I picked the University of Waterloo for one main reason, and that reason was their co-op program.
It seemed like an amazing opportunity to get hands-on experience, make a bit of money to help pay off tuition, and to get hired later on in life.
They boasted students working at huge companies like Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and they sold it like someone would sell a house:
“Throw down a down-payment, and this could be yours in just a few months!”
I definitely should’ve done more research before signing the lease, because what goes on behind the scenes is ridiculous.
Now looking at the statistics, Waterloo looks pretty damn great at getting their students hired. For instance, my program had almost 100% of students get hired for the current co-op term. But, if you look a bit harder at it, you see that the numbers just tell you who’s employed. You don’t see all the people who took non-paid internships, or the people who took jobs in completely unrelated fields, just to get the credit and experience.
I walked into University thinking that I just had to show up, put my nose to the grindstone, and then I’d magically end up in that 100% of students with jobs. But, what they don’t tell you is that sometimes that isn’t enough. Sometimes putting in the work and getting the marks doesn’t result in getting a job. You need the experience and exposure to the field you’re in, but we don’t really get that in the classroom.
It dawned on me pretty early in my first year that if I wanted to have something to put on my resume, I’d have to go learning on my own. This sounds super easy, like just go through one of those “Learn to code in thirty minutes!” video tutorials, and you’re done. But learning to code in theory is not quite the same as learning in practice.
Since the competition is so high to get hired, it isn’t always enough to just have the marks. You need to show that you’ve done things outside of school, because everyone you’re competing against has gone through the same, if not more, schooling. But when you have on average 6–7 hours of class a day, plus labs, plus assignments, plus exams, there’s no time unless you don’t sleep or eat, or are willing to not get the marks.
Employers like to see that you’ve used different frameworks and tooling, and let me just emphasize that it takes a huge amount of time to really get good with something. I was just starting out as a coder, so everything to me seemed like there was a huge learning curve. I put in a solid 36 hours straight one weekend, just working with one framework, and I still was just a novice at best. If you had put a question about that framework in front of me during an interview, I probably wouldn’t have even recognized that it was related to something I supposedly knew. So is it possible to learn it on your own and become an expert? Absolutely. Some of the best coders I know are self-taught. But for the average student, it can be really hard to find the time to pursue the knowledge when they’re already overwhelmed with everything university throws at them.
Something always has to give. (Unless you’re at the top of the class, hired by a huge company, have a great social life, and aren’t stressed in the slightest. In which case, kudos to you, I envy you greatly.)
What you don’t see in those overwhelmingly successful statistics, is that we struggle really hard to stand out, while trying to survive our university programs.
It’s really stressful looking for a job every four months, and it just adds on to the time commitment that is university. I also think that your mental stability gets tested constantly in university. What with the fear of failing, the stress of grinding out assignments and labs, and then the pain that is getting rejected from a job.
We learn to deal with constant rejection. For every interview I got, I got rejected from at least another twenty-four. And for many of us, those interviews don’t always lead to an offer.
It’s taxing mentally, it’s taxing physically, and it’s taxing emotionally.
Some people don’t get hired. Some people try so hard to get hired, that they end up failing something academically. Some people drop out, because things were just too hard. There was just too much to do at once. (I think that it’s brave that they have the courage to quit, to try to make themselves happier. Kudos to my peers who’ve pursued something they are more passionate about.)
Because what you don’t see in those statistics, is the tears, the long nights, the rejection, and the exhaustion.
Despite all this, I don’t regret participating in co-op. It’s been one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in university. I just wanted to shed some light on what really goes on behind the scenes for all the people who only see the statistics.
Really think about what you want to put yourself through, and all the factors surrounding a university program before you make the decision to commit to it.
I went in pretty blind, and that’s my own fault. I was persuaded and amazed by the great reputation and numbers, and I failed to really get an idea of what the life would be like.
So to anyone thinking about applying to university, talk to some actual students to see if you want to be living their lives. Your life shouldn’t just be about a job, it should be about what’s going to make you happy.
(To all my friends in continuous, I wish you good luck.)