Experiential learning opportunities like internships, assisting with faculty research, and other examples of hands-on education help students build professional skills and apply what they are learning in the college classroom to real-world situations.

Experiential learning in college

What is experiential learning?

You can think of experiential learning as "learning by doing," but that’s just half of it.

Experiential learning is also about applying the concepts you already know to real situations. In some ways it’s like the difference between learning Spanish vocabulary words in a classroom and trying to order local cuisine off a menu in Barcelona. Interacting with real Spanish speakers, who may talk faster and pepper their conversation with slang and idioms, is a more authentic experience than learning Spanish solely in an American classroom.

What is experiential learning like in college?

Colleges offer students tons of opportunities for hands-on learning, oftentimes through experiences that complement or build upon your classes and coursework. Undergrads participate in internship and cooperative education programs. They get in involved in clubs and student government. They study abroad all over the world. Hands-on learning experiences are incredibly flexible and can be tailored to any major or career interest from museum studies to marine biology. Get more ideas for where to find hands-on opportunities in college.

College to Career

Here are the top 3 career benefits to finding hands-on opportunities on your college campus:

1. Discover What You Love

Experiential learning is a great way to find out what you like and what you don’t. You love your biology and chemistry classes, but do you really want to go to medical school? An externship program shadowing a doctor for the day may convince you to sign up for the MCAT. Are your sensibilities better suited for an institutional software company or a scrappy environmental startup? Summer internships in both the corporate and nonprofit worlds can give you a better idea of what fits you best. These types of activities are also chances to discover new interests and to develop your talents and strengths, even in areas beyond your major—and more crucially, beyond your comfort zone.

2. Take a Risk

The explains that since hands-on learning experiences require students to “take initiative, make decisions and be accountable for results,” students may also “experience success, failure, adventure, risk-taking and uncertainty.” Just like in the real-world, you can’t totally predict what the outcome of an experience will be—but no matter what you’ll learn from it.

Read More: College Search

3. Learn How to Talk about Your Skills

The final component of an experiential learning experience is reflection. What specifically did you learn through the experience? How could you apply what you’ve learned to other settings?

Landing a great job after college means articulating your strengths and demonstrating their value to a potential employer. For example, upon reflection it will become clear that your work-study gig as a peer tutor in the Writing Center has strengthened your ability to break down complex material for others to understand (an experience you can reference when an employer is looking for someone with impeccable communication skills). Similarly, your role on the Solar Car Team finessed your technical skills as well as the ability to problem-solve as part of a team.

Check out our book for more career-launching opportunities on 50 college campuses.