What can you do as a student to prepare for that inevitable job interview question, "What experience do you have?"

You're almost there. Just a couple more classes and you will finish your online degree program.

You're ready for the next step in your career. So you're practicing your interview skills, perfecting your resume, and networking at every opportunity.

But all it takes to deflate that new-grad optimism is a single question: "What experience do you have?"

While a bachelor's degree has become the minimal requirement to get a foot in the door, hiring managers still place a lot of weight on experience when evaluating new graduates for employment.

Even for adults enrolled in online degree programs who have years of work experience, trying to enter a new field can be a frustrating paradox.

But there are things you can do while you are still a student to gain some real-world experience in your intended career field. Here are four suggestions:

1.  Gain relevant experience through internships.

In a study involving 50,000 employers, The Chronicle of Higher Education and American Public Media's Marketplace found that the single most-important credential for recent college graduates to have on their resumes is internships.

The benefits of an internship are numerous:

  • Enhances your marketability by building your resume of experience

  • Provides real-world application of textbook theories and concepts

  • Offers relevant insight and knowledge not available in a classroom

  • Helps you decide if it's the right career path for you

  • Provides networking opportunities

In addition, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), 40 percent of internships develop into full-time employment.

"The reason hiring managers place such weight on internships is because interns learn skills and gain knowledge that is specific to their industry and a particular position," says Nancy Cheek, career advisor in Saint Leo's Center for Online Learning (COL). Provided that goals and objectives are clearly identified and understood by both the student and the employer, an internship can be invaluable experience for any job field.

Even if your online degree program does not require an internship, it's still worthwhile to do one for the work experience, says Cheek. Keep in mind that an internship does not have to be in your exact discipline to be beneficial.

"Some are for anyone in a related program with basic office skills. But be aware that larger employers usually have internship applications due six to nine months in advance; so don't wait until the last minute to be seeking those opportunities."

2.  Gain relevant experience through work.

While internships might be doable for traditional college students, for busy adults in an online degree programs with work and family obligations, internships may be impossible.

Even if you can't do an internship because you are already working, what you can do is use your current employment to your advantage.

If your goal is to change to a new career field, see if there are any opportunities to do something related to your field of interest at your current place of employment.

Begin by analyzing the critical skills required for your dream job and then look for opportunities at work to apply those skills.

"If the position you'd like once you complete your degree requires problem-solving or communication skills, or it demands that you be detail-oriented, then look for opportunities to demonstrate those skills and characteristics in your current job," says Cheek. When you apply for a position, you can highlight those transferable skills on your resume and give concrete examples of how you have used them.

3.  Gain relevant experience through volunteer service.

Don't underestimate the value of volunteer work. Research indicates that demonstrating volunteer experience can have a big impact on hiring decisions.

  • 41 percent of LinkedIn members surveyed consider volunteer work equally as valuable as paid work experience when hiring candidates.

  • 1 of 5 hiring managers has selected a job candidate because of volunteer experience.

Regardless of your major, a first step toward obtaining meaningful volunteer work is to determine your field of interest and what kind of relevant experience you would like to obtain.

  • For example, if you're a psychology major interested in working with clients with developmental disabilities, you could look into an organization such as Goodwill Industries or Best Buddies.
  • If you are a sociology or religion major who wants to work with homeless populations, contact local shelters or the Salvation Army.
  • If you are a criminal justice major, local police and sheriff's offices, as well as domestic violence refuge centers or programs for at-risk youth and teens, have volunteer opportunities that might be a good fit.

You don't have time to volunteer five days a week. Even a few hours a month can be valuable because it shows you are making an effort to gain critical skills.

4.  Relevant experience through student and professional associations

While traditional college students have abundant opportunities to join organizations on campus, online students at Saint Leo have the unique opportunity to join online university-sponsored clubs and associations designed specifically for them.

At Saint Leo, online students can join associations related to accounting, business, criminal justice, healthcare management, human resources, psychology and sociology – and the number continues to grow. These organizations expose online students to real-world experiences in their fields and offer leadership as well as learning and networking opportunities.

Also keep in mind that professional organizations exist in just about every industry with chapters nationwide, and most offer discounted student rates to join. Examples include: the Professional Accounting Society of America; the American Marketing Association; The Society for Human Resource Management; and the Association for Computing Machinery.

"Joining a club or association is a great way to show a future employer your commitment to your field," says Cheek. "It shows that you are dedicated to staying abreast of industry trends and knowledge even if you are not currently working in the field. It also differentiates you from other applicants when applying for a job or promotion."

Look for the right fit

In any job interview, the bottom line is to show the hiring manager that you have relevant experience that makes you a strong candidate. And the best way to do that is by being specific and offering concrete examples. While these four suggestions can provide opportunities to develop some experience, make sure that you are targeting the right jobs to begin with –jobs for which you can demonstrate that you would be a good fit.

Please share any ideas you may have for gaining experience as a student.

Image Credit: Nagy-Bagoly Arpad on Shutterstock.com

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