I was frequently asked, “What are the three pieces of advice you would give to a freshman?” My answer had always been to enjoy yourself, participate in everything and optimize your campus relationships.
Looking back now, I can say without a doubt that the most important of those three is optimizing college relationships. It may not be evident during your time in college, but everyone you meet, from your math tutor to the guy on the sixth floor who can code, can help you on your path to success.
One of the greatest relationships you can work on developing for your career, and hopefully the most obvious, is with your professors. The benefits of large vs. small universities is often discussed, but I can say having access to professors in your field of interest on a daily basis is well worth the small, private school tuition.
Your professors can be tough and their classes can be agonizing, but ultimately they have the potential to be your biggest champions. You have to make an effort to attend their office hours, invite them to lunch and let them know what your interests are upfront. These are the gatekeepers of internships, study abroad programs and entry-level jobs. Don't lose out on your dream job because your classmate was better friends with your department chair. Work to make your presence known, and do it while they still have time to help you.
While you want to foster great relationships with your professors, you need to realize that their time is valuable, which means showing up to all your classes--and showing up on time-- is a big part of getting that great recommendation. A professor won’t take you seriously if they never see you participating in class or studying for their exam. Show them why you deserve their time.
Another great way to build relationships that will help you with your career is by getting involved in activities and organizations you're interested in. Whether you're pursuing a career in song writing or you are interested in starting your own company, there's most likely a club or organization for you on campus, and your business partner or future band member might already be a member. College is one of the few times in your life where you will have access to such an expansive and eclectic group of people. Don't stay cooped up in your dorm room wondering who will take pictures for your blog. Get to that photography meeting and start networking.
I can already hear you saying "but, I don't know about any of those organizations or when they meet." You know those flyers you walk by in the student center every day? Yeah, read them. They will tell you all the things you ever wanted to know about the meetings on your campus, and you might even find something you like that you weren't even looking for.
Last, but certainly not least, do not neglect the career development center, and do not wait until your final semester to visit them and start by begging for a job. Your university’s career development center can help you get in contact with alumni who are in your field, or provide you with tips for an informed and effective job search. Use your college experience as a warm-up or practice round for going to get that job you want. Don’t take anybody you meet during college for granted because you never know to where it can lead.