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Preparing for a Job While in College

By: Dale S. Brown

Some readers starting college may already be on a career track. Others may not be sure. Since you will likely face job discrimination, you should think about work as early as possible. Your advance preparation will make you more attractive to employers. And that means they are more likely to hire you - and overlook problems created by your disability or the problems created in their own minds when they discriminate.

Choose your major

Choose your major carefully. As you did in high school, associate your assignments with future work whenever possible. For instance, write papers on topics related to career fields that interest you.

Your experiences in class may not indicate which careers will work for you. Receiving a low grade in a class does not necessarily mean that you would not succeed in that field. For example, suppose you are very interested in forestry, but get a D on the term paper. It would be important to figure out whether you got the D because of writing skills, which may not be so important once you're working, or whether you are having trouble grasping important information that you would need to know. Or suppose you have trouble remembering facts for exams in a particular subject. If you would be able to consult reference books or computers for this information on the job, then your memory difficulties shouldn't necessarily deter you from pursuing a job in that field.

Sometimes a particular major may require one or more classes that you just don't think you can pass. For example, foreign language requirements are often difficult for students with disabilities. Do not rule out a major just because a few requirements seem insurmountable. You may be able to get a waiver and take alternate classes. Talk to the DSSO to find out what kinds of accommodations have been made in the past.

Pay particular attention to trends in the economy. If you are looking for a job that employers want to fill, finding the job and getting accommodations will be much easier.

Talk to people about their jobs

One of the best ways to find out whether a particular job is right for you is to talk to people who are doing that job. Set up an "informational interview "- gathering facts from, and networking with, people who work in your field of interest.

One good way to conduct these interviews is to develop assignments for class that require you to gather information from employers. For example, you might decide to compare three companies' approaches to increasing their market share or using technology to improve distribution.

As a student, you have an important advantage in conducting interviews. That is, you do not have an immediate need for a job. This means you can talk to people without pressuring them. On the other hand, many students conduct interviews in a way that wastes the person's time. So, you have a prejudice to overcome. It is critical that you interview people for facts that only they know and that are not already available in written form. You must research appropriate questions before calling to request an interview.

Another type of interview that you may be able to work into a class assignment is the job study interview. In this type of interview, you explain that you are considering a career in the person's field and need general information about what a typical day is like and what skills are needed.

People who might consent to an interview include:

  • parents of fellow students;
  • friends of your parents;
  • alumni of your school;
  • business contacts of your professors;
  • people who live in the town where your campus is located.

Visit the school's career center

Most colleges and universities have career centers for students. They usually provide:

  • vocational testing to help you decide what your strengths and weaknesses are and which occupations they fit;
  • career counseling (for example, assistance in choosing an appropriate career; someone to coach you through the steps of job hunting; assistance in analyzing your past failures and successes on the job so that you can use that information to choose a better job);
  • information on part-time internships and jobs;
  • a library of books on careers;
  • courses on job hunting, including searching, interviewing, and negotiating;
  • assistance putting together a resume;
  • opportunities to meet recruiters from organizations that are interested in interviewing and possibly hiring you.

Visit the staff as early in your academic program as possible. Freshman year is not too early. Get to know a counselor. Show your commitment to your career - and the career center staff may show a commitment to you.

Get involved in extracurricular activities

Extracurricular activities can prepare you for work and provide opportunities for you to excel. Activities in the area of your career interest - such as writing for the school newspaper if you intend to be a journalist - also offer opportunities to build marketable skills. Choose roles that involve liaison with the community. This way you will develop contacts with people who are employed outside the university and can help you get a job. Examples:

  • Organize a volunteer group to develop and implement a community project.
  • Serve as a campus representative of a neighborhood group.
  • Handle the catering contract of a campus dinner.

Consider part-time work

If you are in a Tech-Prep program, a cooperative program, or any college program that focuses on helping students find work, a part-time job may be arranged by your educational program. Most students will have to locate their own jobs, however.

Looking for part-time work is similar to looking for full-time work! Ask your professors, your friends, or anyone you know to help. Some professors hire students as assistants. Many campuses have systems to link employers and students.

