When it comes to career readiness, the truism goes “You don’t know what you don’t know.” Often, for college students, it isn’t until the job search process that you realize you may know everything there is to know about INSERT MAJOR HERE, but you have no idea how to communicate your value to prospective employers.
For those of you out there doubting your abilities, don’t worry — this is natural — but the good news is there is something you can do about it.
Things like networking and professional development can help build important soft skills and grow your connections, and there are many programs that offer these opportunities. Competitive Advantage: The Consortium Undergraduate Program is one. Focused on improving outcomes for underrepresented minority undergraduates, it helps increase students’ readiness for careers or graduate school — no matter your major or discipline — with a focus on networking, skill development and employment opportunities. (Plus, costs for participating in the program are covered.)
To highlight some of the most significant benefits of this two-and-a-half-day leadership conference, we spoke with several alums — many of whom have secured internships, full-time offers or been accepted to graduate school as a result of participating in Competitive Advantage.
Learn how to prepare for interviews. Perfect your elevator pitch. Develop team-building, leadership and communication skills. Craft the best possible graduate school application. All of these things and more are discussed in Competitive Advantage workshops led by working professionals.
Alum Jasmine Williams says the skills she cultivated from participating in the 2018 program have helped her to thrive in the professional world. “I’ve grown so much in my ability to utilize the information that I’ve gained from extracurriculars such as Competitive Advantage,” says Williams, who interned at Colgate-Palmolive. “When I’m in a meeting, I know how to speak. When I’m sending emails, I know how to draft them. When I’m meeting directors of the company, I know how to speak in a professional manner.”
But perhaps more impactful is the fact that Competitive Advantage provides a safe space for college students to practice these critical soft skills.
“A lot of times those professional skills only get you to a certain point. Nothing’s going to prepare you like practice will,” says Williams. “Competitive Advantage definitely gives everyone practice with having those deeper conversations, really getting to learn what the company culture is like and asking questions that provoke the person you’re talking to but that also show your intelligence.”
All of this knowledge and abilities combined teach young people how “we can make ourselves more attractive to companies,” says Talia Aranda, a 2018 alum who interned at General Mills and is now a business management associate in convenience and foodservice at the company.
“It’s a chance for us to all come together as underrepresented minorities to understand that we can make a bigger difference together.” —Talia Aranda
Ultimately, an understanding of the importance of soft skills and knowledge of how to use them leads to the most crucial component of success: a belief in yourself. “[Competitive Advantage] helped me gain the confidence to believe in myself,” says Alejandra Flores, a 2018 alum who interned at ExxonMobil. “If you can’t believe in yourself, no one else will.”
Exploring a discipline in the classroom and exploring a discipline in the context of a career are often two decidedly different things. At Competitive Advantage, you are able to experience your area of interest through a different lens, which can help you decide if a specific career, or even graduate school, is right for you.
Stefan Santrach, a 2018 alum who accepted a full-time position at Accenture, says the program helped him refine his job search and decide what path he wanted to take. “It can be very overwhelming to go out looking for a job, especially as a senior,” he says. “How do you narrow it down and put an actual plan in place to figure out what’s a good fit for you? That was something that I was really looking to try to develop, and I thought that Competitive Advantage touched on that well.”
Beyond Fortune 500 companies, Competitive Advantage provides students access to graduate schools as well. For 2019 alum Rachel Sutton, who will begin the Human Factors PhD Program at Wichita State University this fall, the program left her feeling even more confident in her chosen career path and the route she chose to take to get there.
“[Competitive Advantage] really helped cement my decision to pursue human factors because I was able to see that it could be applied to so many different areas and contexts,” she says. “I knew that I wanted to go to graduate school because it would allow me to gain in-depth knowledge of my chosen research topic in an applied context and would prepare me well for any position in the future — whether that be in industry or academia.”
Featuring representatives from Fortune 500 companies, which have included ExxonMobil, General Mills, Bank of America and others, Competitive Advantage provides opportunities for students to connect with companies that value diversity, learn what it’s like to work there and even interview for jobs. Often, these professionals come from similar backgrounds as participants and provide insider knowledge and advice.
“All the representatives that I had the chance to talk to were so nice and so willing to talk about their path, how they got there, what they were doing and just really be honest about what it was like working at that company,” says 2019 alum Cherish Dean, who interned at Liberty Mutual.
For Mya Reeves, a 2019 alum who accepted a full-time offer at ExxonMobil this year, the most impactful part of Competitive Advantage was the company panels. “It allows you to sit in front of companies and ask some real questions that you may be scared to ask in an interview,” she says.
For many students, the opportunity to come together with their peers from across the country, to meet other students who look like them who are at similar points in their lives, was the most memorable part of the Competitive Advantage experience.
“It probably wasn’t until attending Competitive Advantage that I realized how much value there is in just networking with fellow students,” says Dean. “There were people from across the country, and they all had such diverse backgrounds, which I really appreciated. Getting to be around all these other students who are also very driven was a really energizing environment for me. I learned so much talking with them.”
“It’s a chance for us to all come together as underrepresented minorities to understand that we can make a bigger difference together,” Aranda adds. “It’s nice to look around and see people who are in the same place as we are and to be able to come from a place that maybe someone else understands.”