When I first stepped onto Cal Poly’s campus, I felt completely lost. The school wasn’t my first choice—in fact, it wasn’t even in my top 10. Of the 13 colleges I’d applied to, I’d gotten rejected from all but my three safeties.
It’s not like I was an under-achiever: I’d applied with a 4.4 GPA, tons of extracurriculars and charity work, great recommendations, and solid essays. But these rejections showed me following the “traditional” path didn’t always work. If I wanted to be successful (which I did, more than ever), I needed to do something different.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve known I wanted to be a writer. So, I decided that I couldn’t count on a four-year education to get me there. If I wanted a guarantee that things would work out the way I wanted, I’d have to go after it myself.
So, during the first month of freshman year, I started applying for writing gigs—despite having no professional experience. While the student paper seemed liked the natural place to start, they weren’t looking for contributors. Instead, I began applying for all the college advice sites I’d read in preparation for coming to Cal Poly. Most of these never got back to me, but I kept trying. Finally, a few did.
Lesson 1: Don’t Let the First “Nos” Stop You
By October, I was an unpaid contributor for four publications. Plus, after continually checking in with the editor of the newspaper, he finally agreed to let me write for a new section.
My writing clips started piling up. However, even though this aspect of my career seemed to be going well, I’d already started looking toward the next step in my career: getting an internship.
Lesson 2: Keep Setting New Goals
None of the people in my classes were talking about internships yet, and I only knew getting one was important because all the sites I was writing for kept mentioning them.
It made sense to apply as an intern for one of these very sites: Her Campus. If I’d have known the company got hundreds of applications per year for less than 10 spots, I might’ve aimed a little lower. But I didn’t, so I didn’t—and thanks to all the writing samples I now had, I got the job.
Lesson 3: Learn From the People Around You
That Her Campus internship ended up being a game-changer. I was the youngest intern by far, and being around a bunch of older women taught me so much about workplace communication and behavior. Plus, I was working on articles all day long and working with two great editors, so my writing improved more in three months than it had all year.
Since I was learning so much, I decided to start emailing random professionals in the city and asking to buy them coffee. I had no idea these meet-ups were usually called “informational interviews,” I just knew people usually liked helping students and giving advice.
This strategy totally paid off. When I flew back home at the end of the summer, I’d gotten together with award-winning journalists, freelance writers, editors, startup founders, PR reps, and marketers. I didn’t know it, but I’d begun building my network.
Lesson 4: Say Thank You
I’d also left a personalized letter on the desk of every Her Campus employee. Although it took an entire afternoon to write them, it was so worth it—I got a bunch of emails thanking me for my thoughtfulness. That showed me the power of handwritten notes. I started sending letters to strangers I admired once a week—which led to connections with some really influential people.
Lesson 5: Apply Through a Connection
I was doing pretty well for a college sophomore. Not only was I writing for 10 sites by this time, but some of those sites started paying me. In addition, I had a pretty far-reaching network of people I could call on for advice, support, and job referrals.
That’s how I got the internship with The Muse. I’d been writing for The Prospect, a higher-education website created by Lily Herman. Herman seemed to love her internship with the Muse, so when she tweeted the link to the company’s editorial internship, I asked her to pass along my name.
She did, and I landed it.
Lesson 6: Look for Creative Solutions
For the first month or two, I spent most of my time getting articles ready for publishing and finding cool infographics and videos. These tasks were fun (really!), but I wanted to write. Only problem?
I was still only 19—not exactly a career expert. Erin Greenawald, my fantastic editor, helped me find a workaround: I’d use my real-life experiences at work and in school to discuss topics anyone could find useful, like successful morning routines. I told her my goal was to be syndicated on Forbes. Three weeks later, I was. And before long, my articles were breaking Muse records for number of views.
Lesson 7: Be Humble Enough to Keep Trying
The more success I had writing for The Muse, the easier it was to get other clients. I kept a running list of publications I wanted to write for and would pitch them aggressively; every time I got a no, I asked for feedback and would use that to make my next pitch even better.
Lesson 8: Maximize Your Opportunities
Since my writing career had really started to heat up, I didn’t have much trouble landing another internship—but unlike my last one, this position came up with a salary. Even better? It was in NYC. I penciled in coffee dates for almost every morning that summer, meeting with professionals from all my dream companies: Refinery 29, Squarespace, Contently, The Economist, and more.
Lesson 9: Sometimes, You’re Just Lucky
One day, while I was in the middle of writing a sponsored article for PayPal (which felt pinch-me cool) when I got a phone call from an unknown number.
It was a man from a multi-national tech company. They needed a “great writer” to work in their San Jose office for the next couple months. The salary was $5,000 a month, and I’d get to be involved in partnerships with Google and Tesla. Was I interested?
“Yes!” I said. “Wait. How did you find me?”
He’d read my work online.
Lesson 10: Keep Your Ultimate Goals in Mind
Despite taking three months off to intern in Silicon Valley, I was still on track to graduate in three years. At this point, I wasn’t pitching anyone anymore—I got requests from potential clients around three times a week. That also meant I was making enough money to become self-supporting.
I briefly considered graduating and becoming a full-time freelancer. If I was generating enough income to pay for everything while also going to school, I could definitely do it once I’d left school. Then I thought of why I’d started working so hard in the first place. It wasn’t so I could sit in coffee shops all day and write for 20 different clients a month. I wanted a job—and not just any job, but a position where I could soak up knowledge and take my skills to the next level.
Lesson 11: Hard Work Pays Off
I looked around and found five companies that I’d be absolutely thrilled to work for. The application processes were pretty easy; at this point, I’d gone on so many coffee dates that talking to my interviewers felt familiar, not scary. Between my internships and freelancing, I also had a ton of experiences to reference in my answers.
I received offers from four of the five companies. Three other companies ended up reaching out to offer me jobs as well—like the tech company, they’d stumbled across my personal site.
Having seven opportunities to choose from felt amazing (and a little stressful!) Luckily, I had my network to call on for advice and insight.
As I head back to Cal Poly for my last quarter, post-grad job locked down, it’s hard to believe I’m the same person who walked onto campus three years ago confused, sad, and scared. Through a combination of hard work, luck, resilience, and outside help, I’ve managed to chart my own path. So, the final lesson I’ve learned, success is within your reach—you just have to actually reach for it.