Alumni Viewpoint: 5 Tips for Student Success

Editor’s Note: This article was submitted by U alum Kyle Gray, a content-marketing and Facebook-advertising whiz. See his bio and contact info below. Email thad.kelling@utah.edu if you’re interested in writing for us.

By Kyle Gray, U alum and entrepreneur

It’s a tough world out there for students right now, job markets are very competitive right now, economies are uncertain. It hardly seems a time to dream big or set goals.

Though I didn’t have any dreams to change the world, I did know I wanted to have control over a few things in my life: my income, my location and my time. I decided the best way to do that was to start a business that would allow me to travel the world and work from anywhere.

The path I chose was not an obvious one. It was not clearly defined our outlined in courses or textbooks. But as I began to take the steps to make it a reality I was surprised at the quantity and quality of the opportunities I found at the U of U, outside of the classroom.

This post will outline five simple lessons I learned in this process and how you can use them yourself.

1. Do what interests you, not what others want

They say those whose passion lines up with their profession are the most fortunate people on planet.

The biggest mistake you can make in your university career is to go through your entire education doing what other people want.

It can sometimes be hard to tell the difference between what we want and what is expected of us if we don’t take the time to explore our interests.

Too often people compromise and give in to others expectations on what they study or what job they should get when they graduate. Always deferring their passions and interests a few years down the road. This is a dangerous path.

This leads to a downward spiral of unhappiness and an unhealthy lifestyle.

So figure out what interests you. The best way to do this is by routinely reflecting on yourself and testing new things. So go to meetups, connect with people who interest you, sign up for a class that intrigues you, or start a club.

2. Blaze your own trail

There is plenty of room at universities to discover your passion and find a way to build valuable skills that apply to what you want to do (and even get course credit for it along the way).

No matter your background or passion there are plenty of programs that offer fully customizable options for someone who want to do something innovative.

I used programs like the Foundry to meet with other students who were interested in starting a business and experimenting. I tested and failed with a few business ideas that I thought would lead to the results I wanted. Most of them failed, but instead of lamenting those failures, we celebrated them at the Foundry. A failure meant skills and knowledge gained, and an opportunity to build something new from that.

With each business I tested, I found new ways to create value for other businesses and generate income working from my laptop.

3. The title of ‘student’ is one of the most valuable parts of being a student

It’s a tragedy how few students recognize this fact. Being a student is a revered and respected in American culture. Many people are happy and honored to help students in their education if given the opportunity.

Do you want to visit a local business to see what it would be like to work there? Call them up and say you’re a student doing research and would like to check out how they run things.

As a student you should aim to have lunch at least once a week with someone you want to connect with. Invite the person that has a similar passion to yours to eat and ask them about their work and their life.

One evening at a dinner with a local entrepreneur and Utah alum Scott Paul, I mentioned I was working on developing some skills in online marketing. He was thrilled and offered to let me test these skills on his startup ArmorActive.

Within a week I found myself with a desk at a rapidly growing business, practicing exactly the skills I wanted to develop in the real world.

4. Scholarships aren’t the only financial aid

If you have not had any luck getting scholarships, there are other ways to leverage university funds to help you achieve your goals.

Universities have thousands of dollars each semester budgeted for speakers. Each year the student government and administration desperately try to come up with ideas for events and speakers. The funds are often underused or the events that they plan are under-attended. Almost never does a student come forward with an idea for someone to speak.

This means if you bring an idea forward there is a very high chance that they will help you make it happen. This means:

  • Funding to pay the speaker
  • Marketing for the event
  • Pizza to bribe hungry students

If you can put on a great event you will make a huge impression with the person you invite.

I was able to invite Mark Manson, a writer that I had been following for a long time and someone I admired to come speak. Mark had a lifestyle that I wanted for myself and worked hard to build a business around his writing.

Mark mentioned in a post that he was looking for some opportunities to speak in the US. I reached out to him and invited him to speak at the U. With the help of the ASUU, I was able to get some funding to fly Mark to Utah and promote the event on campus. We got the message out to the right people, and when Mark showed up the room was completely full.

Though this was not money to buy books or pay tuition, it helped me improve myself and connect with someone I admired.

5. Make it as easy as possible for people to help you

When you want to ask for something, it is important to deconstruct what you really want and what it would take to get it.

Recommendation letters are a tedious process for both parties. Let’s consider the position of the recommender. If you ask someone to write a letter for you, you are asking them to take time not only to write something but to think about:

  • What you did for them
  • How you added value to their lives
  • How to frame it in a way that is relevant to what you are applying for

This is very time-consuming and a bit unpleasant for your recommender, especially if it has been a year or more since they worked with them. So you want to make this as easy as possible.

Write a letter for the person you want to recommend you. Write out specifics about what you did for them and what the results were. If this is a recommendation for a specific job, connect each of these points with something involving the job requirements. Its best if you use the exact language.

Here’s a sample from a job posting:

An ideal candidate will be able to:

Take charge of a situation without needing micro-management or much supervision.

Here’s how you could speak to that in the recommendation:

“[your name] was incredibly helpful with [project], they took responsibility for the task and owned it without needing micro-management or much supervision”

Take the opportunity to write about your strengths and skills you want to demonstrate.

A concise recommendation is best. Try to keep it less than 300 words.

Make sure the letter is ready to go completely when you send it to the recommender. This includes having an email or mailing address in the letter so all your recommender has to do is sign it and send it.

Send an email with the letter attached to your recommender. Say something along the lines of:

Hello [Name],

I have been applying for my dream job at [employer]. I was thinking of great people who know and trust me for recommendations and you immediately came to mind. I know you’re busy, so I took the time to write out the letter for you. Feel free to make any changes you wish, or to send it as is. I have included the email/address for you to send it.

Let me know if you have any questions.

Cheers,

[you]

Wait for confirmation from the recommender, and be sure to thank them and follow up with the results.

They’ll usually respond quickly and almost never make any changes.

Warning: Never send these without permission.

Conclusion

These aren’t strategies for students hoping that they can idly coast through. If you are inspired to do something great, then these ideas can help you get there.

You will need to put in a great deal of work that may not be rewarded immediately or at all. You’ll need to be prepared to hear “no” and have your ideas rejected many times along the way. Just keep going.


About the Author:

Kyle Gray

Kyle Gray is a University of Utah alumni who teaches at the Foundry, a unique startup accelerator at the University of Utah. He is the author of "The College Entrepreneur," a book for students who want to break into entrepreneurship. Follow him on Twitter @kylethegray.


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