I suspect there are many ambitious, doe-eyed freshman who waltz off to college for a four-year degree, expecting they will work hard and receive an education that will prepare them to get a job in their chosen field. How can you blame them? It seems like a reasonable expectation in exchange for the thousands of dollars paid to that university over the course of those four years. But the truth is that even some of the best university programs out there do not fully equip you with the skills you need to achieve an entry-level job in your chosen field. I was once that doe-eyed freshman, and I’m here to tell you what I learned about preparing myself for my career.

Inspired by my father’s career as a real estate developer and my own interest in design, I chose to study Urban Planning at a top-rated public university. I am incredibly thankful to my dad who strongly encouraged me to get an internship right away, as a freshman, before anyone else in my class was considering such a thing. Honestly, I didn’t really want to, but I grudgingly followed his advice because he’s a pretty smart guy. What I learned in that internship was absolutely invaluable to preparing me to get a job after graduation. It was a small firm where I got hands-on experience and began to learn technical programs such as AutoCAD and Photoshop.

Meanwhile, my degree program was completely theory-based: Theory of Urban Design, Principles of Sustainable Urbanism, Architectural History – the list goes on. These classes were also valuable in that they helped inform my perspective on planning. But I quickly realized that theory alone wasn’t going to get me a job. For the rest of my time in school, I intentionally sought out classes that would teach me the technical skills I needed, but the offerings were disappointing to say the least. There were no classes in my own degree program that taught skills like Photoshop, InDesign, 3D Modeling, AutoCAD, or narrative writing. I was able to add a minor, which allowed me to take graphic design classes. I had to get special approval to take an AutoCAD class for landscape architecture. In summary, I had to be proactive to obtain the additional training I needed on my own. No one was there to tell me, or my classmates, that this was vital to getting a job. I unfortunately saw how this played out after graduation, when some in my class struggled to find jobs even in a favorable economy.

The moral of this story is that no matter your chosen field, you can’t blindly follow your degree program and expect to end up with all the skills you need to get a job when you graduate. As soon as you know what kind of career you’d like to have, start asking questions about the technical skills you will need to be successful. Look at job descriptions, explore LinkedIn to see what others have done, set up informational interviews with companies you might want to work for. Oftentimes internships are the best way to learn these skills – but make sure you are getting paid for your work!

We live in a world where many jobs require a college degree, but students are going into lifelong debt without learning all of the critical skills they need to get those jobs. We need to hold our universities to a higher standard. But in the meantime, I want students to be aware of this issue and to understand what they can do to ensure a successful transition from college to career.