Experiential Education: How Can It Help You Get A Job

By Chris Kolmar - Nov. 5, 2020

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If you’ve ever completed an internship, volunteered as a research assistant, or worked as a teaching assistant, you’ve participated in experiential learning opportunities.

Experiential education helps students at the undergraduate and graduate level build professional skills while still attending school and focusing on their education. With these opportunities, students can apply what they learn in the formal classroom setting to real-world situations. This serves as good practice for when they eventually graduate and enter the workforce.

In this article, we introduce you to the concept of experiential education and outline the opportunities available to you throughout your college career. Keep reading to find out how experiential education could boost your future career.

What is Experiential Learning?

The meaning of experiential learning lies in the name— it’s the practice of learning through personal experience.

Carleton University defines it as “the application of theory and academic content to real-world experiences, either within the classroom, within the community, or within the workplace, which advances program or course-based learning outcomes that are specifically focused on employability skills.”

Think of experiential learning as the process by which you can take your daily academic experiences and translate them into the skills essential for your intended career path. You might consider taking exams and writing research papers as necessary evils required to earn you a degree. But what you’re tested on and what you write about have their own bearings on the professional workplace you plan to enter.

For example, maybe you’re an undergrad English major, and you want to pursue a career in the publishing industry. In class, you write your own literary analyses and review those of your fellow classmates, engaging with concepts like the author’s purpose and the intended audience for a given text. How might you apply these skills to the acquisitions process at a publishing company?

Engaging with different aspects of experiential learning might lead you to realize that you actually have a solid background preparing you for your future career, even if you don’t have professional, paid work experience.

What is Experiential Learning Like in College?

A college campus is the ideal setting for a variety of opportunities in experiential learning. Most colleges offer hands-on experience to complement both graduate and undergraduate studies, often building on the subjects and skills implemented in classrooms.

College internships and research assistantships are the most common avenues for experiential education. Schools also have a wide range of clubs and organizations for students to join, as well as study abroad programs all over the world.

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Here’s some additional information about these experiential learning opportunities in college:

  • Internships. Depending on the academic department at a particular school, students have a set of companies and organizations to partner with for internships. In most cases, you can complete an internship for course credit, allowing you to continue as a full-time student while also giving you a chance to develop professional work skills.

  • Research assistantships. Students working as research assistants are generally in the social science or laboratory fields. They assist professors in their academic research and perform experiments under supervision to receive course credit and work experience.

  • Clubs and organizations. It’s almost guaranteed that a student can find a club or organization on a college campus that suits their personal and professional interests. These range from social organizations that help integrate you into the campus community to professional ones with opportunities to hold executive board positions and make a change in your community.

  • Study abroad. Whether you’re studying a specific language or culture or just want to travel the world while you’re young, colleges offer a vast selection of study abroad programs. Students can immerse themselves in new cultures and step outside their comfort zones.

Career Benefits of Experiential Learning in College

Experiential learning is geared mainly toward preparing students to enter the professional workplace. Beyond gaining hands-on experience in a real-world setting, benefits of experiential learning include:

  • Exploring different career paths. Students can try their hand at different activities in their field of study. They might discover that they’re not as dedicated to one thing as they thought or develop an interest they were previously unaware of.

    An opportunity like an internship allows you to experience a particular aspect of a career field for a short period, without any serious career commitment to it. You can take what you learn there to help decide on your post-graduation plans.

  • Encouraging engagement with and reflection on your skills. Experiential education puts students in a position to reflect on the things they’ve learned and how they might be able to apply those skills to other settings. This kind of hands-on experience opens the door for better and closer engagement with certain concepts or materials in your chosen career field.

    For example, your internship at an academic publishing company might have shown you that you’re not passionate about academic texts. Still, it did give you a keener eye for proofreading and teach you how to code manuscripts in Microsoft Word.

    Now, you can better articulate your strengths to potential employers in the future.

  • Stepping out of your comfort zone. The Associate for Experiential Education states that experiential learning requires students to “take initiative, make decisions, and be accountable for results,” which may lead to “spontaneous opportunities.”

    Jumping from the classroom to the professional workplace might be a jarring transition, but it’s certainly one that will encourage you to grow and learn at an accelerated pace. Students might find that they make mistakes, but the experiential learning environment ensures that they face them and keep moving.

5 Ways to Use Experiential Learning to Boost Your Career

The “learning by doing” philosophy of experiential education will provide you with skills that prepare you for life after graduation and help you stand out in the job market. As you come to narrow your career focus through these experiences, you’ll also discover ways to market yourself to potential employers.

The following are five ways that you could use experiential learning to boost your career before it even entirely takes off:

  1. Choose the most appropriate courses. When creating your class schedule at the end of each semester, look for courses that align closely with the skills you hope to gain. Filling your schedule with classes that seem dynamic and exciting to you could correlate to experiential learning opportunities.

    You might choose to take a class that requires a lot of formal presentations and debates or a class where the entire semester builds toward an in-depth fieldwork project. Either option could offer an authentic experience that reflects your career interests.

  2. Get hands-on experience. Internships are the best options for gaining hands-on experience in a relevant career field. Beyond the career-specific skills you’d be learning, you could develop more practical skills such as communication and self-discipline.

    As we’ve already covered, internships can help you realize what your true career goals are. This could fluctuate throughout your time in college, but the point of something like an internship is to introduce you to different avenues of professional exploration.

    You might even find that you gain skills across multiple industries, molding you into a well-rounded professional candidate.

  3. Join organizations that fit your career goals. There are plenty of career-focused college organizations geared toward professional development and translating classroom knowledge into the real world.

    Even if you don’t join an organization that ties explicitly into your career interests, you still have options. Things like student government or even sororities and fraternities offer executive board positions that could help develop professional skills. You also get a chance to work with your local communities to facilitate different projects and events.

  4. Network. Whether you’re doing an internship, working alongside a professor, or a member of a student organization, you’re in a prime position to develop a professional network.

    People will surround you at different stages in their experiences and career paths. Meet people you can learn from and who can help guide you as you begin your professional journey. They might teach you about your future profession or introduce you to great opportunities and job prospects once graduation rolls around.

  5. Build your resume. As your skills, achievements, and experiences develop, record them on your resume. Either it steadily becomes more tailored to your intended career path, or it demonstrates a broad range of interests and levels of proficiency.

    Your resume is one of the first things employers see before ever actually meeting you. It’s crucial that you capture everything your experiential learning opportunities have taught you on this document.

Final Thoughts

Though experiential education isn’t formal work experience, and you might not even get paid for it, you should always treat it like a real job. Keeping this professional mindset could make you more receptive to the skills you’re likely to acquire and help foster working relationships.

Keep in mind that success in experiential education almost always translates to career success.

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Chris Kolmar

Author

Chris Kolmar

Chris Kolmar is a co-founder of Zippia and the editor-in-chief of the Zippia career advice blog. He has hired over 50 people in his career, been hired five times, and wants to help you land your next job. His research has been featured on the New York Times, Thrillist, VOX, The Atlantic, and a host of local news. More recently, he's been quoted on USA Today, BusinessInsider, and CNBC.

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