Whether you graduate with a degree in Molecular Biology or a degree in Comparative Literature, there are certain fundamental skills and qualities to develop during your college years. Who do you want to be when you graduate? What do you want to be able to do? Where do you want to be able to go?  Keep these questions in mind as you work toward your degree. The terms will pass quickly, and before you know it the expository speech you have to do for Communications 101 and the vivisection lab you have to do for Biology 201 will be memories. What you get out of those experiences, however, will stay with you: confidence, communication skills, teamwork experience, and a greater understanding of how the world works.

Your future employers have clear ideas of what they want from you and other college graduates. While employers expect students to graduate with in-depth knowledge of their field, they value broader skills and characteristics as well. For example, a 21st century graduate needs to know how to organize and interpret information and how to work in a diverse team, whether he/she is a medical researcher or an advertising executive. If your future employer is yourself, you have even more reason to develop a wide range of skills.

This chapter will provide an overview of the vital skills and traits you need to be successful—in every sense of that word—in your life after graduation.

Must-have Skills and Traits

The Association of American Colleges and Universities released a report in 2013 that outlined the results of an employer survey conducted by Hart Research Associates about what college graduates need to know and be able to do when they enter the workforce. What may be surprising to some people is that the good old-fashioned liberal arts education is increasingly more valued. The pace of change in today's workplace is so fast that employers care less about a person's specialized skills and more about how innovative and adaptive he or she is. The computer language you learn in 2013 might be obsolete in 2020, but your willing- ness to learn a new computer language and your ability to work well with a team will keep you on the cutting edge.

Here is what you need to get out of college:

Relevant Experience
Challenge yourself with extracurricular activities. Take on internships and field projects. Look for ways to apply your knowledge to real-world situations. Not only will that experience make your resume stand out, it will also make your college years more interesting and fulfilling.

Communication Skills
Strong written and oral communication skills are essential whether you become an engineer, a teacher, or an entrepreneur. Take classes that challenge you to communicate effectively in a variety of modes. If you hate public speaking now is a great time to face that fear; take an introductory communication class or join an organization such as Toastmasters.

Critical Thinking
Critical thinking is analyzing and interpreting information, synthesizing ideas, and reflecting on what you know. Ideally, every class will encourage and develop your critical thinking skills. You can hone your critical thinking by stepping outside your "comfort zone" and questioning your assumptions and knowledge. Take classes in a variety of subjects, attend lectures on topics outside your disci- pline, and seek out friends and classmates who offer diverse opinions.

Research and Information Literacy
One challenge of living in the 21st century is the barrage of information available at a keystroke. To be successful you need to learn to find and evaluate sources, organize information, and understand statistics.

What you learned in preschool is more important than ever: It turns out that sharing, taking turns, listening, working together and respecting others is not only essential for building a Lego® town. It's also essential for working in most organizations in the 21st century. Experience working with teams of people from diverse backgrounds is especially valuable, as the workforce today is incredibly diverse and fluid.

Leadership is a difficult skill to identify and quantify, but it's valuable nonethe- less. Take on leadership roles in your sport, clubs, activities, and projects that you do while you're in school so you'll gain experience and confidence.

A job candidate who demonstrates the willingness and ability to adapt to change, respect for differences and diversity, and an interest in developing skills and experience is very attractive to potential employers. If you're flexible, you'll also be more likely to stay interested and engaged in your work. A few ways to develop this skill are to complete coursework outside of your major; participate in a variety of activities, including volunteering and part-time employment; and study abroad or learn a new language.

Civic Knowledge and Participation
There are dozens of metaphors for the modern world: It's flat, it's shrinking, it's a global village. Whatever you call it, you will be expected to understand political, social, and economic conflicts and issues more than previous generations did. Employers depend on educated, civically-involved employees to run their organizations and companies.

In many ways, employers care more about who you are than what you can do. Are you loyal, responsible, honest, respectful, creative, resourceful, kind? All of these traits are markers of good character and, while they don't show up on your transcript, you can demonstrate them in other ways. Your references and documentation of involvement in certain projects and extracurricular activities may help you document your good character. 

Vital Skills Exercises

  1. Use the table on the following page to consider each of the nine skills and traits described in this chapter, document your accomplishments, and set short-term (this year) and long-term (by graduation) goals.
  2. Consider the classes you are currently enrolled in. How can you maximize your experience in those classes to develop the vital skills and traits covered in this chapter?
  3. Which extracurricular activities are you currently involved with? Choose two of the vital skills and traits discussed in this chapter and create a plan for developing them further through your participation in extracurricular activities.

Vital Skills worksheet


for more resources and exercises.