He started College Info Geek for fun, and it now has become one of the highest-trafficked sites on the ‘net. We asked him to share his story on how he did it, why he did and his advice for college grads.
What was the moment that made you decide you wanted to start a blog to help others “be awesome at college?”
During the summer of 2010 I was working at a Cyclone Aide, which is my school’s name for orientation assistants. At that point I had learned more than I ever thought possible about Iowa State and was answering hundreds of college questions every day from students and parents alike. Around the same time, HackCollege (one of my favorite blogs) announced they were looking for writers. I thought it would be cool to write for a big blog, so I wrote up a post and sent in my application.
Aaaaaaaaand rejection. I was politely told that my application was great, like many others, but it wasn’t good enough to make the cut.
Instead of throwing it away or making it a Facebook Note, I decided to put my prior web design experience to good use and start my own blog. On a whim, I named it College Info Geek and put up that first post.
What were the first steps to get College Info Geek started?
I was a web designer in high school, so I already had a hosting account I could use for the blog. After I registered the domain and tied it to said hosting account, I installed WordPress and just started writing. I had almost no experience with WordPress at the time, so I just chose a free theme and didn’t do much in the way of customization. In fact, you can see what College Info Geek used to look like back in the day.
After I wrote a few posts on my own, I brought one of my friends on board and we started writing together. For the first few months, that’s all it was; him and I kept a list of post ideas and wrote less than five posts a month.
Knowing what you know now, what would you have done differently at the beginning?
When I published my first article, I figured that writing posts and hitting the publish button was all there was to blogging. I thought that people would just eventually find the site after a long enough period of time.
When you’re a blogger, you can’t just post and expect people to find your site. You have to build links and get your name out there by sharing posts actively and guest blogging.
Since then, I’ve learned so much about WordPress, SEO, social media, networking… the amount of knowledge I’ve gained about blogging since I started is incredible. So yeah, I would have done a lot differently. For starters, I would have started posting consistently a lot sooner than I did. For the first 10 months, I was doing anywhere from two to eight articles a month. Now I try to do five articles a week (though I relaxed for a while during Christmas break). Publishing frequently gives people more content to read and more entrance points to your site.
I also would have focused on SEO and building relationships with other bloggers sooner. When you’re a blogger, you can’t just post and expect people to find your site. You have to build links and get your name out there by sharing posts actively and guest blogging. These are two things I’ve been doing a lot lately. It’s also really good to meet the other bloggers in your niche – if I could go back, I would take the time to meet other college bloggers a lot sooner than I did.
What is your advice for college students or recent grads looking to stand out from other job candidates?
Build a personal brand. This is huge. The thing about a college degree is that it’s very cookie cutter – there are thousands of other people graduating every year with the same degree you’re graduating with. Your ability to fill in the right boxes on a test sheet and get good grades won’t be enough to stand out. You need to make yourself known as an expert in your field as soon as you can in order to make an impression.
The first and most important part of this is getting actual experience. Internships and co-ops are the often-cited way to do this, but they’re not the only ways. You can do other things to get experience, depending on your major – get a part-time job during the school year close to your field of study, or start your own project.
After that, you need to build a presence for yourself. Create a personal website that shows off your work or expertise, use your social media profiles to network with your people in your field, make custom business cards, etc.
What have been the “perks” of starting this blog up? Has anything unexpected happened as a result of the blog?
The amount of traffic it currently gets was definitely unexpected! To be honest, I started the blog thinking it would get a small readership, and my only other goal was to have a writing portfolio I could show to employers in order to set myself apart from other graduates.
Since I’ve started, some amazing things have happened.
One of my posts was featured on LifeHacker, and I gained a lot of readers from that. I’ve partnered with some awesome companies including Adobe, Sony, and Vonage, and was able give away cool stuff like an iPad 2 and copies of Adobe CS5 through those partnerships.
In October, Adobe sent me out to Los Angeles to attend the Adobe MAX conference, were I was given a press pass and got to see all kinds of cool new stuff from Adobe and other companies. Free travel was certainly not something I foresaw when I published that first post!
Thanks Thomas! This is a great success story and great advice for students who always hear about ‘building a personal brand’. Get in touch with Thomas through his site.
Next week, we’ll hear again from Thomas about his own personal internship experience. Stay tuned!