A group of Democrat Capitol Hill interns pose on the east steps of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C July 19, 2016 and…
A group of Democrat Capitol Hill interns pose on the east steps of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, July 19, 2016.

Shaping a future career should start before students graduate, experts say.

Although students choose a field of study that interests them, many do not have a clear idea of what kind of work they want in the future, said Margo Jenkins, director of the Career Center at Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York.

She suggested college students get professional experience early and often.

"What are you interested in?" Jenkins said she asks students. "You need to go pursue that now … We're here … to guide the student in the right direction."

Most colleges and universities in the United States have career centers, she said, and schools try to connect new students with these services soon after they arrive. Even if a student doesn't know the exact job they want, there is plenty of help available before making such a decision.

Career centers help students prepare documents needed in a job search, like resumes or CVs (curriculum vitae) that list an applicant's education and experience. A cover letter is often requested in which an applicant makes an appeal to an employer about why they should be hired for the job.

Career centers offer students advice about these documents and other aspects of job hunting, such as how to present yourself during job interviews, Jenkins said.

And they maintain close relationships with employers in many industries, Jenkins said. They also maintain relationships with former students, who may be able to offer advice to current students on similar career paths.

One tool that helps to build a career is temporary employment, such as internships and co-ops. Co-op is short for Cooperative Education and is an academic program meant to complement the student's education, according to the Cooperative Education & Internship Association. 

Illinois Department of Revenue employment recruiters speak to students looking for a full time jobs or an internship during The Foot in the Door Career Fair at the University of Illinois Springfield, Sept. 25, 2014.

Internships are often short-term positions with a company or organization while a co-op is meant to be longer term. They both let students test their knowledge and abilities in the real world and help them consider if the work or company is a good fit for them.

Importantly, students make professional connections on internships that can be used throughout their lifetime as mentors and references.

Internships can be year-round but most full-time internships are in the summer. Some internships are unpaid and can bring a student necessary experience. But many students purposely seek paid internships to list on their resume as a sign to the employer that they are more skilled and worth monetary compensation. 

For a co-op, a student usually suspends their classes for a term to work as a full-time employee in a company.

Jenkins said these kinds of programs have become increasingly important. More and more employers have come to expect this kind of experience on students' resumes.

At Clarkson University, about 90% of students work at an internship, co-op or research experience before completing their studies.

"This is the only point in a student's life where they're going to be able to try out jobs for a couple of months at a time, with absolutely no risk," Jenkins said.

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