Back to School: Secrets for Success in College and Beyond
By Dr. Michael Pittaro, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice at American Military University
For students around the country, Labor Day marks the end of summer and a return to the classroom. As a university professor, I teach students both online and in person. Every year, I see students struggle to figure out how to be a good student and how to apply those skills to their early professional lives. I am often asked for advice and thought I would share some of the common recommendations I give students to help them achieve success in college and beyond.
How Education Changed My Life
I am a first-generation college student. I took out every student loan imaginable and worked part-time on campus — anything that was necessary to pursue my undergraduate degree. I have since completed my masters and doctorate degrees and will be going back for another degree in the near future. Since I was the first to go to college, I had to literally pave my own path by learning how to study, write and complete what seemed like, at the time, an endless barrage of requirements. My formative high school years did not prepare me well enough for success in college, which was partly my fault. I cannot deny the fact that I was more into socializing (aka – partying) than studying in high school.
Words of Advice to Find Success in College
It is vitally important that you take care of yourself or you will experience a burnout.
I had to essentially learn how to work hard and work smart, yet it was important that I kept everything in balance, which is something I still preach today. It is vitally important that you take care of yourself mentally, physically and spiritually, or you will experience burnout. I lived with a wild bunch of college roommates, seven to be exact, which was incredibly awesome, but made studying in our house quite difficult, if not completely impossible. I had to go to the library to study and complete projects (way before the introduction of computers, laptops and the advent of the Internet). I still partied – a lot – but always knew that my studies came first. Study first, party later. It paid off and that is why I am paying it forward because I had to learn through trial and error what was needed to maximize my potential as a student, find success in college and then later as a professional.
Learn from the best.
Now, enough about me. What did I learn along that journey from college freshman to entry-level professional to university professor? Most importantly, I learned to listen and observe people, which is “people watching” at a completely new level. There are strong students and not-so-strong students. If you want to be among the strong students, which I highly suggest, then learn from them. How do they take notes? How do they study? How do they prepare for exams? Observe your professors, too. Each has his or her own style of teaching. Learn their teaching style, what questions are they likely to ask on exams, what they look for when grading essays and research papers. Learn through observation. Be respectful. I cannot speak for other disciplines, but in criminal justice, it is all about respect, honesty, integrity, ethical insight and of course, professionalism. These individuals will also be writing your future letters of recommendation.
Embrace and appreciate criticism.
Do not take what may be perceived as criticism personally. It is the course instructor’s job to teach you about the course content, but also to improve your writing, critical thinking and interpersonal communication skills. Come to grips with the fact that there is and always will be room for improvement. Embrace the criticism and see it more as constructive feedback, even if it is delivered with far less tact than you expected. Their feedback is intended to make you a better student and future professional. Some professors are straightforward and quite blunt, whereas others try to cushion the blow to your self-esteem with a toned-down approach. Regardless of how the message was delivered, remember that they truly care about you and want you to succeed. I have never met a professor in my entire career who did not want his/her students to do well, contrary to what many students might think. There is no hidden conspiracy, I can assure you!
How to Be Successful as a Young Professional
Here are a few tips that I learned as a young entry-level professional leading to my years in a variety of leadership positions.
1. Always put in more effort and passion than the next person and you will be noticed.
If you are scheduled to work 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., show up at 8:45 a.m. and leave around 5:15 p.m. Yes, it’s an extra 30 minutes of work, but it speaks volumes about your work ethic. The opposite will also occur if you consistently arrive a few minutes late or have your coat on and keys in hand at 4:55 p.m. You will also be noticed, but the outcome will likely be a ticket out the door or a poor reference to your future employer.
2. Learn everything you can about the position you are applying for before your interview.
You would be surprised by the number of people whom I have interviewed that had absolutely no clue what they were applying for. Before walking through the door, figure out who are the decision makers. Make sure you understand the agency’s mission, their philosophy and their goals. You want to be sure you possess the same ideals as the agency. Most employers will conduct a background investigation; some are more extensive and invasive than others.
3. Always be forthright and never omit information.
Omitting something from your application or during the interview will not be viewed favorably and will likely be interpreted as being deceptive. Honesty is the only option. If there is something within your background that concerns you, be prepared to own it and take accountability for it.
4. Create a PDF document of all your personal accounts to save time.
Most, if not all employers, will require your university transcripts, driver’s license, etc. Create PDF documents and store all of these important personal documents in an electronic folder for easy and quick access. Most delays have to do with the potential hire gathering up his/her personal documents.
5. Fly below the radar and do not bring any negative attention to yourself while you’re on probation.
In criminal justice, expect a criminal history check (FBI, State Police, etc.), medical evaluation, psychological evaluation, financial check, driver’s history check and a polygraph (lie detector) evaluation. You must successfully pass each of these hurdles in order to be offered conditional employment. Most employers have a probationary term, which is typically 90 days but in some professions, it could be six months or one year. During this time, you must be careful not to bring any negative attention whatsoever to yourself with tardiness, absenteeism, etc. As I always say, you want to fly below the radar and not receive negative attention.
6. Your employer will most likely check social media.
We live in a different world now, so your life is often on public display through social media. Employers do, and most likely will, check social media. Be cognizant of what you say, do and publish. A picture on social media will be subject to scrutiny and interpretation by the viewer. If it is a picture that you would not want your grandmother seeing, remove it. Remember, once it is on the Web, it is out there in cyberspace for eternity even if deleted.
