On Saturday, I attended this year's Collins Connection event at Cal Poly Pomona, where the faculty and staff members in the Hospitality College met with the incoming students and their family. About 200 guests attended the event.

The cohort of this incoming class had a diverse background, but they were all excited about coming to our college and were looking forward to their future in the hospitality industry.

I spent three hours speaking with the students and their family members. Yet I often heard of the same question: How can I prepare for a successful career in hotels or restaurants?

That is a great question. Looking at the students, they seem talented, and they are driven. But at the same time, they are unique individuals, and each has different career goal. Is it possible for different students to follow the same path toward a successful career in the hospitality industry?

Of course, it is possible. When I was a doctoral student, I conducted a series of three studies to identify the determining factors that help college graduates to secure a job offer of a entry-level managerial position in the hospitality industry (i.e., Study I, Study II and Study III). Drawing from the research findings, I believe the following steps can help (in addition to students going to classes and doing well in school).

Year 1

Become a member of one or two student organizations and actively participate in every event in the organization(s). Getting involved early will allow students to network with their peers, find it easier to adapt to the college life, seek support and advice from the upper-level classmen, and more importantly, prepare them for a leadership position in the organization(s) in the next year or two.

Recruiters are not looking for front-line workers when they come to a four-year hospitality program to recruit students. Rather, they want students with strong leadership skills to fill the entry-level managerial positions.

It becomes critical for students to practice their leadership skills in extracurricular activities while they are still in school so they can articulate their leadership potentials later during job interviews.

Year 2

Take a leadership role in a student organization. In addition, students need to document the deliverable outcomes as a result of their leadership because recruiters are looking for specific examples and measurable results during job interviews.

Establish a clear career goal. By the second year, students should have been informed about various career options within the hospitality industry. In addition, they should have met with a few recruiters and managers in guest-speaker sessions and career fairs.

Find an internship in the summer and/or start working part-time in the hospitality industry. I have found that relevant job experience is as critical as leadership skills in job search.

By taking an internship or working part-time, students not only gain valuable work experience, but they also can explore different career options (e.g., trying to work in different positions in a restaurant or a hotel).

Year 3

Identify the dream employer(s) and network with the recruiters, managers and alumni working for the dream employer(s). Recruiters expect candidates to do thorough research and show genuine interest in the company. Nothing says better for a student's true interest in a company than the student showing up every time when the company's recruiters/managers visit the campus.

Get into an internship program offered by the dream employer in the summer. Upon completing the internship, students should be able to tell if they truly enjoy working for their dream employer.

It would be great if they like what they do or see in the internship. If not, they can still find another and possibly better employer next year.

Year 4

Take more leadership responsibilities at work, regardless of whether it is a full-time or a part-time job. If students follow my advice suggested above, they should have gained a lot of hands-on experience in the industry already. Now, it is time for them to further demonstrate their leadership skills by taking more responsibilities at work.

It would be ideal if they have gotten a promotion already to a supervisory position. If not, responsibilities of training new hires and closing a shift will count.

Practice job interviews. Students might have an outstanding resume that demonstrates exceptional leadership skills and substantial relevant job experience, but if they could not articulate their qualifications during interviews, the resume alone will not help them get a job.

That is all. My advice is not that complicated, is it? The key is students must build good leadership skills and gain relevant job experience while they are still in school.

Lastly, for students planning to transfer from a community college to a four-year program, they can still follow my year-to-year suggestions. They can do the tasks listed in Year 1 and Year 2 while they are in a community college and then do the rest after they transfer into a four-year program.