Last Updated: Mar 30, 2020
What are transferable skills? Why do you want them? Where can you get them? Here's everything college students need to know.
The traditional path of earning a college degree to get a good job has been around for a long time. But is it enough? In a competitive world, developing transferable skills can greatly enhance your job prospects and employability. In fact, they're the skills employers are dying to see on your résumé.
According to Fast Company, hiring managers report that recent college grads are sorely lacking in basic, foundational skills like problem solving and critical thinking. So when you show up with all those useful and transferable skills, you'll stand out as a more competitive and prepared applicant. They kind of applicant who gets the job.
So, what are transferable skills? Basically, they’re important foundational abilities you can rely on—no matter what you do or where you work. Stuff like…
- Writing well (i.e., engagingly, grammatically correct, etc.)
- Communicating your ideas clearly and persuasively
- Managing projects or other complex tasks
- Getting along well with others
- Organizing your workflow
- Knowing a foreign language
- Knowing how to code
- Using social media effectively
- Leadership abilities
- Critical thinking and problem solving
For example, if you have developed a marketing plan or successfully engaged in an activist project or fundraiser, you can apply those experiences to lots of different jobs, says Stef Woods, an instructor in the American Studies department at American University. “Networking and office skills are also useful skills to develop while in college,” she says. “Even in a traditional college degree program, there are opportunities to help hone these marketable skills.”
One way to develop transferable skills is to take classes outside your college major that stretch your horizons. “Use your electives wisely,” Woods says. “Learn a foreign language, pick up a new skill like coding, or take a community-based service learning course. Any of these classes will help develop skills that you can add to your résumé.” This can be both fun and effective if you identify classes and assignments that mirror what you'll do professionally after college. In one class Woods teaches, students develop a marketing plan for a book that could be the next Hunger Games. For another course, students draft an office memorandum to a nonprofit board that's skeptical of how social media can benefit the organization. Taking courses that provide opportunities such as these can help build skills that transfer well to the workplace.
Here’s a basic list of activities that can help you develop transferable skills like the ones listed above:
- Take elective classes that stretch your horizons.
- Start a blog or other regular writing gig.
- Read. Read. Read.
- Seek out varied internship, co-op, and/or research experiences.
- Study abroad and learn from navigating a new culture.
- Volunteer with a cause that’s important to you.
- Pour yourself into your hobbies.
- Join a campus club or other extracurricular.
- Consult a friend or family member on a subject you know a lot about.
- Build your own personal website.
- Get into freelancing.
- Make art!
- Get a part-time job. (Even if it’s completely unrelated to your career goals, you can still learn transferable skills from it!)
Dr. Michele Ramsey, associate professor of communication arts and sciences, and women's studies at Penn State Berks, says anything that sharpens communication skills is a good bet. She points out that every year a number of lists come out focusing on the skillsets employers want from college graduates, as well as those skills employers complain that college graduates lack. “Communication is always at the root of several of the skills on both lists,” she says. “Find as many ways and classes as you can to help develop your communication skills.”
Ramsey says these critical communication skills include public communication, interpersonal communication, working with diverse populations, working in teams, and creating and managing relationships with colleagues and clients. Interpersonal communication may be the most important of all, according to Ramsey.
“The most talented engineer or marketing strategist in an organization likely will not go far if she can’t effectively manage a team of people below her, or persuasively and succinctly communicate her company’s pitch to a possible client,” she says. “Any major who wants to be better at their job, whatever that job may be, should do anything he or she can to improve their public and interpersonal communication skills while in college.”
Woods says that real-world experience can enhance what you learn in class. “Look into internships for credit,” Woods says. “Learn valuable office skills and build your résumé, while getting credits toward graduation.”
Judy Garfinkel, a learning and career coach based in Stamford, Connecticut, says that it’s also important to focus on self-management skills such as managing timelines, meeting deadlines, and responding to failure and feedback with a positive “growth” mindset. “A great way to develop and learn these skills is to find people you can emulate, watch what they do, and try it out,” she says. “Read good books, watch videos, and practice what you learn.” And it can also be productive to find mentors who will give you advice on your efforts to master key transferable skills.
Which of your transferable skills are you most proud of? Maybe it’s your organizational skills—you’re the best at planning elaborate activities with your friends. Or maybe it’s your killer writing skills—your personal blog gets more traffic than the 405. Or maybe it’s your creativity—Pinterest gets its crafting tips from you. Let us know on Twitter @CollegeXpress.