7. Join professional organizations and volunteer to gain as much experience as possible.
I would also suggest that you become involved in campus activities such as clubs and events, join professional organizations (inexpensive as a college student), and attend conferences and online groups related to your future career. I would also volunteer. Volunteering is an attribute that most employers favor. It shows that you can put others before yourself.
8. Confidence is key in an interview.
The interview is one of the most intense stages of the job searching process. Confidence is key here. Be confident in your abilities. Although you may lack formal experience, you most likely have transferable skills that you have acquired in other positions like leadership, teamwork, responsibility, problem solving, etc. Do not discount your experiences.
[Related: Getting Hired as an Officer: The Interview]
9. Research the person you are being interviewed by beforehand.
Before your interview, determine who you will be interviewing with and their title/position within that organization. That is how you should address them. Some interviews, as in criminal justice, often consist of a panel of two or more interviewers, typically from the mid- to upper-level administration. Learn about them as well. Body language is as equally important to your success as your response to each interview question.
10. Maintain composure and don’t appear to be nervous by fidgeting.
Do not slouch, tap your feet or fingers (nervousness), and maintain eye contact. Maintain your composure even though it may seem like you are in there for an eternity. When asked a question, people have a tendency to respond quickly because they are nervous. Do not answer quickly even though it may seem to you like time has stood still, especially with the interviewer staring at you awaiting your response.
11. Brainstorm all possible questions that might be asked in an interview and how you should respond.
To prepare for this phase, think of all possible questions and scenarios that might be asked and how you will respond. Do not memorize these responses because it will appear as if they are scripted. Just accept that some questions will be easier to answer than others. Strengths are easy to point out, but when the interviewer asks about your weaknesses, do not sabotage yourself. What are some of YOUR weaknesses that others may see as strengths? For example, I tend to be a perfectionist, which in my mind is a weakness because I am my worst enemy and create my own stress, but an employer will likely see this as a strength because, after all, who doesn’t like perfection?
Keep in mind that most employers have already gathered some basic information on you before the interview. Once again, do not omit anything and be truthful. They may ask you a question but they already know the answer to. Should your response contradict what you previously said or wrote, you will likely be called out on it and that typically does not end well. Remember: confidence, confidence, confidence. By this point, you are a college graduate or soon-to-be graduate; therefore, you meet the qualifications for the position and are ready to enter the wonderful world of professionals. Let that confidence come through during each response.
12. Dress conservatively, it is better to be over-dressed than under-dressed.
What do I wear? Without appearing too vague, in my experience, conservative is the way to go: Professional attire, tattoos and piercings unexposed, freshly groomed hair and face. In my opinion, it is better to be overdressed than underdressed for an interview. First impressions do and will matter, so dress to impress but do not appear flashy. Remember, you want the interviewer’s full attention to be on your response to each question.
13. Never be afraid to ask for help or admit you don’t understand something.
Let us assume you are offered the position. Now what? Read this entire article again and repeat the process by learning, observing, working hard, being professional, etc. One huge mistake I made for many years was not asking for help or admitting that I did not know something. I let my pride and ego get in the way, but all it did was make things worse and far more stressful. Fast forward to today, and I am a huge proponent of having one or more mentors. Learn from them. For example, I had an offer back in 2005 to write my first book. It was a dream come true for me, but then again, I had no clue where to even start so I reached out to someone who was successful in that regard and he essentially showed me the ropes. The wealth of information he provided proved incredibly helpful since I now have nearly 60 publications to date and serve on the International Editorial Advisory Boards for three international peer-reviewed journals. However, it is sad that it took me more than 20 years to push my pride and ego aside and ask for help.
14. Get out of your comfort zone. Immediately.
Even though I now work as a university professor with nearly three decades of experience and education as a practitioner, author, editor and subject matter expert, I frequently reach out to others whom I admire and respect for their advice and suggestions. This is particularly important if I feel that I am venturing into uncharted territory or, as most refer to it, out of my comfort zone. Speaking of comfort zone, get out of there. The worst thing you can do in your personal and professional life is stay within that comfort zone. A little bit of temporary discomfort never hurt anyone and it will undoubtedly lead to personal and professional growth.
15. Never stop believing in yourself and your abilities.
Never stop learning and never stop believing in yourself and your abilities. The only person stopping you is often yourself. We all have that unlimited potential, but most people stop themselves by thinking they cannot do it. Drown out the negative voices in your head that may be filled with messages of self-doubt. Do not listen to all the naysayers who try to bring you down. One of the biggest motivators to me is when someone puts you down and says that you cannot do it. Just watch me and I will prove to you that I will do it. Eliminate all negative, doubtful language from your vocabulary like, “I might,” “I am unsure,” etc. Replace those terms with “I can” and “I will.”
16. Surround yourself with positive people. Negativity breeds negativity.
Positive people are the ones who push you and believe in yourself. Rid yourself of all toxic people in your life and distance yourself from toxic relationships and friendships. Negativity breeds negativity; therefore, positivity will breed positivity. Have a sense of humor and do not be afraid to make fun of your mistakes and your flaws. We all make mistakes and we all have flaws because no one is perfect. Be passionate, driven and always strive for awesomeness. Master your skill sets, but always stay grounded. Remember your roots. Remember where you came from and always pay it forward to others who have not yet reached that level of personal and professional fulfillment.
About the Author: Dr. Michael Pittaro is a 28-year criminal justice veteran, highly experienced in working with criminal offenders in a variety of settings. Pittaro has lectured in tertiary education for the past 14 years while also serving as an author, editor and subject matter expert.