experiential learning

The Power of Experiential Learning – Beyond the College Degree

May 6, 2022

When thinking about going to college, there are many things that you’re likely considering -such as the size of the school, location, housing choices, and of course, academic options.  In fact, SO much emphasis in the college application and decision-making process is put on academics – does the college or university offer the major I want?  What if I don’t even know what major I want to pursue – do they help with that too?  What happens if I have a hard time in my classes?   Which classes should I even be taking?  Although academic concerns are certainly par for the course when planning for your college experience, there are many other equally important factors that should be at the top of your list of why you go to college – and that’s to gain outside-of-the-classroom, hands-on, practical experiences – often referred to as “experiential learning” in higher education circles. 

So – why should that matter as much as academics?  It matters because building other skills – such as collaboration, communication, intercultural awareness, leadership, and the ability to influence others on a team – are critical life skills that are necessary for having a successful future, and complement the learning you acquire from a formal degree program.  

Let’s review some issues to help clarify this often-fuzzy idea of what constitutes experiential learning and help demystify it, so you can seek out colleges and universities where you have a wide array of choices to consider.

Why does experiential learning in college matter so much?

So, what is experiential learning?  Basically, think of it as having ways to put your learning to the test in real-world conditions.  You take classes in college and learn really amazing things and hone new skills. Then you engage in experiential learning where you get to apply and practice what you have learned in a real-world situation  – where you can apply the newfound knowledge you acquire in college to a situation that you would encounter in life.  In the simplest of terms, you learn a new concept in a college class you take, and then you have an opportunity to take that concept and test it out to see how it works!  Just as academic studies are critically important in your college experience, so are having concrete ways to see what you can actually do with the learning you experience.  No matter what field of study you might pursue, being able to practice some of your learning outside of a classroom setting can be incredibly empowering and enhance your skills and talents much more deeply.

What are the forms of experiential learning and which ones are most important to success?

There are many ways in which you can gain practical experience while in college – it is definitely not a one-size-fits-all approach!  Some well-known forms of experiential learning include:

Internships and cooperative education: Getting relevant work experience is SO important for your future!  By engaging in either an internship with an organization that can provide you with great learning experiences in areas that excite you, or in participating in cooperative education – where you work full-time in an organization for rotating semesters throughout your college career – you gain real-world professional experience that can truly enhance your academic learning and help guide you in making informed career and future life choices. 

Research experiences: As an undergraduate student, you might think that doing research is just not an option – but it is for nearly every major!  If you are considering graduate school or a career path that involves research, getting this type of experience under the supervision of a professor on campus can be an outstanding way for you to hone your skills and explore ideas and concepts that interest you.

Courtesy of Unsplash

Education Abroad: Also known as “Study Abroad” or “Global Education”, spending time learning about other cultures and issues around the world is critical to becoming a true global citizen.  There are so many ways to gain global experience these days – whether you spend a full semester overseas, or engage in a short-term project with students in other countries virtually, there are countless ways for you to enhance your global awareness.

Studying Abroad
Courtesy of Unsplash

Volunteerism and service learning/community engagement: Getting involved in providing service and support to others is a powerful way to explore how you can make a meaningful impact outside of the campus environment, and contribute your skills and knowledge to help those around you. There are many ways to do this kind of important work while in college, so be sure to look into the options at the schools you are considering.  

Field Work: Some courses and majors include time spent outside of the classroom doing various tasks to support your learning in the classroom – where you collect data, examine processes, or carry out other activities that involve working with others off campus. This can be a great way to gain practical experience to enhance your resume and build useful skills. 

Really, all of these types of experiential learning are truly worthy of consideration no matter what field of study you pursue, and all options are possible during your time as a college student.  It might just require some careful planning to determine how you might include as many of these types of important real-world experiences into your degree program as possible, and there are many supportive advisors on college campuses to help you figure that out!

How do you make this all happen when you are already taking so many classes and also trying to have a life?

Yes, it might sound a tad ambitious to suggest that not only do you need to be ready to take a large number of challenging classes, but you also must include so many other experiences during your time in college – and yes, maybe also have a life and get some sleep while you’re at it!  But – by NOT including these important real-world opportunities while you are in college means you are missing out on a critical way for you to figure out what you love to do, and how you can move forward in the best possible way to set yourself up for future success by building your resume, developing your life skills, and ultimately propelling you towards a rewarding and fulfilling future.  

How can you figure out what you really want to do outside of taking classes in college?  

It’s important to seek out guidance and opportunities to interact with successful and highly motivated college students whom you admire not because of their good grades, but because of their extensive involvement in so many challenging and exciting experiences outside of the classroom.  See if you can find a way to talk with them about what led them to choose their paths of obtaining real-world experience, and why they think it is important.  A good way to do this is when you are on a college visit and are led by student ambassadors on the campus – feel free to ask their opinions about such things as internships and co-ops, education abroad, and community leadership opportunities that are offered to students. You might just learn that there are many ways in which you will be able to develop your own skills and interests that are not part of your regular classes, but that can lead you to grow in new and exciting ways. You can also work closely with a college admissions counselor to learn about the wide array of activities and experiences you should consider. Finally, when you are visiting a college or university campus, talk with academic advisors, reach out to professors, and consult with the career development center staff on campus to explore your passions and get useful feedback from many expert perspectives. 

 Go forth and make the most of your college experience – it’s up to you to make it the best it can be!

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Kristine Lalley, Author

Dr. Kristine Lalley acts as a consultant for various areas of higher education, including admissions, and has been a student and academic affairs leader at both Penn State and the University of Pittsburgh. She currently works with My Admissions Sherpa, a boutique college admissions consulting organization. At My Admissions Sherpa, we realize that each student moves through the admissions process in their own way. We meet students where they are, guide them forward, and focus on providing personal attention.

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