by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
Let's face it; liberal-arts degrees get a bum rap. Everyone wants to know what in the world you're going to be able to do with that philosophy or history or literature degree.
There's lots of material out there about why it's a great idea to major in liberal arts, as well as information on how to choose a career that maximizes your liberal-arts degree. But there's not much written about how to actually market your degree to employers.
There's some disagreement among experts and pollsters about the importance of one's major to employers, but the prevailing opinion is that -- with the exception of some highly specialized and technical fields -- the degree is much more important to employer than what you majored in. That's great news for liberal-arts grads.
Let's assume you're pretty close to graduation and thus, it's probably way too late to change majors (and heck, you wouldn't want to anyway). It's also probably too late to pick up a business minor. Let's assume you have some idea of what you'd like to do for a living -- even if you're not sure whether your liberal-arts degree will take you there. Having participated in internships certainly could boost your currency and help you sell that liberal-arts degree. But let's say that you didn't partake in any internships. Let's say you have to market yourself to employers as a liberal-arts grad virtually on the strength of the degree alone. This article will give you some ideas of how to do that.
1. Say It Loud: You're Liberally Educated and Proud
If you're hanging your head and acting defensive -- or doomed -- when your parents or your friends with business or engineering majors give you a hard time over your "unmarketable" liberal-arts degree, get over it! A liberal-arts degree is a badge of honor! Sought out by many employers, it's a highly versatile ticket to a wide range of jobs. Few jobs are outside the reach of a liberal-arts grad. It's true that I'm biased because I am a card-carrying liberal-arts grad myself.
But even if you don't believe me, it's to your advantage to believe in your degree. The more you believe in the great choice of major you made, the better you will be able to market yourself to employers.
Sometimes liberal-arts majors struggle a bit more than other majors when launching their careers, but the evidence shows that they tend to advance farther and be more sought out by CEOs for high-level jobs than non-liberal-arts grads. Writer Todd Larson quotes the director of Stanford University's MBA program as saying his program doesn't prefer applicants who had business as an undergraduate major; instead, liberal-arts majors are among the program's preferred applicants.
While the specialized skills that come with other majors may seem to be an advantage, the universality of liberal-arts skills truly is your ace in the hole because you are not limited by a specialization. Employers can train new hires in specialized skills on the job. But they can't train workers to have the critical-thinking skills, problem-solving skills, and the capacity for lifelong learning that today's organizations require. Experts say that most people will change careers five to seven times in a lifetime; thus, specialized skills may be of limited value in the long run, while the depth and breadth of liberal-arts skills are limitless. "Well-rounded" is a modifier frequently applied to liberal-arts grads. Liberal-arts grads can see the "big picture."
2. Sell Your Passion
The neat thing about many liberal-arts grads is that they chose their major because they truly loved the subject matter. They were not motivated by what they could do occupationally with the major or how much money they could make after graduating with that major. They were motivated by the pure joy of wanting to learn the field in which they majored.
Sure, there are exceptions -- students who just kind of fell into their majors or those who thought they loved the subject matter but ended up loathing it when it was too late to change majors. But if you're one of those who chose your major because you were passionate about it, you can use that passion in your job search.
Now, the chances are fairly high that many, if not most, of the jobs you'll be looking at will not be directly related to your major. But you can still express your passion for your major to employers. Your passion shows your enthusiasm, your love of learning, your commitment, your dedication.
Chances are, too, that if you loved your major, you have done well academically, and your academic success then becomes another selling point.
3. Sharpen Your Career Focus
The world is truly your oyster as a liberal-arts grad, because unlike, say, a finance major who has been trained for jobs in finance, your training qualifies you for a much wider range of careers. But that doesn't mean you should open yourself up to every kind of job or adopt an "I'll do anything" posture. Employers want to know what you want to do, and the more focused you are, the easier it will be to land a job.
As a resume writer I frequently have clients submit resumes to me for critique. When they tell me before sending their resume that they're not sure what they want to do or are open to a number of possibilities, I can always predict that this lack of focus will be reflected in their resumes, and it always is.
I tell them that the more sharply they can focus on what they want to do, the better their resumes will be and the easier it will be to get a job.
If you're not quite sure what you want to do, seek help from your school's career center. Assessments are available to help you hone in on careers that align with your skills, values, and interests. And remember when you land that first job, you're not making a lifetime commitment. If the first career you try turns out not to be for you, you can make a change down the road.
4. Your Skills: Know Them, Embrace Them, Market Them
Here's more great news for liberal-arts majors: The skills that employers almost universally seek are the ones you've gained through your liberal-arts studies. Time and again, research shows that communication skills are by far the skills most sought after by employers. As a liberal-arts major, you have learned to communicate orally and in writing. I found myself, as a liberal-arts grad, teaching in a business school for several years. Because I taught business communication, I required my students, most of them business majors, to do quite a lot of writing. I felt sorry for the business majors in my class who would tell me that they hadn't written anything for their courses since their first-year English classes. I knew their cohorts in liberal arts were writing every semester and polishing skills that would take them far in the workplace.
You probably were required to take a foreign language, while your cohorts in business and other majors may not have been. Language skills and multicultural sensitivity are highly marketable skills in today's workplace.
