Choosing a major, opting to go to grad school or not, applying to jobs and internships—life as a college student is full of what appear to be “make it or break it” decisions. But we’ll let you in on a little secret: It doesn’t end there. You’ll continue to experience forks in the road (and sometimes you might even invent them yourself). Guest blogger Melissa Nguyen shares her story—and her hard-earned lessons—in this guest post.
Lately, I have been thinking about all the failure that has led me to today.
I entered college as a biology major, and after failing at the sciences, made one of the best choices of my life. I declared English Literature as my major, brought my ailing GPA way up, and never missed a class, because I was genuinely interested in the coursework.
By the time I graduated, I had completed three publishing internships with the hopes of one day becoming a book editor. My last internship senior year even asked me to come back after graduation to work full time. I couldn’t believe it; I was going to be Sandra Bullock in The Proposal: a strong woman in a fierce suit stomping around the publishing world.
After a year of fielding inquiries, setting up appointments, and handling mail, I realized I wasn’t as engaged with my work—though I loved the people I got to see for 40 hours a week, life post-graduation was different from what I thought it would be. I felt I had failed again; this time with my career because I spent all that time preparing for a life in publishing, but was ultimately dissatisfied with my job. So, at the height of the flailing economy and unemployment rate—I made the second best decision of my life; I left my stable job and health benefits so I could ask myself, “What next?”
I answered with the grandiose notion of grad school—I was going to be a scholar. I was going to stunt my financial and career growth for a noble cause, the liberal arts! Imagine my surprise when I didn’t get in. I had slightly higher than average GRE scores with stellar recommendations, and personal essays that were just the right mix of braggadocio, personal heartache, and flair. So why, then, did all eight programs reject me in succinct four-line letters? Why did I fail once more?
For the third time, I asked myself, “What next?” What choice did I have but to move home, my tail between my legs, jobless with no health insurance and no prospects except the odd job gamble that is Craigslist? During this time, I reached out to everyone I knew, personal and professional, to let them know I was on the hunt for a new job. I kept it short, polite, and concise: what sort of work I was interested in, my experience, and always ending it with: Please let me know if you hear of any openings. Anywhere.
I’m not going to lie—at times, it was tough. The truth was what was being said everywhere: There just aren’t as many jobs as there are applicants. So that meant having to take a more unconventional route: odd jobs, temporary work, freelancing, and crying in the corner in the fetal position.
But I persisted, folding jeans and pouring coffee during the day and at night applying to every open opportunity I came across—researching companies, scouring job-posting sites, and following up with friends to see if any of their companies were hiring. I checked labels on the back of products I used daily to find their website and then navigated their “Careers” page to see if there were any openings. “It’s a numbers game,” someone told me. “Just put as many résumés out there as possible. Keep going.”
While I agree that to an extent, it’s a numbers game and your odds of landing an interview are higher with the more applications you complete, the key to efficiency and upping your odds is knowing what you’re applying for and making sure it’s a good fit. Apply to roles you are genuinely interested in, have the skill set for, and want to show up to every day.
Though I applied to a wide range of companies, it was only the ones that offered work that genuinely interested me that I landed interviews for and was able to do well in. (I once, somehow, landed an interview with a tech startup for a sales job. When the interviewer asked me to pitch software, I did nothing but blink at him for the next 20 minutes.)
More than a year into my search, and many minimum wage jobs and temporary gigs later, I have found myself back in publishing. I accepted an editorial internship at an independent magazine that I enjoyed reading. I got a recommendation from the person I worked under at the first publishing house that I am certain secured my edge over other applicants; it is important to keep ties wherever you go. Don’t be disingenuous or slick about it, but recognize the valuable asset that networking is—there’s a lot you can learn from others. It is important to build a community where help is both given and received. I have a close group of fellow interns from that publishing house that have gone on to do great things. We check in with one another every once in a while with new opportunities we hear about or just to keep in touch.
When I spoke to friends about applying for an internship nearly four years out of college, I was met with raised eyebrows and loaded questions like, “Isn’t that a step backwards in your career?” Though I feared as much when I was applying, six months into the internship, I can wholeheartedly say, “No. It’s not.”
Technology, among other factors, has brought about rapid change; career paths are no longer linear, and there is no such thing as stepping backwards. Explore every nook and cranny available to you, and go ahead and travel along a winding road to figure out what works for you. No task, job, or responsibility is too small. Every piece adds to the larger puzzle—it’s because I had the smaller roles that I was able to land an opportunity better suited for me.
I gladly wear my intern title, at the age of 26, because it has allowed me to write original pieces, learn the ins and outs of fact-checking, and make real, meaningful edits that add to the discussion around our magazine—it only took an existential crisis and failing three different times to get here.
The most important skill to have after college, and likely for life in general, is resilience. Don’t be afraid to leave a good thing in search of something better, and don’t be afraid to fail—because it is when we fail and are left asking “What next?” that we remember we can start over.
So, go forth and fail more because with failure burgeons new dreams, and each new experience is another stepping stone in your path ahead.
This guest post was written by Melissa Nguyen, a freelance writer and magazine editor based in the Bay Area.