Everyone always says that you that you need to get involved in student organizations in college. Of course, extracurriculars are great resume builders, and hopefully you are involved in organizations that are interesting to you, but believe it or not the skills you learn in student government, or your sorority, or the sustainability club are very relevant to your future career as well.
I look back on my days as president of my college student government and can say with certainty that I learned more business skills there than I did at any internship. Wondering how to describe those skills on your resume or in an interview? Looking for some inspiration to get involved? Here are a couple of the most relevant and useful things I learned from my glory days in student government that I still put to use.
1. You’ll become a superstar at “Time Management”
My favorite saying in college was a classic from Ben Franklin: “If you want something done, give it to a busy person.” Being involved in student government took up a lot of time– with several meetings a week, assigned to-dos, emailing, more emailing, and constant preparation for the next meeting. But I have never been more efficient (or gotten better grades) in my life as I was balancing these activities with school. Several studies (including http://nces.ed.gov/pubs95/web/95741.asp) have shown that extracurricular involvement is positively correlated with academic achievement!
Use the experience in college to learn working habits that facilitate you at your best. I still have my planner from college as a reminder of how extraordinarily organized I was. I used matching colors of post-it flags and gel pens, and would write on a post-it note every morning what my schedule would be, down to the 15 minute nap between classes (let’s not forget the importance of napping to productivity). When I had so much on my plate, being organized was really important to me – and today I still hang onto many of the organizational habits I formed balancing extracurriculars in college. Color-coding – or even being organized – isn’t for everyone. But, no matter what, learning the way you like to work and what factors contribute to you being at your best are habits you can learn early!
2. You’ll finally understand “Budgeting & Finances”
Most student organizations have some operating budget, whether it’s $500 or $500,000. Taking the time to pay attention to where the money comes from and where the money goes is a great learning opportunity – you can understand how to forecast monetary needs, document receipts and invoices, categorize expenses, and create status reports.
Practicing basic organizational bookkeeping is super handy. Our student government had a budget of several thousands of dollars of funds from student tuition dollars that we were responsible for allocating and using. I think back on how silly I thought it was to save receipts for the pizza and Mrs. Fields cookie cake that I would bring to a general meeting. Two years later, when I worked in management consulting, I had to save receipts for absolutely everything (including tolls!) when I traveled for my client.
Simple reporting is harder than it looks, but it’s worth the effort. Nobody but me read the several-page-long (color-coded!) end-of-the-year budgetary report that tracked expenditures of each committee, so I summarized it into one graph that the student government representatives could read. Believe me: whether you end up in consulting or at a non-profit, knowing how to put together a readable spreadsheet of expenses and to create a simple graphic of what it looks like goes a long way.
3. You’ll stumble through “Managing People” (And “Dealing with Difficult People”)
Being in a leadership position in student government was an amazing way to learn management skills without even realizing it. I learned how to run meetings efficiently (so we could all make it back in time to watch Grey’s Anatomy), how to give tough feedback when someone was slacking, and how to motivate a team. (As a side note: cookies and cakes were often involved.)
Tease out your strengths– and weaknesses– by managing your fellow student government members. Whether you lead up an orientation week event and manage the logistics assignments or you manage the whole organization, there’s a lot to practice and learn. I learned before ever formally managing anyone that I have an unfortunate tendency to micromanage. Slowly, over my 4 years of college, I worked on learning how to delegate. I certainly didn’t join student government because I wanted to learn to be a good manager, but it surely has helped.
Understand how to work with difficult people. No matter what organization you are in, there will be people that challenge your patience– especially when things get political. I dealt with my fair share of massive egos, wannabe whistleblowers, and good old-fashioned smart alecks during my time in student government. Learning to get past petty and major differences alike, and either find compromise or just figure out how to deal with the people I didn’t at first get along with, is a life skill that I’m glad I got to practice early on.
4. You’ll become a seasoned Public Relations expert
The tenuous relationship between the government and the media is a timeless dinnertime debate. We had beat reporters from the school newspaper assigned to cover the exciting goings-on of student government, and I usually couldn’t stand them. After first-hand experiencing several student government controversies reported (or mis-reported) in the newspaper, from a criminal hacking scandal to a forced presidential resignation, I think I’ve earned my stripes in real-life experience on this one.
Be friendly to reporters, especially the ones that might cover you, but in general as a best practice include the writers on the sports beat as well. This means in formal situations (i.e. meetings) or informally (i.e. running into them at a party). They are people, too, and being nice, or at least cordial, can’t hurt. You never know if they’ll be subconsciously influenced to put a more positive spin on a not-so-positive story because they know (and hopefully like) you personally. The Editor-In-Chief of the school newspaper lived just a few houses down the street from me. I’m nearly certain the fact that we bonded over being Boston Red Sox fans didn’t help get us coverage, but it didn’t hurt us!
Ask for questions by email. When you are interviewed about something in any way controversial, ask if the reporter can email you the questions so you can write your responses. That way, you aren’t caught off guard, you don’t fumble over your words, and you can be sure you aren’t misquoted.