Last Updated: Oct 8, 2015
If you don’t want to end up living at home and broke after you graduate college, come to grips with what one of my college professors told me 40 years ago: “A college degree and a dollar will get you four quarters.”
It’s the skills that count
The key to career success is to have a strong work ethic and the skills employers want. These skills are oral and written communication, people/social, research, number-crunching, analytical, and problem-solving skills. Cutting across most of these skills is a facility with a variety of computer software programs, including Microsoft Word, Power Point, and Excel, as well as familiarity with web searching and general Internet usage. More advanced skills, like Microsoft Access, geographic information systems, or Web design, will get you to the short list for most jobs even faster.
Yet, despite the weight of these abilities, employers still usually rank “work ethic” the highest because if you are not committed to working hard, improving yourself on a continuous basis, and having integrity, all the skills and knowledge in the world will be of little use.
Employers are having a very difficult time finding applicants with these skills. A high-level manager in a very large telecommunications company e-mailed me recently and said, “ . . . most kids coming straight from college to the work world do not have many, if any, of these skills at the very basic level, let alone mastered.” The law of supply and demand suggests that if you have these skills, you will get a good job right out of college and have the potential for an outstanding career. Employers will look for indicators that tell them if you are proficient in these areas, as will graduate schools and professional programs in law, management, public administration, and business.
It’s not the résumé but what the résumé demonstrates
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that a crash course in how to write a résumé in your senior year will enable you to convince the employer you have the skills. The people who will be hiring you know all the tricks and will be looking for clear evidence that you are the right fit for the work at hand. Be like one of the Three Little Pigs—the one that built his house out of bricks, specifically. He didn’t get consumed by the wolf like the others. Hit the ground running by building a solid skill base from meaningful experiences.
Employers are looking for evidence in your part-time jobs on and off campus, especially if you have held them for a long time and moved up to a higher level. They will want to see community service and other types of volunteer and academic field project work that shows you are more than a good test taker and paper writer. The will want to see activity in student organizations that involves leadership, e.g., president, treasurer, or head of the membership recruitment committee.
One of the most beneficial experiences you can have is serving as a Resident Advisor. This position is reserved for the most responsible students who already exhibit many of the skills listed above. You should aim to be one during your sophomore year so you are free to go off campus during you junior year. (Not only that, but you will likely save a great deal of money on room and board costs!)
You should also try to win one of those highly competitive summer internships offered by corporations such as GE or Microsoft or with government offices like the FBI, Congressional Budget Office, or CIA. These organizations frequently hire interns for permanent jobs once they graduate. Every one of my students who had one of these high-level internships received a full-time job offer by the time they graduated.
These powerful experiences can only be obtained through strong activities during your first year of college and beyond. You need to go to college ready to be proactive, seeing it as not just a collection of 120 credits but as four years to gain the skills employers want.