As a college student, you should own your own destiny and not let anyone else do it for you. Our method of career guidance focuses on being who you are and then finding the right career to match your authentic self. One key way to do this is to create a career plan as early as possible in college. And one of the side benefits of creating and sticking to a career plan is that it will help you to develop good work habits along the way that you’ll take with you into your career.
In the following article we’ll cover these 12 tips to create a career plan:
- Follow a template
- Establish career goals
- Manage your time
- Anticipate curve balls
- Track projects
- Focus on talents
- Build and maintain a professional image
- Grow your network
- Communicate your plan
- Recognize your leadership style
- Keep organized
- Track your progress
Why is a career plan so important for college students? The answer is because it simply helps you to maintain focus, keep organized and stay on course with your career readiness journey. Without a career plan, you are navigating in the dark without a map, which is a pretty good way to get lost.
Now, let’s dig in further to the 12 tips to create an awesome career plan that will get you on the path towards the right career for you!
1. Follow a Plan Template
I don’t know about you, but I’m a big fan of not re-creating the wheel. There are plenty of tools out there that can make our lives easier so there is no reason to try and create a new one. And this certainly applies to a career plan as well. In order to build a solid career plan, I highly recommend you start by using a template.
Here’s a great plan to get you started: College Career Development Plan – CE. It has everything you need to build a rock solid career plan.
2. Establish Career Goals
What would a career plan be without goals? A plan that would fail, that’s what it would be. You need to come up with some actionable goals as a part of your career plan. The best method to use when writing these goals, is the SMART method. I use SMART goals a lot and mention them repeatedly in my coaching and advice articles. In case you aren’t familiar with SMART goals, allow me to introduce you to them.
SMART goals are:
S – Specific
M – Measurable
A – Attainable
R – Relevant
T – Time Based
Specific Goals. Make sure your career plan goals are specific. If you set too broad of goals, you will not have the right kind of focus needed to accomplish them. For example, instead of setting a goal of getting an internship, you should set a goal of landing an internship with a Big 5 accounting firm your Junior year.
Measurable Goals. If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it. That’s a popular saying in the business world, and I couldn’t agree more. It’s vital that you make your goals quantifiable. Otherwise, you will not be able to clearly know when you achieved it. Measurable goals are black and white, and not gray. Living in the gray is to live in a confusing state of not knowing where you stand. Don’t live in the gray. Create measurable goals.
Achievable Goals. When setting your career plan goals, it’s important to focus on what you can control with your direct actions. If you set goals that are reliant on other people or environmental circumstances, they are subject to failure. A good way to make sure of this is to ask yourself if you can accomplish the goal on your own. If the answer is yes, you’re good.
Don’t be afraid to stretch yourself either. Set the goal you think you should, then push the goal at least 5 times further to stretch yourself. If you end up not reaching the stretch goal, then scale down as necessary. It’s okay to set smaller goals that will get you there. Ever heard of baby steps? Take baby steps where needed.
Relevant Goals. This is straight forward. When developing a career plan, be sure to set goals that are relevant to planning for your career. It really is that simple. Don’t set a goal of being a gold medal high jumper if you are going to school to be in Human Resources. Setting a goal to learn about employment law would be more relevant to your career plan wouldn’t you say?
Time Based Goals. Set target dates or milestones when establishing your career plan goals. While in college I would recommend that you set goals on a semester to semester basis. That way you have a defined time period in which to accomplish the goal. This also allows you to keep the goals in the near future which will help build confidence as you achieve them. Setting goals too far out at this stage of your career plan can be daunting.
3. Manage your Time
There are many days in college where you feel like your time is not your own. In other words, you are pretty much slammed all the time due to the various time commitments you have. This is why it’s critical to maximize the time you have in the day. I don’t believe in sacrificing sleep or your health by burning the candle at both ends either. There is a way to achieve everything you need to in a day if you do one thing very well – prioritize.
When creating your career plan, make sure you prioritize the things that are most important. Ask yourself if an activity or project is going to add value to your career plan. If the answer is no, then don’t do it. If it’s maybe, shelf it for now. Only add the activities you can say for certain add value to your career plan. As you progress, you can add the maybe’s in or come up with new ones.
4. Anticipate Curve Balls
There is one certainty that I can guarantee as your career plan unfolds. And that certainty is that it will change and change unexpectantly at times. What you had planned will fall through. You need to accept that now as you’re creating your career plan. That way, when the curve ball comes, you are prepared for it.
This is a great lesson to be learning in college because the real world is full of change. It’s a funny (not really) saying that the only constant is change. So, you must be ready and willing to roll with the punches. When that unexpected change happens, just regroup and adjust. You’ll be fine and often times it will only improve your plan.
5. Track College Projects and Assignments
Be sure to track the projects and assignments that are related to your career goals and make them a part of your career plan. In fact, to take it a step further, you should try and connect these projects and assignments to your career plan when possible. So, if you need to write a paper on a topic of your choosing, choose a topic related to your career pursuit so that you’ll be furthering your career plan.
This is also a great way to keep your resume current with relevant skills, project examples and accomplishments. In college, gaining experience is critical, so do your best to make the most out of your classroom experience by incorporating it into your career plan.
6. Focus and Build on Talents (Expertise)
As you build your career plan, you need to build off your natural talents. To do this, you obviously must know what your talents are. You can read more about how to do this here. But to briefly explain, talents are what you are born with. They come natural to you with little effort. Being able to casually make small talk with strangers is a talent. Doing complex math in your head is a talent. Playing music by ear is a talent. Hopefully you get the idea.
Once you identify your talents, you will need to strengthen them. Just because they come naturally doesn’t mean they don’t require development. This is where your career plan comes in. You should list your talents and apply them to your overall career development plan. For example, earlier I mentioned being able to make small talk with strangers is a talent. One way to develop this talent and keep yourself in practice in this area is to attend networking events regularly. Therefore, this should be added into your career plan.
