We spend four years in college preparing ourselves to enter the professional world. We learn critical thinking and public speaking skills, we take on leadership roles in our extracurriculars, and we seek out internships that will give us a taste of the careers we want to pursue. And when we graduate, we’d like to think we’re ready to take on the world. But it turns out that potential employers feel differently—and they haven’t been so impressed lately.
Earlier this year, the Global Strategy Group (GSG) released a study concluding that university graduates just aren’t making the grade in today’s working world. The majority of the 500 U.S. business leaders surveyed believe that only 4% of college graduates are "very prepared" for the workforce, and nearly half of C-suite executives believe that only 25% of those grads have the skills to advance in their chosen career paths.
The respondents zeroed in on the same problems—while many recent grads are book-smart, they’re lacking in professional experience and don’t have the professional skills necessary to succeed in the modern office. The majority of those surveyed point the blame at higher education, saying that the institutions have failed to keep pace with the ever-changing business world.
That’s a little daunting to hear. Yes, those four years gave you a degree—but it’s still up to you to translate the skills you learned in Comparative Government into abilities that will help you succeed at the office, and not everyone is figuring it out. But don’t give up too fast. We took a closer look at the report’s key concerns, as well as what you can do to overcome them.
Use Your Problem-Solving Skills
Many college and grad school programs teach you a lot about theory, but not necessarily about practical solutions. But employers aren’t looking for textbook answers—they’re looking for outside-the-box thinking to solve critical problems in the world, and they’re looking for answers that will work in an imperfect market (and office) environment.
So when you’re faced with a problem to solve at work, think beyond the “right answer.” Yes, you can use the theories you learned your classes, but also think about what you’ve learned from your personal life, your internships, and current events. Think about how the solution will be perceived if it’s implemented, and whether it can be accomplished with your current resources. And the truth is, the best answer probably isn’t one you ever read about in your textbooks—so don’t be afraid to come up with new ideas, or to present them for fear that they’re not perfect. Solving problems means being creative, not being “right.”
Work as a Team
It’s funny—teamwork is supposed to be ingrained in us from the very beginning of our schooling. But the reality often is, as students, we’re constantly competing with each other, whether it be for that summa cum laude distinction or the top grade in a class. We’ve learned to thrive in a competitive environment, and when we get to the workplace, many of us don’t actually work well together.
But while your career and your ambitions are your own, the modern office is a collaborative space, and getting things done on a day-to-day basis involves real teamwork. So, in addition to looking for ways you can contribute individually, ask to join committees and sit in on meetings, and really listen to your colleagues. Continue to learn about how your role fits in to your overall department, and how that department fits into the company. It’s key to be conscious of how you fit into, and can contribute to, the team as a whole. Remember that you succeed when your team succeeds, and don’t let your competitive spirit get in the way of that.
Improve Your Written Communication Skills
We’ve been writing papers, essays, and exam answers for years. We’ve grown up with email and Microsoft Office. So why, then, are we lacking in written communication skills? Maybe, as one exec in the GSG study surmised, it’s because we’ve become used to shortcuts and the casual tone of texting and social media. Or maybe we’ve just forgotten the impact that language and proper grammar can have on our messages.
But regardless, it’s important to bring a professional attitude to your work correspondence. Dot those i’s, cross those t’s, and pay particular attention to how your colleagues communicate. Start on the more formal end of the spectrum and, if it makes sense in your office environment, tone it down from there. If clients (or your boss!) are used to being addressed as “Dear Mr. Hunter,” you don’t want to be the one starting an email with “Hey Mike!" Trust me—no one will criticize you for being polite.
Take the Time to Think
Yet another issue execs in the GSG study warn about is critical thinking—and I must say, this one surprised me the most. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to have been doing all through college in our discussions, essays, and projects? The problem, though, isn’t our lack of ability to think critically—it’s that we have to learn how to apply those skills when we're in the office, and we have to remember to apply them even when we’re under pressure of a busy, fast-paced schedule.
It’s easy to get swept up into quick decisions or a yes-or-no answer because you want to agree with your boss or because you don’t have time to analyze all the information dumped in front of you, but it’s important to take the time to think through everything you do. Cut off distractions. Read closely, and deeply. Spend time thinking about a problem or situation without sending off a snappy email or entertaining constant interruptions. Just like you did for those final papers, identify the issues at hand and think them through—all the way through.
Set Yourself Up for Success
Finally, remember that the simple things can make or break your career, particularly when it comes to how you present yourself. So look to more seasoned professionals in your company, and take their lead in how you dress and interact with others. Know your office culture, show up on time, and maintain a positive attitude—even if you feel your initial duties are trivial. Yes, you’ll probably be overqualified to do some of the tasks you’re asked to do—but don’t let it affect your motivation or work ethic. Keep these things in mind, and you'll prove to your employers that you’re serious about your job, recent graduate or not.
There are plenty of competent, smart young professionals in our generation, and we know we’re ready to take on the world. So let’s show our future employers what we’re made of—and prove those studies wrong.
For more in this series, check out: Internship Week
Photo courtesy of Andrew Schwegler.
Born in the Netherlands but raised in the Northeast, Megan Halpern is a writer and literary publicist based in Brooklyn, NY. She is a graduate of New York University, and is currently (by day) a lecture agent at Penguin Books. When she is not working, writing, or cooking up a storm, Megan can be found exploring Boerum Hill, accidentally singing along out loud to her iPod. You can keep up with her on Twitter @megalie.More from this Author