4 Truths I Learned About Working While Being a Student

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A college student working as a barista.

Recently, I’ve come to the realization that I’ve already hit the double digits on the number of jobs I’ve worked in my lifetime. These jobs include… Pizza Hut Cashier, Best Buy Associate, Nanny, Leasing Agent, Sever (at three restaurants), Bike Courier, Umpire, Web Services Assistant, Brand Ambassador, Online Tutor, and Freelance Writer….*phew* what an exhausting list! And all of this was while I’ve attended college. Okay, a few were from high school too.

So, it’s fair to say I’ve racked up some expertise on the subject of working while in college. After reflecting on all my positive and negative experiences, I’ve come up with four universal truths to follow the next time you consider applying for that open barista position. (The one job I’ve always wanted!) 

1. You need to set a realistic goal.

Most likely, your college job won’t completely pay off (or, even much of) your tuition, books, and living expenses.

I ended up learning this lesson the hard way. While I was attending community college in Fort Worth, Texas, I worked two jobs and was living with my parents, so I was able to build up a bit of a savings nest egg before I went off to a university five hours away.

Within my Junior year alone, I spent everything I saved (and I’m a frugal person)! To build onto that frustration, my parents didn’t understand why I was asking to borrow money. My dad attended my same college in the ’70s and was able to pay off all his expenses just by working in the oil fields during the summers. Although I was making fairly good money from my server job, the best I could do was take care of my living expenses and cost of books.

So, while working during the school semester, choose a sensible financial goal you hope to hit. It can be earning enough to reduce your need for student loans, paying rent every month, or just making some extra spending money.

If you’re really concerned about avoiding student loans, your best bet is applying for scholarships and FAFSA.

2. Understand that not all part-time jobs are created equal.

Out of all my jobs, I believe that being a leasing agent for a student housing apartment chain was the worst one. At first, it sounded like a cool part-time job. I had the false expectation that my rooming would be free, which one could argue was an oversight on my part… and I can’t really argue with that other than saying, “hey, I was young and stupid”.

In actuality, the company automatically deducted the cost of rent from my paycheck, which came out to be roughly 20 hours per week of work. Okay… not so terrible yet… but, when you factor in the fact that we had sales quotas we had to reach with no commission or bonuses structure, just the threat of punitive write-ups, and the expectation to outside work, like creating event proposals or supervising community events, that didn’t count as paying hours… and being on-call via a secondary flip phone (like the throw-away phones drug dealers have) for whatever problem or whim any resident may have, I quickly came to the realization this was a terrible, soul-crushing job. 

And this truly awful and unethical means of work came from a large, well-known company! So, the lesson to take from this is to conduct thorough research before you apply for a job; even if it’s just a simple part-time job. 

Ask questions during your interview, ask questions after your interview, ask current employees about what they do and how they feel about it, and look up local reviews about the company on Glassdoor. The more you know about your options, the better the choices you’re going to make. 

You’re also going to be spending a huge chunk of your time doing this job, so you better make sure it’s worth it!

3. The best jobs fulfill more than the desire for money.

Most of us want a job for financial reasons, whether those reasons are paying for rent, school, going out, or that new Sephora makeup palette. What we don’t think about is what experience we want to gain from our time at that job.

Experience can mean two completely different things. Maybe your job could give you much-desired skills relating to the technical side of your major or soft skills that will prove valuable in any after-college career. The byproduct of your work will be the experience and references you can add to your resume that helps you stand out amongst your peers.

During my last year of college, I chose to quit my job as a server for a slightly lower paying job as a student assistant on my school’s web page. While I was making less money, I was gaining experience working on a technical team, completing a variety of projects, and developing a sense of comfort with programming.

In another sense, your part-time job can give you much needed relaxation time away from the stress of school. It may not be a challenging job or it might even be a mundane job, but you enjoy the experience of being there and doing the work.

My favorite job while in college involved being a bike courier delivering food and packages around my absurdly large campus. While the job never expanded past delivering something from point A to point B, I enjoyed popping in my headphones and riding my bike for hours on end. It was my chance to just disconnect from my worries. Getting paid just felt like an added bonus.

Never take a job just for the money, because after it’s all gone there should be something else to show for the time you’ve spent. 

4. Finding your Work-School-Life Balance is a skill.

“Working and going to school and having a life is easy” — quoted by no one ever.

If you plan on doing it all, expect it to be hard and expect to fail sometimes. During my first year of college, I repeatedly bit into more work than I could chew. Being a nanny, a part-time sales associate, and a full-time student led to many sleepless nights and not much of a social life. I even dropped a couple classes during my first semester because I just couldn’t handle the stress (eek, why did I even take Chemistry?).

My first semester wasn’t just a disaster from me being overly ambitious, but mainly, I just didn’t have the skills associated with having a work-school-life balance. These skills, which include introspection, time-management, and communication, take time and practice to develop.

During my last year of college, I finally felt completely comfortable with this balance. Not only was I acing the last of my classes, but I was also working as a Student Assistant and Brand Ambassador, conducting my student organization as President, and regularly finding time to hang out with my friends. All things I wouldn’t have believed were possible as a Freshmen!

Let’s take a look at those skills I mentioned earlier – introspection, time-management, and communication:

Introspection is an examination of one’s own mental and emotional processes. This skill requires the ability to reflect on your past experiences and conduct a self-analysis. You have to be willing to be honest with yourself about how you handle things like stress and your studies. 

If you are prone to letting stress get the best of you, maybe consider going light on your schedule and taking on both school and work part-time. Later, you might learn how to study more efficiently and find coping-mechanisms for your stress that will allow you to take on more responsibilities at school and work.

Time-management is integral to the work-school-life balance because time is a finite resource. The more time you dedicate to work, the less time you have for school and vice-versa. This is a tool you can use to access the amount of time you can dedicate to each aspect of your life. If you’re going to take on a heavy school-load or heavy work-load, understand that the other two aspects of the work-school-life balance will need to be reduced. 

Lastly, communication is essential for the work-school-life balance. Before you’re even hired, you need to be upfront about your schedule and priorities with your employer. This includes making sure your employer is aware of your change in schedule for Finals Week.  

What Do You Think?

Although I’ve already covered a lot, I’d love to hear your stories! Let me know if these lessons relate to your own experiences or add any truths you think I may have missed.  

1 thought on “4 Truths I Learned About Working While Being a Student”

  1. Great post, Haley! I was so surprised to see a fellow Red Raider writing for CF- and I agree that our campus is absurdly large!


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