The more developed your talents become, the more you will build an expertise in this area. And guess what? Employers love to hire people who have clear expertise in the areas they consider important. So be sure to identify your talents and build upon them every chance you get!
7. Build and Maintain a Professional Image
As a part of your career plan, you want to find ways you can build and maintain a professional image. This is easier said than done as a college student. But I can assure you that if you come across as a professional, it will clearly separate you from other students who will ultimately be vying for the same job as you.
Look for professional organizations that are relevant to your career pursuit. See if they have a local student chapter and join. Don’t stop there, you should actually attend chapter meetings and get involved! You’re not looking for a resume filler here, good recruiters will sniff that out in a heartbeat. You need to be fully engaged. Look for leadership opportunities everywhere you can. It doesn’t matter what career you’re pursuing, leadership is a good skill to master.
Lastly, and this may seem strange to some of you, but pay attention to how you represent yourself. Do you come across as a slacker, a partier or a boring stiff? Work on your image as you grow in college. There is a balance of being professional and having a good time with your friends and living the college life. Just don’t let that balance get too out of whack, or your image will suffer, and you’ll pay the price when it comes time to land a job.
8. Grow your Network
I feel like growing a network is something that everyone seems to be advising these days. But I would qualify this advice by saying that you must build a network of meaningful relationships not just LinkedIn contacts. There’s a big difference in this type of network and let’s be honest…many college students don’t know how to do it.
You should start by finding a mentor. A mentor is a must as a part of your career plan. They will take you much further than you would be able to go if you were to fly 100% solo. Another advantage of having a mentor, is that you can tap into their network. This sets you up to begin establishing and growing meaningful professional relationships.
Social media is not networking. Sorry. Meeting people in the REAL WORLD is networking. You must get out of the virtual world that so many of us find ourselves living in and “press the flesh”. It’s nerve racking in the beginning, I’m not going to lie. But the more you put yourself out there, the easier it becomes. You may even find that you actually enjoy it and make relationship building a bonafide career skill.
9. Share your Career Plan with Others
Speaking of mentors, once you have the first draft of your career plan finished, you should share it with your mentor (if you have one and if you don’t…find one). Outside of a mentor, you should share your plan with your professor, career counselor, professional network, etc. Why is it so important to share your career plan?
Because you need constructive feedback and accountability. This is what a mentor does best. Once you share your career plan, you are essentially revealing your career goals and desires. This can leave you feeling vulnerable, but you must get over it because it’s the extra push you’ll need to see success. Ask for advice when sharing your plan. Is there anything you may have missed? Ask how you could stretch yourself further in a certain area. Often, you’ll get ideas that you never would have come up with on your own.
10. Recognize your Leadership Style
I mentioned earlier the importance of gaining leadership experience as a part of your career plan. Leadership is a universal skill that most if not all employers love. And I don’t mean you have to be a people manager to see leadership skills pay off. If you know how to lead, you are more confident around others and aren’t afraid to step up when needed.
One of the keys to developing your leadership ability is to learn what kind of leader you are. There are a number of leadership styles. Take the time to try and discover what style seems to fit you. This may be difficult if you’ve never led though. So again, please be sure to include leadership opportunities in your career plan so you can discover what kind of leader you truly are and areas you can improve upon as a leader.
11. Keep Organized
I’m a stickler for staying organized. This is actually one of my natural talents. No kidding, I can organize with the best of them. Everything has its place and there is an order to how things should operate. Are you like this too? Great! That is one hurdle you have overcome when creating a career plan. Staying organized is essential to keep your career plan on track. For those of you that can’t say organization is your strong point, you need to get yourself prepared to be better prepared.
There are countless organization tips out there. And I recommend you check them out. But what I would like to emphasize here is to just simply create a clean, manageable file system for your career plan. For most of you this will be done on a computer, but you can also use an old timey file cabinet.
All projects that are related to your career plan should be saved in this file system. Any assignments that you’ve incorporated into your career plan should be saved. Keep your resume, list of references, mentor meeting notes, professional organization files, company research, etc. all in the same file system. This level of organization will pay off time and time again.
12. Track your Progress Against the Career Plan
I’ll reiterate that I recommend that you build your career plan on a semester to semester basis. This will keep your goals focused and achievable. Once you have this timeline established, you should be looking at your career plan at least weekly. Put a copy of it somewhere easily visible/accessible. Like next to your bathroom mirror or on your nightstand. Don’t just file it away and only look at it every now and then.
This is important because it will help you to track your progress and revise the plan as necessary. I mentioned the inevitable curve balls you’ll face as you go along, so it’s best to stay on top of your career plan as much as you can in order to adjust. I would schedule check-ins for yourself every week to review your plan. I would also schedule time for you to review your career plan with your mentor, professor or other professional on a regular basis as well.
Once you start achieving the goals and objectives on your career plan you will get more and more motivated. This is the whole point of a well-developed career plan! To actually see the plan come together is the greatest part. Don’t forget about it once you’ve created it. What’s the point in that?
Creating a good career plan will take some effort on your part. But you must look at it as something you must do as part of the career preparation process. It’s just as important as declaring a major and taking courses related to that major. A good solid career plan will keep you on the career path you’re meant for. So many college students don’t have a plan today. They’re just “winging it”. Trust me, you don’t want to do this. Put in the effort and you’ll have zero regrets when you land the career you properly planned for.
Anthony lives in Indiana with his wife and 3 daughters. His passions (besides his family) in no particular order are making and listening to music that pleases his ears, taking pictures (still & moving), avoiding crowded places and good writing. He also happens to be the Founder of Career Energy.