During the summer between my junior and senior years of college I met a top-tier investment bank trader. After a long conversation about swimming – a mutual interest of ours – he asked about my studies and offered to help me polish up my resume in preparation for my internship applications.
Listed on the resume I emailed him were my academic and athletic accolades as well as experience from a couple of swim coaching jobs and a year-long tenure as a member of my university's student-athlete council. Fairly standard, I thought.
"Is this all you have?" was his response.
He then proceeded to explain the process and importance of "building your resume." That started my scramble to catch up with my American peers, who had been doing that very thing for years.
[Find out where the most international undergraduates enroll.]
It appeared ridiculous that nobody had ever told me that while in college in the United States, sometimes things other than your course work should be at the top of your list of priorities.
"Isn't it enough just to be a student?" you might think. Well, it can be, but the problem is that your grades – no matter how good they are – tell very little about who you are.
Building your resume means creating the launch pad for your future career. Even if you don't necessarily know what profession you wish to pursue, you should strive to be involved in activities and organizations that you feel strongly about and enjoy spending your time on – and learn how to translate that engagement into real-life skills that employers find attractive.
These activities are known as "extracurricular activities" – those involvements that fill the gap between the section about your education and the listings of any jobs you have worked – and employers and graduate school admissions officers find them extremely important for seemingly self-evident reasons.
You take on extracurriculars in your spare time and they will, therefore, be perceived as causes you feel strongly about. Do you spend your Friday nights tutoring math instead of going out partying? Do you spend a couple of weekends helping out during sports events organized for children with special needs instead of lounging by the pool?
[Learn where international students can get on-campus help.]
Such choices differentiate you from the general category of a student. Suddenly you become interesting.
They are also an excellent tool to show your best skills. Do you enjoy organizing and directing other people? Seek out leadership and managerial positions in the organizations you feel strongly about that will allow you to do this.
Do you like to engage with students? Try to be part of the communication channels of an organization.
For international students, these types of activities are particularly crucial to have. It is often easier for employers to hire an American, so to prove your potential, you should aspire to go above and beyond.
Being able to show how you not only managed to get a college degree but also excelled outside the classroom will be a solid testament to your abilities.
[Check out college options for international students.]
In interviews and application letters, employers and graduate school admissions officers will want to hear and read about specific situations where you showed off your best abilities. Listing off the skills you have without real-life examples to back them up won't hold up.
Lastly, the brutal truth is that good grades probably won't be enough to land you the job you really want or get you into your top choice of graduate school. The ability to take tests well and finish papers on time will only get you so far – a great student is expected to do well academically while also excelling in other endeavors.
And everything else aside, extracurriculars will be one of the best ways to find new friends, integrate with the student body and find a sense of belonging and ownership in your school. As an international student, I know that usually makes the difference between happiness and homesickness.
Anders Melin, from Sweden, is a former collegiate swimmer for Limestone College and the University of Missouri, where he earned an undergraduate degree in finance. He is now pursuing a master's degree in journalism at New York University.