Standing above the rest of the crowd as a graphic designer can be difficult, especially if you’re entering the job market straight out of college.  Your potential lack of professional experience may present itself as a hinder to finding employment when applying for the same jobs as more seasoned professionals, and you could easily find yourself working a non-graphic design related job for a few years before you finally land your big gig. In order to avoid this situation and present the best of yourself to potential employees after graduation, here are 5 ways to get a leg up on the rest of your graduating class.

1) Stay active at your college: There are plenty of opportunities to keep your graphic design skills pumping with fresh ideas during your university experience, many of which can be found directly on your college campus. Try working as a graphic designer for your student association, getting involved as the poster designer for a student body president’s campaign, or approaching the performing arts department on your campus and offering to design their performance posters. These opportunities will result in both your portfolio and reputation expanding.

2) Volunteer for a non-profit: A valuable experience in humility in and of itself, volunteering as a graphic designer to assist a non-profit, charitable foundation with their website needs is a great way to gain professional experience in web design. Your coding abilities will most likely be expanded and stretched beyond their current boundaries, and your knowledge of what makes a successful website layout will also increase. Keep in mind the goals of the organization when aiding them in their website design and make sure that you do your work on a tight timeline, even though it is as a volunteer. You never know who you may need to write you a job reference later, and any opportunity to build positive connections with others should not be ignored.

3) Know what sells: Try your hand at various graphic design competitions and crowd sourcing opportunities through the internet. There are a variety of websites offering such contests, ranging from those where companies post their graphic design needs (usually for logos) to the huge graphic art (design-it-yourself) t-shirt industry. Even though you will most likely end up spending a good portion of your time working on design projects that might not sell/win their contests, you still will gain valuable experience in learning what sort of graphics do sell for different industries.

4) Invest in your programs now: The student/teacher versions of most Adobe design products are immensely more affordable than the regular versions. However, as these are only available through providing proof of enrollment (or teaching), it is a good idea to go ahead and invest in the full design suite as a student. While this might seem like an absurd investment at the time, it will save you big bucks in the long run.

5) Build Your Portfolio: Ok, so perhaps this is what has been said through a good 3 out of the above 4 points…but even so, it bears repeating. Graduating from college with only a portfolio of work that you’ve done for your various graphic design classes will not set you apart from the rest of your colleagues. Experience and creativity are both crucial to getting hired as a graphic designer; take it upon yourself to gain that experience before you leave college.