his career and the strength of his professional network was absolutely founded on university friendships. 

5. Use social media cautiously

I feel some relief having gone through University before the iPhone had flooded the mobile market and just as the social networking boom was taking off. It meant that I left university without a public audit trail of my experience and without a social thumbprint any employer could google to make a judgement on how appropriate I was for their firm.

If you are a regular facebooker then make sure your privacy settings are up to date and that your profile photo (often still viewable before a friendship add) is not something you'd feel embarassed by. Likewise, if you are a regular tweeter then consider applying a privacy setting to those who can view your tweets if you’re posting anything which could negatively impact an application.

Most firms are not looking for boring applicants and are more than happy to know a candidate has good social skills. In particular, if you are applying for a role in marketing or technology, firms will almost certainly look you up on social networking sites to see your skills in action – so just ensure what they find won’t dissuade them of your potential. You don’t want the first thing that pops up on google to undermine your application or to create a false impression of who you are. Ask yourself ‘does this content say that I’m a professional and trustworthy individual?’ 

And finally, enjoy yourself - those years will fly by all too quickly, so take the time to work out what it is that you enjoy so you can find more of it in life beyond lectures.