by Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., and Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
Before you enter the workforce, it’s crucial to work on the following skills: communications (writing, speaking, and interpersonal), teamwork, analytical ability, multitasking, organization, leadership, problem-solving, tenacity, and dependability. Workers can develop these skills and values in a variety of different ways, but college is the place where many inexperienced and green teens transform themselves into highly desirable college graduates and prospective employees.The key to that transformation — and why it is so important to put your heart and soul into your college experience — is how seriously you take your college education. Which of these two former students do you want to be most like?
Bill, a recent graduate still on the job market looking to find his first job since graduating with a finance degree, admitted recently that he already regrets that he did not put more of an effort into his college education. He admits cutting corners on projects so that he could spend more time with his extracurricular activities. He avoided leadership opportunities and found procrastination to be something he rarely overcame. Some professors called him a slacker, while others labeled him as someone with unproven potential. While he graduated with decent grades, he struggles to find a job post-graduation — and finds it difficult showing prospective employers he really does have the skills and values they seek.
Nancy is also a recent college graduate, but she’s had her job-search completed for many months. An accounting major, Nancy in many ways is the opposite of Bill. While she would admit that she certainly does not possess some of the natural gifts that Bill is fortunate to have, she pushed herself to make the most of her college career. She was a great leader and multitasker, always prepared well ahead of deadlines, and she never had to offer an excuse for a subpar project or paper. Her strengths shine through on her resume and in job interviews. Her professors speak glowingly of her work and her work ethic. She too graduated with decent grades, but through her mastery of her college experience, she was able to showcase to prospective employers that she has the skills and values they seek.
Let’s look at the top lessons students should learn and perfect in college that will make them attractive candidates to prospective employers.
1. Speaking/Oral Communication/Presentation.
One of the best elective classes you can take in college is a public-speaking class, which helps all students get more comfortable speaking before a group. If your school does not offer such a class, you can work on improving your speaking techniques by speaking up in class and volunteering to lead group presentations. Too many students avoid making presentations while in college, and yet most will need to do so on the job — whether to one or two clients or co-workers or to larger audiences. Get in the habit of feeling comfortable speaking before a group. Look for opportunities in college to learn how to put on an engaging presentation and enhance it with audio-visuals.
Writing well is one of those skills that will benefit you for the rest of your life, both personally and professionally. We hear too often students complaining about having to write papers and reports — believing that once first-year English requirements are met, students should be excused from ever writing again. Learning how to write — and not just to write, but also the process of writing (which involves writing, editing, rewriting, and proofreading) — is a skill that will help you get jobs and get promoted into better jobs. Employers complain the loudest about the weak writing skills of many college grads, so take an additional writing course or two and learn to make your writing sparkle.
3. Leading and Working in Teams.
Some students prefer working alone on projects because student teams are often fraught with problems, such as social loafing and poor communication. Despite student-team problems, the best students learn how to motivate their other team members so that the team actually does what it is designed to do — operate at a higher level than any one person could do. But beyond simply accepting that you must work in groups, you should go the next step and volunteer for leadership positions. (This advice also holds true outside the classroom — for any student organizations you belong to in college.) The reality of the workplace is that employers use all sorts of teams, both temporary and permanent, and these employers seek to hire college grads who have experience working in — and leading — teams.
4. Time Management.
Ever notice that some of the busiest students are also among some of the best students? The ability to juggle multiple tasks and projects with multiple deadlines is a top skill employers seek, thus one of the most important self-improvement activities you can undertake in college is learning how to manage your time effectively.
Fortunately, college provides the perfect laboratory for learning to manage your time.
Fortunately, college provides the perfect laboratory for learning to manage your time. Unlike high school with its fairly regimented schedule, college presents many blocks of free time that students must learn to make the best use of. And, of course, college also requires a heavy workload that students must l earn to organize and manage. Besides organization — which is certainly a key to time management — you’ll also have to learn how to prioritize multiple projects and assignments, as well as the art of breaking down larger assignments into smaller, more manageable parts.
Finally, you may need to take steps to break one of the hardest habits for many students to break — ending (or at least reducing) procrastination. (Research indicates that 40 percent of college students put off important academic tasks.) You can have all the deadlines you want, but if you are rushing at the last minute to complete the tasks, your work will be compromised. Employers want college grads who can juggle multiple tasks AND deliver high-quality results on time.
Conquering the time-management problems you face is only half the battle because any system you develop for managing multiple meetings, deadlines, and projects must also include some method to help you keep track of all of your obligations — some organizational scheme. Some of the more common methods of keeping everything organized include to-do lists, planners, and PDAs. If you struggle with keeping track of all your obligations, try one or more of these methods — and keep experimenting until you find the system that works best for you. Once you have developed a system, it should be something that can easily be carried over into the workplace. Even if organization does not come naturally to you, you can show employers how you turned this weakness into a strength.
6. Research/Investigative Skills/Knowledge Management.
Employers want new hires who can assess a situation, seek multiple perspectives, gather more information if necessary, and identify key issues that need to be addressed. You need to know how to find and evaluate the most up-to-date information. No place is better than college for teaching you these skills because various research assignments — papers, projects, and more — are central to the curriculum at most colleges and universities. Here, too, is where you’ll deploy the analytical skills that employers also seek. While you may be tempted to look for shortcuts when you get research assignments, you will prepare yourself far better for the workforce if you truly learn how to gather, analyze, evaluate, and apply research material and information.
Some students struggle to succeed in college, but sometimes these weaker graduates make the best employees because they’ve learned the importance of persevering — of never giving up. Employers comment that many new college grad hires have to be taught the importance of tenacity and rising above challenges and hurdles they face in trying to complete their tasks. The best way to strengthen your tenacity is to force yourself to face the tough challenges — choose to take a course with the “hard” professor, volunteer to complete projects no one else dares to, and fight the tendency to give in to the easy way out of tough situations. Once you’ve conquered one or more of these battles, you can proudly discuss the accomplishment in job interviews.
8. Work Ethic/Personal Productivity:
Survey after survey shows that employers seek entry-level hires who are dedicated and willing to work hard. The issue has become more sensitive because many employers perceive the millennial generation as having a poor work ethic. In reality, Gen Y workforce entrants just want a balance between work and the other parts of their lives. College certainly provides a great training ground for cultivating a strong work ethic.
The measure of work ethic and personal productivity in college is good grades. In the work world, the best measures are the accomplishments, drive, and initiative that lead to promotions and climbing the career ladder. College students have an amazing opportunity to develop themselves as productive workers. While grades are unimportant to many employers, being the kind of achiever who earns good grades should also make you the kind of worker employers will want to hire.
Final Thoughts on Skills Learned in College
The good skills and habits you develop in college — through your coursework and extracurricular activities — can go a long way to not only improving your grades and personal satisfaction in college, but also providing a big edge over other job-seekers who have not developed some of these key skills and values in demand by employers.
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Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., is an educator, author, and blogger. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Wa