Extracurricular activities can have as much impact as your major on your post-college job.
Whether you’ve just started your college search or are already in your first few years on campus, you’ve likely taken a hard look at careers, assuming your choice will pave the way to your career goals. But you might be surprised to learn that the clubs and extracurricular activities you participate in could have as much of an impact as your major on your post-college job.
“I don’t want to downplay academic knowledge, but with the exception of career fields like teaching, nursing, engineering, and computer science, most careers don’t align with a specific industry,” says Mimi Collins, director of the content strategy of the National Association of Universities and Employers.
Brian McEuen, a 2013 graduate of the University of California-San Diego, says finding the right extracurricular activity was his first step toward a meaningful career. He came to campus intending to be a medical student and with a walk-on spot recruited to the volleyball team. But a month into his freshman year, he kicked off the team.
“The split was a blessing,” McEuen wrote in an email. “He was looking for something to do,” especially when he realized medical school wasn’t for him, “so I got involved in campus student government.”
At UC San Diego, the student government owns some businesses on campus. In McEuen’s junior year, with a friend, “I managed to launch a new business selling t-shirts and accessories related to campus student life. It was my first foray into business, and I was hooked.”
McEuen finished his MBA at Northwestern University, one of the top-ranked programs in the country, and is now building an online men’s clothing company.
Calla Slayton, a 2020 graduate of Minnesota’s Carleton College, arrived at the Northfield, Minnesota, campus not knowing what career to choose or what she wanted to do after graduation. She considered studying sociology, but in the end, she chose American Studies, knowing that it was unrelated to her ideal career.
“American Studies was an interdisciplinary program,” she says, “and I thought the professors were great.” Slayton liked to write papers, and she knew that with numerous humanities courses, she would have many opportunities.
But it was the influence of two clubs she joined in her first year, both focused on women’s health and reproductive rights, that started Slayton on the path to her current job as a program and development associate for DKT. International, a nonprofit organization that promotes reproductive health products through social marketing.
McEuen and Slayton made the most of their clubs and extracurricular activities in college: They chose them based on their interests, learned new skills, networked, and later crafted effective resumes to qualify for internships and jobs. that awaited them, all of which helped them find their way to the work they love.
Here’s what some experts are saying about how to turn your non-academic pursuits into a career.
Explore a university’s extracurricular activities on their website
Even a university with fewer students than your high school will probably have many more clubs. According to its website, Carleton College, with 2,000 students, has more than 200 clubs and extracurricular activities to choose from. UC San Diego, with 35,000 students, has more than 500 such organizations. Institution websites tend to organize their offerings using similar terms, such as performance, politics, sports, community service, student publications, cultural identity, and religion/spirituality.
Check before you commit
“As a freshman or sophomore, take the time to try things out,” says Chad Ellsworth, associate director of the Carleton Career Center. “Go to an event or two, or a meeting or two. Try things that are closely related to your interests and try things that 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 related to women’s rights and reproductive health, a third was a Chapelle club, and the fourth was a cultural club, Asian Students in America (ASIA).
Learn new skills and take on leadership roles
Many large, established clubs, such as sports clubs, drama clubs, or student publication clubs, are based on a division of labor so that any member can learn or develop new skills. Most students come to publishing thinking about writing, says John Hanc, faculty adviser for The Slate, the student publication at the 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 ended up finding employment in a skill they first learned while working in publishing.
According to Ellsworth, “If you can have a strong experience with a single group that involves taking on a number of leadership roles over time, that’s good. For example, student-athletes often don’t have time to get involved beyond their sports, but they can take on formal and informal roles that are meaningful to them and have valuable career benefits.”
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 former students, or even complete strangers in your field of interest,” such as guest speakers, “gives the best results.”
McEuen, from the University of California, San Diego, was active in student government for two years before finding a partner who shared his business 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 was associated with Pro-Choice Minnesota in St. Paul, then known as an affiliate of NARAL-Pro-Choice America. This led to her first opportunity to do grassroots advocacy with women in need.
she Writes a resume that includes the skills you learned in extracurricular activities
“Almost everything 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 multiple members are involved, that’s ‘teamwork.’ Whereas being elected as club president demonstrates ‘leadership.'”.
According to NACE’s Collins, employers look for candidates who have demonstrated leadership, teamwork, flexibility, and a strong work ethic. These strengths can be developed in the classroom, Collins says, but student-led activities are full of opportunities to hone what is often called “soft skills.”
Turn club connections into internship opportunities
A strong resume can lead to some great internships, which can lead to a great job. In fact, according to Collins, the most deciding factor for employers is whether the applicant is interning in a job-related field. And what is better, an internship in the organization in which the candidate applies for the job.
As part of Slayton’s network, she connected with a former student from an organization dealing with women’s reproductive health and rights. In her last year, she had already done two internships in these fields, which led the former student to offer her a one-year job post-graduation, working remotely for the non-profit organization she ran. When she finished the year, DKT International offered Slayton a permanent position at its Washington, D.C. headquarters.
McEuen’s experience in another field was similar. Upon his graduation, he began a management training position at a national clothing chain, and after completing that program he was hired by a second national clothing chain within the same organization, where he quickly rose through the ranks. A few years later, the former medical student gave