Whether you’re just starting your college search or are already in your first years on campus, you’ve likely looked closely at majors, assuming your choice will pave the path for your career goals. But you may be surprised to learn that the clubs and extracurricular activities you participate in could have as much impact as your major on your post-college job.
“I don’t want to downplay the importance of academic knowledge, but with the exception of professional fields such as teaching, nursing, engineering and IT, most majors don’t align with a specific industry,” says Mimi Collins, director of content strategy at the National Association of Colleges and Employers.
Brian McEuen, who graduated from the University of California–San Diego in 2013, says finding the right extracurricular activity was his first step toward a meaningful career. He arrived on campus planning to be premed, and with a recruited walk-on position on the volleyball team. But a month into his freshman year, he was cut from the team.
“The cut was a blessing in disguise,” McEuen wrote in an email. “I was looking for something to do,” especially when he realized that premed was not for him, “so I got involved in student government on campus.”
At UC San Diego, student government owns a few on-campus businesses. By McEuen’s junior year, with a friend, “I got to launch a brand-new business selling shirts and accessories related to student life on campus. This was my first foray into entrepreneurships, and I was hooked.”
McEuen went on to complete his MBA at Northwestern University, among the top-ranked programs in the country, and is now starting a men’s clothing company online.
Calla Slayton, who graduated from Carleton College in Minnesota in 2020, came to campus in Northfield, Minnesota, uncertain about a major or what she wanted to do after graduation. She considered sociology but ultimately chose American Studies, knowing it was unrelated to her ideal careers.
“American Studies was an interdisciplinary program,” she says, “and I thought the professors were excellent.” Slayton liked writing papers and knew that with the many courses in the humanities, she’d have many opportunities.
But it was the influence of two clubs she joined as a freshman, both focused on women’s health and reproductive rights, that started Slayton on the path to her work today as a programs and development associate for DKT International, a nonprofit organization that promotes reproductive health products through social marketing.
McEuen and Slayton each made the most of their clubs and college extracurriculars: They chose them based on their interests, learned new skills, networked and later crafted effective resumes to best qualify for the internships and jobs ahead, all of which helped them find their way to work they love.
Here’s what some experts say about how to turn your nonacademic activities into a career.
Explore a College’s Extracurriculars on Its Website
Even a college with fewer students than your high school will likely have many more clubs. According to its webpage, Carleton College, with 2,000 students, has more than 200 clubs and extracurriculars to choose from. UC San Diego, with 35,000 students, has more than 500 such organizations. Institutions’ webpages tend to organize their offerings using similar terms, such as performance, politics, sports, community service, student publications, cultural identity and religion/spirituality.
Shop Around Before You Commit
“As a first- or second-year student, take the time to try things out,” says Chad Ellsworth, associate director of Carleton’s career center. “Go to an event or two, or a meeting or two. Try things that closely connect with your interests and try things you may be less familiar with. It’s better to be deeply involved with a smaller number of student groups than less involved in a wider range.”
Two of Slayton’s clubs were in women’s rights and reproductive health, a third was an a cappella club and her fourth was a cultural club, Asian Students in America (ASIA).
Learn New Skills and Play Leadership Roles
Many large and established clubs like sports, theatre or student publications rely on a division of labor so any member can learn or develop new skills. Most students come to publications thinking of writing, says John Hanc, faculty adviser to The Slate, the student publication at New York Institute of Technology.
However, he has seen students try their hand at social media, photography, graphic design, videography, web design and advertising. Some eventually found employment in a skill they first learned working on the publication.
According to Ellsworth, “If you can have a robust experience with just one group that involves taking on a number of leadership roles over time, that’s good. For example, student-athletes don’t often have time to get involved beyond their sports, but they can take on formal and informal roles that are meaningful for them and have valuable benefits for their career.”
Use Clubs to Network
“It’s not what you know,” says Ellsworth, “and it’s not even who you know. It’s who knows you. Building relationships with alumni, or even complete strangers in your field of interest,” like guest speakers, “yields the best results.”
McCuen of UC San Diego was active in student government for two years before he found his way to a fellow student who shared his entrepreneurial interest, and the two teamed up to sell T-shirts and accessories.
Slayton found her way to some clubs through friends who encouraged her to join. One of her women’s rights clubs networked with Pro Choice Minnesota in St. Paul, then known as an affiliate of NARAL-Pro-Choice America. That led her to a first opportunity to do grassroots advocacy with women in need.
Write a Resume That Includes Skills You Learned in Extracurriculars
“Almost anything you do in a club is marketable,” says Ellsworth, who helps students translate their club activity into terms that will resonate with those offering internships or jobs. “When a student in a club plans and then executes a club event, that’s ‘project management.’ And if several members are involved, it’s ‘teamwork.’ While being elected as the club’s president demonstrates ‘leadership.'”
According to Collins at NACE, employers seek out candidates who’ve displayed leadership, teamwork, flexibility and a strong work ethic. These strengths can be developed in the classroom, says Collins, but student-led activities are ripe with opportunities to sharpen what are often called “soft skills.”
Turn Club Connections Into Internship Opportunities
A strong resume can lead to a good internship, which can lead to a great job. In fact, according to Collins, the most crucial factor for employers is an applicant’s internship in a field related to the job. Even better is an internship in the organization where an applicant is applying for a job.
As part of Slayton’s networking, she reached out to an alum at an organization involved with women’s health and reproductive rights. By her senior year, she had already completed two internships in these fields, leading the alum to offer her a one-year post-graduation position working remotely for the nonprofit organization he led. When the year was up, DKT International offered Slayton a permanent position at its headquarters in Washington, D.C.
McCuen’s experience in a different field was similar. After graduation, he began a management training position at a national clothing chain, and after completing that program was hired by a second national clothing chain within the same organization, where he was rapidly promoted. A few years later, the former premed major took his next step and began his MBA.
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