Fail. That’s the grade US colleges just got on the latest report from the Association of American Colleges & Universities. OUCH.
The report measures whether or not today’s college graduates are prepared for the job market. Nearly two-thirds of the top employers surveyed said today’s graduates don’t possess the skills and knowledge needed for success and advancement. Several other recent studies have also concluded that a college degree does not prepare students for landing employment right out of school. This is a tough challenge for students, especially considering that the cost of a college education is higher than ever.
While students who are pursuing a college degree have a big advantage, it’s not enough. They have the ability to learn, which is a skill that employers desire. But learning in the classroom and excelling in the workplace are two different things.
To get ahead of the game, here are five things college students should focus on developing OUTSIDE of the classroom through part time or summer work while earning their degrees.
1. Relate to People Who Are UNLIKE You
Birds of a feather flock together. When you’re in college, you typically interact with many other people like you. Your daily conversations are with professors, TA’s, advisors, and your friends who are students. These people all share some common bonds with you, (your school, age, major) which makes communicating and meeting new people a lot easier. You have an instant rapport.
In the real world, your co-workers won’t share as much in common with you. You’ll need to build relationships with a much wider demographic and learn how to find common ground with anyone. How well can you relate to a 42 year old? To buying a house? To the opposite sex, political party, or personal interests? Your ability to relate to co-workers and bosses is crucial to your career success but you don’t get this skill in the classroom.
So how do you get it? From a personal perspective, learn how to be interested in others by asking questions to engage them. Ask questions like, “What’s your best tip for the new person in the work place? How long have you worked here? How long have you lived in the area? How do you like it?” These questions are not obtrusive but they get a conversation started to build rapport and find some sort of common ground.
From a professional perspective, it may be a little harder to keep up in some circles, particularly with managers or bosses above you. You’ll find that keeping up with the news, industry publications, asking professional questions and keeping an open mind will go a long way to make you more relatable. In doing so, you’ll build listening, communication, and interpersonal skills that will make you likeable, hirable, and promotable.
2. Take Responsibility for Your Own Success
College presents a very structured environment for students, which makes success (i.e. graduation) relatively easy. Pick a major, sign up for classes, follow the syllabus, pay attention to the professor, listen to the advisors, get the degree.
Since there is no syllabus to tell you how to “make the grade” outside the classroom, you have to take responsibility for your own success. Ask your shift leader how to get raises, get promotions, and how to get noticed by managers. Choose to pick up extra shifts. Go above and beyond your duties without being asked. Depending on your job or industry, you could do some learning outside the workplace to show that your own success and that of the business matters to you.
By going above and beyond, you’ll build a strong work ethic. You’ll learn to do your best even when nobody is supervising you or giving you a grade. You’ll cultivate a positive attitude and other self-starter traits that will help you build a successful career in the real world.
You might even try finding part time or summer work that puts you way outside of your comfort zone. Getting experience in a completely different trade or industry than what you have done or what you think you want to do will teach you a lot about yourself and how you can apply general principles of success in a whole new place.
If you don’t take responsibility for your own career success, who will?
3. Develop a “Professional” Version of Yourself
You know what is acceptable at your school because you’ve spent time there. Who you are with your friends is probably pretty similar to who you are in the lecture hall.
But the dynamics are very different in a work environment. People use a different vocabulary, adhere to a different schedule, and work in different roles. When you first start working in the real world, you’ll find that you can’t wear flip flops and drop street slang; you’ll need to behave a bit differently.
This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be yourself – rather it means that you should have a professional version of yourself. A great way to quickly develop your work personality is to pretend like you’re in an interview or on a first date. You should use your best manners, avoid vulgar language or slang, think before you speak, dress well, and be courteous.
With practice outside the classroom, you’ll learn what is appropriate to say and do. You’ll learn when to share your ideas. You’ll figure out whom to talk to when you have questions, concerns or comments. You’ll demonstrate that you are ready to launch and advance your career.
4. Time Management
You may think you’re learning some amazing time management skills in college: balancing classes, studying, extracurricular activities, social life, relationships, and more. But in the real world you can’t pull all-nighters to catch up, slip that paper into the prof’s box late for a 10 point deduction, or do “just enough” to pass. It turns out that college schedules are relatively flexible when compared to the real world.
You’ve heard the expression “9 to 5,” but in reality a typical schedule for a working adult is 7:30am to 6:00pm. It’s important to get up early in order to make yourself presentable. There’s a good chance you’ll have a commute. In all likelihood, you’ll stay late some evenings attending company events. You’ll be surprised to know that all-nighters don’t translate very well to a workplace that values efficiency and productivity! Overall it can be a tough adjustment from the more open and flexible schedule that college affords.
Working outside the classroom will give you exposure to a variety of calendars, apps, systems, and processes to manage a schedule. It will also give you the opportunity to see how business owners perceive the importance of time management in the workplace and for life in general.
5. Get Work Experience
Earlier we told you that a bachelor’s degree is a big advantage. But realize that there are 1.8 million bachelor’s degrees awarded every year. Um, wow. This is partly why the average recruiter looks at a resume for just 6 seconds; there are a lot of candidates. To get the interview and the position, you have to stand out with experience.
Let’s address a Catch 22: more and more entry level positions require 1-2 years of experience. While that seems counterintuitive, there’s a reason. Work experience tells recruiters that you can do more than study. You can communicate outside the classroom, balance a work schedule around classes and extracurriculars, and take responsibility for something that is bigger than yourself and your degree. Many career centers say that recruiters are reluctant to interview students whose resumes have zero work experience. The reality is that you’ll need to find an opportunity to build work experience even if you have none to begin with.
From restaurants to sales to office work, anything is better than nothing. The more varied your experience, be it with the same company or with several, the better off you’ll be when trying to land your first career position. To get experience before graduation, you may need to get out of your comfort zone. This is an important process for your personal and professional growth. A position outside the classroom will help you build confidence and other vital skills you need for your success.