By Jenny Han Simon
Your years as an undergraduate can be some of the most meaningful and productive in your life—no matter what age you are. An undergraduate curriculum may be more specialized than a high school one, but it is far more general than a graduate program. This gives you the opportunity to explore different topics that interest you while also being able to cultivate specialized skills and knowledge as you begin to finalize your focus. Additionally, there are many internships, scholarships, and fellowship opportunities specifically for undergraduates. Here are nine ways to capitalize on your time as an undergrad.
1. Answer the question, “What are you passionate about?”
I remember when a professor asked me this question, and I had no idea how to respond. It’s a broad question with too many possible choices. Furthermore, any answer can seem like it’s wrong—like it’s not good, authentic, or unique enough. To help me, my professor rephrased the question as “What is something you could really argue about?”
In essence, passion can be found in the subjects and topics that leave you with an insatiable curiosity, desperately searching for an answer to a question or the solution to a problem and loving the process. You can recognize it by the feeling that what you’re doing is meaningful but also that there is still more work to be done. Sometimes, what you’re passionate about comes to you as a late-night epiphany, or you may stumble upon it accidentally.
No matter what, being able to identify to yourself and others what you are passionate about and strive to be an expert in will help you define your goals. Once you know what you’re working towards, you can better plan to accomplish it.
2. Explore new topics and take classes in things that interest you—even if they’re outside your major
Being an undergraduate provides you with one of the few opportunities in life to explore a variety of subjects, have an experienced teacher, and not commit long-term. By being open-minded about what classes to take, you’ll open yourself up to a myriad of new knowledge and opportunities, which can be especially useful if you had trouble answering “What are you passionate about?”
The more subjects you’re familiar with and the more experiences you’ve had, the more situations you’ll be prepared for in the future. For example, studying a new language can open the door to study abroad programs, taking any science class can add a technical perspective to any athletic endeavors, and enrolling in a creative writing class may reveal a hidden talent or simply work as an act of catharsis. Being even minimally interested in something—and acting on that interest—can open the door to great things.
3. Find a mentor
Whether it’s in the realm of academia, work, volunteering, or otherwise, there are many possibilities for mentorship and many benefits to having that relationship. As an undergraduate, your mentor should have more experience and knowledge than you in the field that you’re interested in. Your mentor should also be interested in you and what you seek to accomplish in order to provide you with support and advice. In a college environment, a professor seems like the obvious choice; however, there are many other possible mentors—a manager, a graduate student, an academic advisor, and so on.
Some of the benefits of having a mentor include: having a professional opinion to turn to, being able to share certain frustrations or successes, and getting personalized instruction and advice. Ideally, mentoring is a two-way street. Just as your mentor may take an interest in helping you, you should also be interested in the things they’re doing.
4. Work on your writing
Writing is an incredibly important skill applicable to a variety of professional settings. It’s not just for humanities majors! It is something that all students of all majors will have to grapple with at some point—especially if applying for internships, scholarships, or fellowships is in your future plans. Whether it’s a cover letter, thesis, or personal statement, it’s important to be able to convey your ambitions, experiences, and ideas to others in a persuasive and concise manner.
Improving your writing skills doesn’t always require taking a writing course. Some ways to improve your writing are reading more, getting feedback from others, and visiting office hours or a writing center for direct instruction.
5. Apply for scholarships and funding opportunities
There are a massive amount of scholarship and funding opportunities just for undergraduates, many of which you can find in the ProFellow database. Such opportunities may dwindle in number for recent graduates and graduate students, which makes them incredibly more competitive. Thus, it is arguably easier to receive funding and scholarships as an undergraduate. Moreover, once you’ve been the recipient of one such opportunity, it’s easier to get more, as your CV/resume will grow and you may have more confidence and familiarity in the process.
6. Pursue research opportunities
Many people will decide that research is not for them; however, you can’t know that unless you try it. Undergraduate research opportunities are a great way to see what kind of jobs are right for you and if you really do want to go to graduate school or not. There are usually many on-campus opportunities for undergraduates to get involved in research projects, as professors have their own research and welcome assistance. Research is a skill that can be developed just like any other, and it is easier to do so under the guidance of another person.
Research experience at the undergraduate level is generally very impressive and desirable in a variety of fields. It can show your dedication and depth in a certain topic to an application committee and can be a concrete example for a job recruiter that you have been able to use your skills in a practical way to yield a tangible result.
7. Study a language
The benefits of studying a language are innumerable, including good cognitive training, being able to connect with more people, having access to different sources of media, and many, many more. One of the most obvious benefits of studying a language within the world of scholarships and fellowships is that it makes you a more competitive applicant. Not only does knowing a second language enable you to engage with a variety of environments and situations, but it also suggests certain character traits like discipline, open-mindedness, and enthusiasm.
Another benefit of studying a language is that it may help narrow your research interests or better define your passions. For example, there are many economics majors in the world, but there are fewer with a focus on the European Union-United States relationship, and even fewer focused on the economy of the Pacific Islands. In this way, studying a language can simultaneously make you more competitive and present new opportunities.
8. Travel to new places
Traveling to new places can broaden your perspective and grant you new experiences. Even going to a college campus opens up the door to meeting new people with different experiences and opinions than you. There are potentially even more things to be learned by going somewhere farther away, like across the country or the globe.
Studying abroad is a popular and rewarding experience, but travel doesn’t always have to be abroad. Within your home country, there are almost certainly many different types of lifestyles, communities, and regional variations of a language to observe. There are numerous opportunities for volunteer work, education, NGO involvement, and more on a national and international scale.
9. Partake in extracurricular activities
Not just for the sake of creating balance in your life, participating in non-academic activities will help make you a more well-rounded candidate for future endeavors. These activities include sports, music, the arts, being a part of a community, and work experience. Not every passion needs a research paper to accompany it, and it is immensely beneficial to be able to write about the connection between your extracurricular experiences and passions and your academic and professional goals. Similarly, such activities help to infuse a personal statement or research proposal with some authenticity and a sense of who you really are.
These are just nine suggestions out of a potential list of hundreds of things you can do to enhance and make the most out of your time as an undergraduate. Remember that there are always resources available when you’re unsure of where to go or what to do, like ProFellow! Whether you’re going straight from high-school, after a gap period, or a returning student, your undergraduate career is a great time to learn about yourself and the world around you while capitalizing on those very things.
Jenny Han Simon currently lives in New York City. She was a Fulbright ETA in Mongolia (2019-2020) and a participant of the Critical Language Scholarship (2018). She graduated from the University at Buffalo in 2019 with a BA in English and Linguistics.
© Victoria Johnson 2020, all rights reserved