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University Students: Brand Yourself Now and Get Ahead

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I spoke to several groups of first and second year university students last week about personal branding. They are all in business or professional programs and their universities offer them sessions on networking and job interview skills. They are starting to realize that good grades are not sufficient for career success, and are having to think, for the first time, about their brands.

We can all think of excuses for postponing work on our personal brands. Students are overwhelmed with university work, and just want a few tips on how to sound credible to a recruiter. Employees starting out in their careers are preoccupied trying to meet their employer's expectations. More experienced employees realize that advancement and promotions bring new challenges that seem to take up all of their time and energy. And business leaders often tell me that their brands are now "fixed" -- so no need to work on them.

On the contrary, my advice is always to "start now" and "it's never too soon (or too late)." Even children have brands (he's the bright one, she's the creative one, he can't sit still, she is too bossy). Obviously, they can't manage their own brands, but parents try hard to do just that ("don't you dare label my child!") High school brings new challenges, because one's brand with one's peers is paramount. If teachers or employers or parents are disappointed but your friends think you're cool, life is good.

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It is at university that people start to think about the trade-offs. At one workshop, a student asked a great question about how to speak up in class. Should he participate a lot, and risk being seen as a show-off by his fellow students, but build a good brand with his professor? Or keep quiet and hope for the best? Another asked about volunteering for campus activities. She had offered to take on responsibilities but had been rebuffed and accused of trying to take over.

I answered both questions the same way. A great brand is based on delivering value to others. Ask yourself if you are participating to make yourself look good, or because you really have something to contribute. In class, are you raising your hand every time a question is asked, or do you wait until you have something interesting to say? And are you listening to what your fellow students are saying so that you can contribute to a great discussion, or are you only waiting for your next chance to talk? When you volunteer for a campus opportunity, are you really asking what you can do to help? Or refusing to do any routine work in favour of the glamour opportunities? You are entitled to your share of the spotlight, but not to keep everyone else in the dark.

Group projects, the bane of many university students' existence, are a great place to start to recognize your strengths and build your brand. The best group is made up of people with strong but different brands. Someone is the technical expert, and will deliver the right answers. Someone else is the organizer, and will make sure everyone understands their deliverables, the work is shared equitably, and deadlines are met. You also want members with communication skills, creativity, the ability to inspire others, etc. Pay attention to the roles you play, and are good at. Then start to think about how to leverage those strengths in your career.

Too often, university students (and new employees) believe that if you just work hard, your professors and managers and colleagues will notice your strengths, and will offer you opportunities to advance and to showcase your talents. They believe that you should just "be yourself" and all will be well. Unfortunately, you may get overlooked, or worse, people may draw conclusions about your motives and goals that don't align with what you want. Thinking about the brand you are developing in a self-reflecting and strategic way is the antidote to finding yourself left behind.