Students often wonder how to split their time at college to maximize their job prospects, while having some fun and creating lasting friendships and memories.

Assuming you are a career-driven college freshman, there are many options and demands on your time. How to balance studying for top grades, engaging in extracurriculars (from student government to an athletic club), and getting some work experience / part-time positions? And that is not even talking about having time for your hobbies, spending time with friends/family, or having time to find your future spouse – topics not less important for a balanced, fulfilled life!

First things first – I believe it is important to have multiple ‘pillars’ in your life. Education; career; family; friends; hobbies; and good health underlying all of those. Even if one of those doesn’t work out as expected (temporarily or longer-term), you still have others to lean onto. Hence, even though education and maximizing career prospects may be the priority for you at this point in time (as admittedly it was for me), you want to make sure you are neglecting or outright destroying the other areas of your life. I will go into that topic deeper at another time.

Second, assuming you keep your life balance in check, how to get the best return-on-time-invested to make sure you land your dream job? That depends a bit on what you want to do. As per my favorite quote from Yogi Bera, ‘if you don’t know where you are going, you probably won’t get there.’ If you are targeting a start-up career, practical work experience or doing your own project on the side probably gives you more than having straight As (if you are at school in the first place..). On the other hand, if you are targeting a PhD, spending time in the library may help more.

The problem is if you are targeting some of the top-notch, super selective programs for young graduates (think investment banking or consulting), where they expect you to have it all – 4.0 GPA; president of the student council, and a few internships under your belt. Plus climbing Kilimanjaro, running a marathon, and spending time (or better establishing) a local charity. In those situations, my thinking is the follows:

Studying/grades. Make sure you get on top of your school workload. This doesn’t mean studying only for the grades sake. But doing well in the classroom probably means you are also learning something helpful/interesting (assuming you chose a good school/major), have a chance to establish better relationship with your professors (who may end up being helpful with job search/recommendations), and also become less stressed and have more time for other activities later on, if you are not cramming before exams or having to repeat some exams.

Extracurriculars. Once you get the study workload under control (which may be two months or 2 years), you have more time to look around and see what’s going on campus. Engaging in some extracurricular activities gives you an opportunity to deepen your interest in a specific topic; meet new people/friends; and practice teamwork/communication skills. Hopefully you are not doing it just for the sake of putting it on your resume (which is a helpful by-product), but because you are genuinely interested in the cause / area that you are engaging in.

Part-time jobs / Internships. Depending on your study workload and other campus activities, you may be tempted to get a part-time job or internship to earn some extra cash and/or get relevant work experience. Here I would differentiate between a part-time/temporary job to earn some money to support you, versus doing an internship at a company / in a sector that interests you (which may be unpaid). In some cases, these two combine, which is a true win-win. In other cases, you have to choose one or the other – and if you can financially afford it, the choice is clear for the latter.

I do not have a clear answer on doing an internship doing a school-year versus leaving it for the summer when you can give it you full attention and focus. Each has its pros and cons, and depends on the specifics of your particular situation.

I will share with you my undergraduate experience and how I tried to juggle the above. Not because it is the right way to do it, but because it may give you an idea what you want or not want to do yourself.

I went for my undergrad studies to a new city, new country, with English as the language of instruction (my previous education was in my native language, and I learned English only as a second language), and on a very limited budget (or rather loans) from my parents/family. My experience was as follows:

  • Year 1. I focused on studying and earned 4.0 in both semesters in my first year. I managed to establish a good relationship with my professor of an arts class, who ended up recommending me for a banking internship at a local corporate bank during the next summer (an example that you never know where help may come from – be prepared, and hope for some luck).
    • Summer 1: 1-month summer semester to earn some extra credits. 2-month internship at the bank. It was one of those rare instances where I learned relevant skills, discovered my passion for finance, and earned some money to support myself. I had an opportunity to do a work-and-travel summer program in the US (cleaning dishes at a restaurant), where I would have saved probably 5x of what I earned at the bank – but I took the gamble of preferring work experience over the money, despite being on a very tight budget at that time.
  • Year 2. During my first semester, I stayed working part-time at the bank, where I interned in the summer. Both for the experience and the money. I joined student council as a member. In my second semester, I was elected Student council president, and put the internship on hold. Earned 4.0 in both semesters.
    • Summer 2: Summer academic program organized by a US university in the same city where my university was (referred here by one of my professors). I did well and was offered a full scholarship for a semester in the US during the following year.
  • Year 3. I took a semester off and worked full-time for a prestigious consulting firm. Earned good money to help me support myself in the following semester. Returned to school in the second semester and got a part-time internship at an investment bank (through a different professor – you see the pattern now…). Still keeping good grades (one A- I believe – starting to slack off a bit).
    • Summer 3: Continued my investment banking internship on a full-time basis. Earned some money to help me fund my travel to the US
  • Year 4. Spent one semester at the US university (which organized the summer program the previous summer). Interned part-time at a large US corporate in their lobbying department. Returned back to my university for the second semester, got a part-time job as an advisor to the CEO of a small company, served as a teaching assistant for one of the professors, and graduated on time after 4 years, despite the break for a full-time internship. Cum. GPA of 3.97; #1 in the class; graduated with a double degree.

I didn’t mean to brag about my achievements. I wanted to showcase that you may be able to fit in more than you expect, if you start adding it slowly, plan well ahead, and actually enjoy what you are doing.

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