When possible, choose a job that will help your career. For example, if you are majoring in business, you might obtain a part-time position as an assistant manager for a retail shop or franchise. If you are considering a career in public service, you might work as a telephone surveyor in a non-profit organization. Another option is to get a job where you are allowed to study when you are not busy. For example, you might work as a desk clerk in an apartment complex or hotel or a gas station attendant.

Take care that the hours you will be working will not interfere with your studies. New students in particular often underestimate the amount of studying needed. Freshmen generally should avoid working until they get their studies under control.

Of course you may need to take the highest paid job. But you must factor career issues into your choice.

Try volunteer work

If you do not have the time for a part-time job, volunteer work can help you sample jobs. Volunteering may be part of your studies or a community service requirement. Again, the work should improve your job skills whenever possible. Unless your motive is purely service, avoid traditional programs such as making breakfast in a soup kitchen or collecting canned goods. Instead, be creative. Consider ideas such as:

  • providing instruction in a computer skill you know well to the staff of a nonprofit organization;
  • designing a poster or newsletter using your desktop publishing skills;
  • drafting a report;
  • organizing a fund-raising event.

You may be able to combine your volunteer work with class assignments. This is more likely to be an option when you are working on a larger assignment given toward the end of a class or in an advanced class in your major. For example, your final project for a computer class might be to design a web site. You could ask the volunteer clearinghouse whether any agencies need someone to design a web site, and then create one for them.

Find an internship

Public and private organizations often have internship programs, particularly for college students during summer or a semester of full-time work. Although interns may do the same or similar work as entry-level employees or volunteers, the major difference is the intent of the employer. If the employer sets up a time-limited work experience that is educational in nature, then it is an internship.

Good internships sometimes offer opportunities for all the interns to get together, to attend occasional seminars or tours, or to sit in on meetings that might or might not be absolutely relevant to the intern's assignment. Ideally, any internship you take should be modeled on a medical internship - have actual duties that help the company or institution you are working for, be closely supervised, be time-limited, and offer opportunities to learn as you earn. In some fields, such as journalism, publishing, and politics, the internship has replaced the entry-level job as the test-job for advanced paid employment.

Internships can be located through:

  • advertisements and announcements at the school career center;
  • books on college internships, which should be available in your school library;
  • other students who have had internships;
  • writing or telephoning organizations and offering yourself as an intern.

The interview and application procedure is similar to that at a full-time job, with a few exceptions:

  • It is more likely to take place over the phone.
  • You may be asked to discuss your classes more than in other interviews.
  • You may not be formally interviewed.

If you decide to become an intern, make sure that the work will give you credentials for your future job hunt. Some employers use interns as a source of cheap, low-wage labor. You may do nothing but photocopying, word processing, and errands. Some of this is OK, but if these are your only duties, you should get paid at least minimum wage. So, unless you are determined to accept a specific internship, no matter what, find out:

  • what your assignments are;
  • whether you can put your name on materials you write;
  • how a college student is more useful to them than a high school student;
  • whether they have ever hired a former intern (if you think you might want to work there);
  • whether there is a program of classes and education for interns.

Bring up any accommodation issues that you think are necessary. And once on the job, do your best. It is true that an internship provides a good practice job, where you can risk failure without severe consequences. But on the other hand, if you do an excellent job, you may impress someone who can help you get a job. Continue your habit of curiosity about the world of work. Ask people about their lives and careers. Tell them about your goals and network for the future.

Do something entrepreneurial

Don't forget the possibility of a small business project. Some students have earned money and discovered career options through meeting the needs of their campus community. Examples include selling food and crafts. Or you might sell specialized skills such as desktop publishing, computer training, or piano lessons. Paul Orfalea, who is profiled in Succeeding with LD, started Kinko's while in college. He is not the only corporate leader who began in college.

Conclusion

Your years in school offer a great opportunity to network, build skills, and get experiences for your future. If you take advantage of this opportunity, you will give yourself the upper hand over the many college students who focus mostly on their education and/or social life. This advantage will help you handle discrimination or extra challenges related to your disability.

Dale S. Brown, Learning A Living: A Guide for Planning Your Career and Finding A Job for People with Learning Disabilities, Attention Deficit Disorder and Dyslexia. Woodbine House 2000, Chapter 3