Watch CBSN Live

Go to State School: 5 Ways to Get More Bang for Your Buck

Father knows best. In 1998, when I was kicking and screaming my way to Penn State University (I wanted to go to an elite private school but we didn't have the money), my dad said that I would thank him later. "How is Penn State better than Northwestern or Georgetown or NYU?" I nagged. "Why had I bothered taking AP courses and 9 extracurricular activities and learning three languages in high school? Why, if all I was destined to do was to go to a state college where the application was a simple bubble answer sheet?"

I felt defeated and was certain my career was doomed as a result.
I was a million percent wrong - and today there's a national report offering one more reason why. The Wall Street Journal, along with PayScaleand Cambria Consulting, asked employers to rank schools "that produce the best-qualified graduates--overall by major," and has recognized Pennsylvania State University as the No. 1 recruiting school.
Recruiters mostly picked big state schools like Penn State, Arizona State University and Ohio State University over elite liberal arts colleges and the Ivies. Why? "Recruiters say graduates of top public universities are often among the most prepared and well-rounded academically, and companies have found they fit well into their corporate cultures and over time have the best track record in their firms," the report says.

From my perspective, what makes a big state-school experience invaluable to students and attractive to employers is that it encourages students to get out of their shells, think outside the box and learn how to make smart trade-offs. The mere composition of a state school can give students an edge over others. With 55,000 students on Penn State's campus, it was either speak up or never get heard. A big school also gives you more choices and resources than you can possibly manage. As a result, you can learn important life skills - like how to make better decisions and manage time effectively.
And if you can thrive in a big, diverse community - becoming a champion networker and an effective leader amid thousands of others - who wouldn't want to hire you?
But you need to take advantage of your state school. Just because your resume says Penn State doesn't mean recruiters will automatically be impressed. You need to take on the skills that will make you more competitive and successful in the workplace.
Here's my advice:
1. Get Involved Early
Whether it's Habitat for Humanity, student government, the college paper or a fraternity - or all four - the earlier you can get involved, the better chances you have of earning a leadership role within the organization by your junior or senior year. And that's what recruiters love to see: commitment and leadership.

2. Meet With Recruiters Early
Just because you're a freshman and have no idea what you'll major in doesn't mean you should skip out on the recruiting or networking events on campus. At the least, it's a great way to warm up your mingling skills and get to know more about the various companies you may eventually want to work for. (Oh, and there's probably free food at these events, too.)

3. Do More Than One Internship
Internships typically take place during the summer before your senior year of college, but to be a standout, it's better to have two or three internships under your belt before your graduate. And it is possible. Visit your college's career services office and network with upperclassmen to learn what opportunities may be available to freshman and sophomores during the summer.

A more flexible way to get work experience during the school year is to co-op. Some companies like IBM offer these opportunities for students to intern at any time of the year, even part-time, as long as their school allows it.

4. Study Abroad
Find a study abroad program that your state school sponsors. International experience is one of the best ways to stand out as a job applicant. I studied abroad in Paris for a semester through one of Penn State's travel programs and it's something I still use as a talking point in meetings.

5. Write a Thesis
If you're an honors student in your college you may automatically qualify to write a thesis. If not, ask your department head if you can get a thesis published before graduating. This intense 60-page research paper is more work, yes - but it will be an amazing academic accomplishment that will not only blow away recruiters but help your chances of getting into a graduate program later on. Plus, you can say you've "been published" - since most schools will, at least, publish your work in the student library.
More on MoneyWatch:

Photo Courtesy JMD41280's Photostream on Flickr
View CBS News In