Every spring, thousands of mortar-board-clad students gather inside Boston’s TD Garden to receive their undergraduate degree from Northeastern University. Among them, 90% have at least 6 months of professional work experience under their belts (some have a full 18 months worth). Thanks to Northeastern’s innovative Co-op program, graduates enter a highly-competitive workforce with polished resumes, professional interview experience, and a working knowledge of how office politics (and copy machines) work. And thanks to this program, Northeastern recently took the top spot for career prep in the Northeast in Wall Street Journal’s College Rankings.

Through the Co-op program, students are able to take six months off from classes (while remaining full-time students, which grants them access to dining halls, the library, and financial aid, among other things), and they go to work full time in a sector that aligns with their degree and career goals. They’re supported by a team of advisors and mentors, from interview and resume preparation, through to the end of the assignment. Before jumping back into classes, students meets with their career advisors to discuss employer feedback, and evaluate the whole experience: Did you enjoy it? What did you learn? Is this still a career you want to pursue?

And, they can do it again. Two more times, if they want. Some degrees require three Co-ops, while some don’t require any at all. But, the majority of students choose to do at least one.

Why? Well, simply put: they have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Northeastern University Graduation, 2011
Northeastern University Graduation, 2011.

Full disclosure—I speak from personal experience. In May 2011, I sat among the black-and-gold masses in the Garden (I am somewhere in the photo on the right), clutching my hard-earned degree tightly in my sweaty palms. Nervous? No way (okay, a little nervous). But, because of my Co-op, I already had a job. In fact, they didn’t even wait for me to graduate: as soon as I completed my Co-op in 2010, the company asked me to come back as soon as I graduated. From there, I’ve been able to build that one six-month Co-op into a career.

It wasn’t just about what I could put on my resume, either. It was being surrounded by other students going through the same things. It was knowing there was no such thing as failure, that my advisor would support me through the whole experience, providing feedback at every turn. It was that I could remain on campus with my friends and my community (or go abroad if I wanted—more than 2,000 companies in 128 countries participate in Northeastern’s Co-op program). It was that I was asked (not told) what I wanted my future to look like, and I got to shape it. In real-time, I was able to apply what I learned in class to the real world. Every day was a learning experience—something that has shaped me as a learner, and as a professional.

Northeastern may be the top-ranked university in New England for career prep, but they’re certainly not alone. More and more schools are adopting programs that prepare students to be lifelong learners, and successful in whatever work they choose to do. Be sure to check out how Wall Street Journal has ranked schools in the Midwest (Kettering takes the top spot here) and on the West Coast (Oregon Institute of Technology leads the pack).