Hundreds of colleges are requiring students to be fully vaccinated for COVID-19 before returning to school this fall. With cases rising due to the Delta variant, many colleges are now announcing that they’ll be requiring masks on campus—some only in public buildings, others all the time.
If you don’t want to sit in a classroom wearing a mask, or don’t want to spend your money on college until things go back to normal, there are a number of options for you.
Skipping a semester (or a full year, depending on how long mandates last) isn’t wasted time.
No matter what your professional goals, college is not the only thing you can be doing to make meaningful progress.
If you haven’t declared a major, your goal is probably to expand your knowledge, explore your options, and determine what you would like to major in—and gain experience engaging with the world as an adult along the way.
If you have declared a major, your goals are most likely to build skills and experience in your field of choice, gain project and internship experiences that will look good on your resume, and make yourself as impressive as possible for future job opportunities.
College doesn’t have a monopoly on any of those activities. You can accomplish all these goals outside of the classroom, sometimes more effectively than you could in school.
You can get a lot done when your time isn’t spent on gen-eds and school assignments that don’t impact your hireability. (Besides your final grade, does your essay assignment matter at all?)
More importantly, the project and extracurricular experience that makes you stand out on the job market can be accomplished in time away from the classroom—and in some cases, these projects may lead to opportunities that don’t require a degree at all.
So if you’re thinking about skipping out on the fall semester, here are a few ideas about what you could do instead.
Gain Business Experience
Start a small business of your own. Find a product or service to sell (anything from an e-commerce store to a gutter repair business) and go through all the steps of running a business—marketing, the sales cycle, delivering your product, handling customer service inquiries, managing business operations, and keeping books. You’re likely to learn more than you’d ever learn in school, and if you document your work well, you’ll have a fantastic project experience to add to your resume.
If you were a business owner, who would you rather hire, a person who just has a business degree, or a person who has experience operating every facet of their own business?
Apprentice with a business owner. Don’t just apply for a job; create a value proposition pitching the owner on helping with specific areas of the business in exchange for business experience.
Go get an entry-level job at a small business or a startup. Now is a great time to be gaining real-world experience. Businesses in all areas are having a hard time hiring, which means everyone is hungry for talent. If you’re excited to work and eager to learn, opportunities abound. And spending a few months working at a business is one of the best ways to build your real-world business acumen and expand your resume.
Read the business classics. There are a multitude of books high-level business professionals consistently recommend, and packed in their pages is a wealth of knowledge from elite-level CEOs, founders, and operators. And some, like “The Personal MBA,” are intended to cover everything you need to know to level up in your career. (Check out this list to get you started.)
Go through a business program like Praxis. Professional development programs are a great way to launch your career and gain experience, especially if you aren’t sure if you want to go back to college at all.
Spend a Semester Learning
Read books on the topics you’re most interested in. You can find quality reading lists on a variety of topics all over the internet, and with a library card, you can do this entirely for free. If you want to build a portfolio around what you’re learning, write blog posts or record videos on the things you’re learning.
If you consistently post about what you’re learning—for the length of a full semester—you’ll start to develop a reputation as a topic expert. In fact, it doesn’t take as much study on a subject to develop a level of expertise as one might think. If you read 3-plus books on a given topic, you’ll know more about it than 99 percent of the population.
Choose a book (or a series of books) and record a YouTube video series discussing each one. You can record recaps of your thoughts on the book (like this project), or you can create more polished book summaries (like this YouTube playlist). Either way, this exercise will serve two great benefits: it will help organize your thoughts, and it will help build your portfolio.
Go read the classics and start a discussion group around them. Reading the classics is the traditional liberal arts education, and there are few better ways to expand your thinking and challenge your mind. Plus, a good discussion will hone your skills in both articulation and critical thinking. I’ve done this twice; you can read about my process here.
Write, Edit, Publish
Start a blog with book reviews and recommendations. If you’re interested in working long term in the publishing or literary world, this is a great place to begin. What if you launched a blog offering recommended book lists for different topics or interests? (i.e. “the top 10 books every college freshman should read,” or “best 5 novels set in New York City”). Or what if you started reviewing new releases, with the intention of building credibility over time as an authority on new books?
Start a blog or a magazine online. Work on getting submissions and building a reader base. There are lots of ways to do this—you could build your own website, or you could start a publication on Medium, or you could start an email newsletter that accepts reader submissions and functions like a periodical. Look for niches you can fill. For example: Medium has many business and personal development publications, but few fiction publications. What if you started a fiction magazine on Medium?
Offer freelance editing services on Fiverr with the goal of launching an editing business. With a strong Fiverr profile, you can land editing work in the area of your choice—and landing jobs will get easier as your portfolio of past projects expands. As long as you can deliver quality work (and sell people on your ability to do so), your formal credentials don’t matter.
Chase Your Career Without a Degree
Get experience in your field of choice. Shadow, intern. Find ways to work in the field without a degree. If you’re studying to be a teacher, go work at an after-school program or in a private school. Set up a tutoring business and teach for a semester. If you’re interested in law, go work as a paralegal. If you’re studying medicine, land a job in a medical office, or go work in an adjacent field (i.e. a medical blog or publishing company, where you can still learn about your field of choice). To increase your chances of landing a role, send a value proposition.
Find the bibliographies of well-respected courses in your field of choice and work through them. To gain portfolio collateral, start a blog or a podcast talking about what you’re learning. Build a reputation as someone who has expertise in your chosen field.
Start a podcast and interview people in your field of choice. Professionals are often excited to help young people getting started in their field, and are happy to give an hour of their time to answer your questions, especially if those questions are recorded in podcast format. And what better way to build a reputation of expertise than to be the person who interviews all the experts?
The Bottom Line
The same general principles apply across any field. You’re looking for opportunities to
- Gain real-world experience
- Build your skills
- Build your portfolio (proof of skill and ability via projects completed)
To find opportunities and generate ideas, go through the following process:
- Make a list of the skills you’d most like to gain or the knowledge you’d most like to acquire
- Make a list of all the types of projects you could tackle that would allow you to gain that skill or knowledge
- Make a list of all the areas in your field (or adjacent to your field) where you could land work without a degree
Then go over your lists and look for areas of intersection. Regardless of the field you’re interested in going into, there are multiple ways you can make progress toward your goals without having to sit in a classroom—and multiple things you can do to further your growth until you’re ready to go back to school.
In fact, you might find your extracurricular projects so effective that you don’t end up going back to school.
If the goal of your education is to land meaningful work in your field of interest, you may find that these projects allow you to do just that, without getting a degree at all.