Peer-to-Peer Advice: The Inside Information on Co-op

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This afternoon, a group of second- and third-year University Scholars, both those recently returned from co-op and those preparing to embark on their first co-op, met over lunch to discuss questions and share lessons learned about the co-op process. The lively conversation quickly revealed how much Scholars learn, both about their fields of endeavor and about their own ambitions, while they are on co-op—and how much those who are about to go off on co-op have to look forward to. A summary of the conversation follows below; for more detailed stories from co-op, check out our regular blog feature, “The Co-op Report,” which describes Scholars’ experiences at workplaces as diverse as an app startup, a White House initiative, and a US Senator’s office.

 Notes from the Peer-to-Peer Co-op Lunch, October 27, 2014

When searching for co-ops:

  • Do not be dissuaded from applying for a co-op because the description asks for more experience than you have. You may get an interview anyway, which at minimum will give you a chance to learn more about the employer and the opportunity. Employers have been known to be so impressed by less-experienced candidates that they reserved co-op positions for them in future cycles, when the students met the experience requirement.
  • Do not be discouraged by bureaucratic aspects of the co-op process. Your co-op advisor can often waive various restrictions, and the University Scholars staff can help you navigate this process, as well.
  • Apply for positions directly with employers that interest you, if those organizations do not have opportunities available through Northeastern. Many Scholars have had great success designing their own co-ops directly with their employers of choice.

Regarding interviews:

  • It’s possible to prepare for many so-called “standard interview questions” and get asked none of them on your actual interview. Stay calm, be flexible, and draw on your experience and knowledge to answer questions.
  • Generally, interviewers are interested in seeing how you think rather than merely hearing your answer to a particular question. For technical questions, this might mean working through a problem out loud; for questions about your experience or ideas, it might mean demonstrating an ability to be reflective and insightful about your experiences and ambitions.
  • Often a small set of core experiences and examples will be adaptable for a wide array of interview questions: something that challenged you, something you are proud of accomplishing, something you’d do differently in the future, etc.
  • Don’t be afraid to discuss failure or times when things didn’t go as you’d wished, as long as you are able to draw meaningful lessons from those experiences and turn them into something positive that the interviewer can learn about you.
  • Remember than an interview is a two-way conversation, and a chance for you to learn about the employer and the position as much as for the employer to learn about you. Ask questions that demonstrate your interest in the position and that will help you determine if you would, in fact, enjoy doing the sort of work contemplated by the position.
  • Seek opportunities that will challenge you and use your intelligence and skill.

For the first day or first week of co-op:

  • Introduce yourself to as many people as possible—this is your chance to meet people to whom you might return with questions at some later point.
  • Don’t worry if the first few days seem mundane. Starting a new job entails HR paperwork as well as familiarizing yourself with the processes and details of your new workplace. Often, you’ll be laying the groundwork that will enable you to take on richer, more rewarding projects a few weeks later.
  • After you accept a position, email your future supervisor to ask about issues such as expected attire in the workplace and whether you should learn anything or prepare in some way before your first day.
  • Don’t worry about not knowing everything: the employer chose you with an understanding of what you know and don’t know, and you will have opportunities to learn and get up to speed.

While on co-op:

  • Be aware of the need to balance your desire to demonstrate independence and initiative against the value of asking questions. (Don’t spend 3 hours researching a question that a colleague could answer for you in 2 minutes, but don’t ask so many questions that you become bothersome.)
  • Learn who the right people are to ask questions of (e.g., you shouldn’t email the CEO of a huge company, whereas the CEO of a startup might be across the room from you).
  • Get involved in the community. Make friends. Do fun and worthwhile things outside of work.
  • Seek out opportunities that will offer you autonomy and the chance to use your skills. If you have excess capacity, approach someone from a different team or area of the organization and ask if you can help with what they do.
  • Learning that you do not want to spend your entire career doing what you did on co-op is not a failure. It’s a really useful thing to know.

Regarding international co-ops:

  • The logistical aspects of international co-ops that might seem daunting often turn out not to be so difficult. For example, Facebook groups often exist for students seeking housing in foreign locales.
  • The cultural exchange aspects of international co-ops will often push you to grow on a personal level as well as a professional one.
  • All University Scholars who have a 3.5 or higher GPA are guaranteed a Presidential Global Scholarship in the amount of $6,000 to assist with an international co-op.

After co-op:

  • Stay in touch with supervisors and colleagues with whom you built positive relationships. These people can be references and mentors for future opportunities.
  • Be reflective about your experience: think about what was most rewarding and what you would do differently in the future. Apply those lessons as you search for and select your next co-op.

After the lunch, Professor Carey Rappaport, a Faculty Fellow and seven-time (yes, seven!) co-op participant, shared some key points from Bill Coplin's book Ten Things Employers Want You To Learn in College, including such skills as communicating verbally and in writing, developing a work ethic, and relating to and influencing other people. Many of these skills are developed outside the classroom, so this is another way in which Northeastern's experiential education model allows our students to shine.