College is more expensive than ever before. According to the College Board's 2018 Trends in College Pricing Report, from 1988 to 2018, sticker prices tripled at public four-year schools and doubled at public two-year and private non-profit four-year schools.
Still, the current job market for college-educated workers can offer graduates incredible opportunities. New research from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York finds that American workers with a college degree earn around $78,000 per year on average, while workers with a high school degree earn closer to $45,000 per year on average.
To make sure that their investment in college pays off, students should start planning to take advantage of professional opportunities as soon as possible.
Here are seven steps college students can take now to set themselves up for a high-paying career after graduation:
According to Vicki Salemi, career expert for job site Monster, students should be thinking about their future careers before they even set foot on campus.
"Students can do several things for their career before college," she tells CNBC Make It. "They should create a game plan, such as intentionally planning on visiting the career office on campus that September and scheduling regular meetings throughout the year."
Salemi stresses that students should coordinate with college career counselors as early as possible. "Counselors can help guide them and many schools provide workshops, conduct mock interviews and more."
One thing that students can do to increase their chances of having a solid career after graduation is to study in an in-demand field.
"Choosing a major might seem like no big deal, but it's one of the few choices you make as a 19- or 20-year-old that can have an outsized impact on your entire career — and possibly your whole life," Chris Kolmar, co-founder of career planning site Zippia, tells CNBC Make It.
Zippia analyzed data from the most recent American Community Survey (ACS) to identify the average annual income of graduates with 174 different college majors. When looking at workers between the ages of 29 and 31 who were employed the whole year and worked at least 35 hours per week, Kolmar and his team found that workers who studied science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields in college reported some of the highest earnings.
"Like most other studies that look at the link between earnings and majors, the highest-paying majors are STEM or have some basis in math, such as economics and finance," says Kolmar. "These majors lead to jobs that are in high demand — jobs that have a need for analytical skills or specific types of sciences.
"When you're selecting a college major, you should consider how that choice will set you up for your career. If you're looking to snag a high-paying job out of college, you should ideally look for a subject you're passionate about, but that there's also a market for on the hiring front."
Working during the summer can also help students build a resume that pays off after graduation, no matter what the job.
Salemi recommends that students learn how to accurately assess "the importance of summer gigs such as life guarding, dog walking, babysitting and more in terms of being responsible and reliable and updating their resumes with these roles."
The current job market, she says, has lots of opportunities for young people. "It's never too late to look for a summer job. If students took a few weeks off and think, 'Nah, I won't bother looking because all of the good jobs are taken' – au contraire! There's a labor shortage right now and employers need workers, and in this case, entry-level ones."
But an essential part of ensuring that a summer gig pays off is building strong connections with coworkers and keeping in touch after the role comes to an end.
"After completing a stellar internship or summer job opportunity, they should ask their boss to be a reference during the full-time job search, stay in touch with the boss and send a handwritten thank-you note after the internship [or] job is finished," says Salemi.
One of the biggest benefits of going to college is getting the opportunity to meet a wide range of people and form lasting relationships. Students should make the most of these networking opportunities so that they can leverage their connections after graduation.
"Networking is an effective tool that job seekers of any level can use as they embark on the job search process," Michelle Armer, Chief People Officer at CareerBuilder, tells CNBC Make It via email. "Whether they are through school, previous jobs and internships, or even family and friends, students can leverage existing relationships to learn about the fields they are interested in, find out about open opportunities, and receive advice. Connecting with people you are already familiar with is a great way to get your feet wet as you start looking for a full-time role."
Colleges also facilitate formal networking opportunities that students should be sure to attend.
"Students should take advantage of job fairs and alumni events so they can meet people who are looking to hire recent graduates, or who have attended their college in the past," says Armer. "Networking isn't just about finding out about open positions, it's also about developing new relationships, learning, and getting career advice from others with more experience."
Students may be hesitant to begin creating a resume when it feels like their career hasn't started. But it's never too soon to collect your skills and experiences in a way that's easy for potential employers to see.
"Crafting a resume that best highlights skills and other achievements is important for students who may not have much work experience," she says. "Providing strong descriptors, mentioning accomplishments with data that shows success, and including details about awards or membership to different organizations can paint a fuller picture of what a candidate may bring to the table."
Social media platforms like LinkedIn can also help students build a resume online that is easily accessible to potential employers.
"If used wisely, social media can help you stand out and show skills or interests that don't fit on a resume," says Armer.
Before starting a job search, students should take a critical eye to their social media presence and eliminate any content that doesn't represent them as responsible and professional.
"Before applying to jobs, students should clean up their social media accounts," says Armer. She says a CareerBuilder study found that 70% of employers use social networking sites to research job candidates and 57% of those employers have found content that caused them not to hire candidates.
"It's important to keep things in check by making sure you don't have anything that could turn off a hiring manager," she says, "like tasteless content or complaints about a former job or boss."
In addition to the specific skills students will need to thrive in their chosen professional field, students in every major should be working to hone soft skills — things like communication, problem-solving and creativity.
"Practice interviewing, hone your resume and continue to update it and polish it, be inquisitive, ask questions and start going on interviews," says Salemi. Essentially, "build your soft skills."
"When I worked in corporate recruiting, hiring managers always hired the candidate who fit in the best with their group," she says. "They felt they could teach technical skills of the job itself, but it would be considerably harder to teach someone how to get along well, build camaraderie, have a team presence — along with important skills such as communication, adaptability, honesty and ethics."
Armer also stressed the importance of students learning soft skills during their college years.
"Soft skills have become increasingly relevant, especially when it comes to entry-level workers," she says. "For entry-level jobs, three in five employers have said soft skills will be just as important as hard skills in the hiring process, and are looking for candidates who have basic knowledge of the position, are team-oriented, and have attention to detail – skills that recent college graduates of any major can possess."
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