The list of liberal-arts skills goes on and on, and our colleague, Donald Asher, has developed some great summaries and inventories that help liberal-arts majors realize they have more marketable skills than they knew. Check them out:
- Liberal Arts Skills That Are Most Useful in Careers
- Skills and Strengths College Students May Not Realize They Possess -- and That Employers Love
- College Students: Time to Take Inventory
5. Give Your Skills a Little Boost
Despite the wonderfulness of the liberal-arts degree, there are a few skills that liberal-arts students could stand to polish to add to their marketability. While it may be too late to change your major, it's not too late to enhance your skill set just a bit. Computer skills, for example, are a must in the vast majority of jobs, and if your liberal-arts studies left you deficient in computer literacy, you can still take a class to beef up those skills, whether at your college or at one of the many technical schools that offer computer classes. You may even be able to take a class online or have a computer-geek friend tutor you.
If you're interested in a career in business, and it's too late to take business classes, you can still learn a lot by reading such publications as the Wall Street Journal, Business Week, Forbes, and Fortune, watching business programs on CNBC, and visiting Web sites, such as Fast Company and Business 2.0. Gain exposure to business environments by conducting informational interviews. Read more.
The key is to study want ads and Internet job postings for the types of jobs you're interested in and see what skills are required. If there's a skill or two you're deficient in but that keep popping up in the descriptions of interesting jobs, there's probably a relatively painless way for you get up to speed with that skill.
6. Let Your Resume Sing the Praises of a Liberal-Arts Education
Most resumes today have a handy little section called a Profile or Qualifications Summary that's terrific for encapsulating your skills and the the value you can bring to an employer. It's also a great place to highlight your liberal-arts skills.
I prepared a resume for a college student earning his degree in Social Thought and Analysis, which is about as liberal-artsy as you can get. Though he had great extracurricular activities, sports, and computer experience, he had virtually no work experience. He was interested in a job at one of the big financial-services companies. He didn't have any training or background in finance, but he sure did have lots of skills that employers love. Here's how I made the most of his liberal-arts background in his resume's summary section:
- Leadership-oriented college student with strong work ethic and moral compass.
- Creative problem-solver who excels at conflict resolution, as well as creating positive solutions, identifying efficient methods to correct situations, and following through to implementation.
- Exceptional interpersonal communicator who collaborates effectively with individuals at all levels -- from students to deans, functions as a liaison among groups, builds and leads teams without being overbearing, and fosters cooperation among diverse individuals and organizations.
- Disciplined and highly organized self-starter who coordinates, manages, and juggles multiple committees, numerous daily meetings, judicial-board and campus ambassador functions, as well as a demanding school load.
- Motivated, mature achiever who takes the initiative and attacks issues with originality.
- Committed competitor who has demonstrated drive toward excellence through achievement of three-time election to class-president position and third-degree black belt in karate.
- Computer-proficient performer with skills covering operating systems, including Windows 9x/ME/2K/XP, and Mac OS, as well as software applications and programming languages, including C++, Java, HTML, Excel, PowerPoint, Minitab, Access, Word, and Outlook; A+ certified.
7. Enlist Your Cover Letter in Portraying the Applicability of Your Skills
Your cover letter can also play a significant role in touting your liberal-arts skills. While the resume is usually written in short, clipped bullet points, the cover letter uses more narrative language to help the employer to see the connections between your liberal-arts skills and the employer's needs. When brainstorming skills to describe in your cover letter, remember that your total college experience helped you develop skills. Your involvement in extracurricular groups probably showed your leadership and teamwork skills. Teamwork is also the hallmark of most sports, as is competitive drive.
This section of our Cover Letter Tutorial lists outside-the-classroom venues that can be used in a cover letter (the section also includes sample verbiage) to show how your experiences apply to the employer's needs. Another Tutorial section gives more examples of transferable, applicable skills and provides cover-letter examples of students who described how their typical college jobs (such as restaurant server and retail sales associate) helped them develop skills applicable to the jobs they sought. Finally, this article suggests classroom-based skills that can be used in cover letters.
And one more cover-letter bonus: Your cover letter is a showcase for your writing skills. The very fact that your liberal-arts education has prepared you to craft a compelling, well-written cover letter will make a big impression on employers.
8. Consider a Portfolio
Creating a portfolio to take on interviews gives you the opportunity to show your liberal-arts skills in a very tangible way. As noted earlier, for example, liberal-arts students tend to do a lot more writing than their business counterparts. Thus, placing writing samples in a portfolio is a great way to show off your liberal-arts advantage. Your college years likely yielded lots of other items you can compile into a portfolio to show employers. Learn more in our article, Your Job Skills Portfolio: Giving You an Edge in the Marketplace.
9. Give Job Interview Responses a Liberal-Arts Spin
I once had a student who, when asked in a mock interview if he was a team player, told the interviewer that he had worked on 35 group projects during his college career. Thirty-five group projects!? Wow, had I been an employer, I would have been highly impressed and convinced that he had learned a lot about teamwork during all those projects.
You can similarly use your liberal-arts skills when responding to interview questions.
Take the popular interview question, "Why should I hire you?" The unspoken full version of this question is "Why should I hire you over every other candidate? What makes you special?" Here's a good liberal-arts way to answer the question:
"Because I know that the one constant in organizational life today is change. I know your company will undergo change, and my strong liberal-arts education has prepared me with the flexibility to adapt to the changes I'll inevitably face."
"The cultural awareness I've developed as a result of my solid liberal-arts education prepares me to collaborate in a team-oriented and diverse workforce."
Or how about if the employer is even more explicit:
"Why should I hire you over a graduate who has business training?"