Some people are lucky enough to walk straight from college graduation into the next steps of their career (looking at you, doctors and lawyers), but others take a more meandering path. My path led me from college to the National Park Service, to a French bistro, to graduate school, and to Student Caffé. None of my post-college work has much in common at first glance; what could serving as a park ranger and being a waitress possibly have in common? There is overlap, though, and the skills I needed to get and do both jobs are skills that I learned when I was still a student. Here are some of the “soft skills” that you should develop in college that you will use after graduation.
1. Learn how to write respectful emails.
Much of your correspondence with professors, advisors, and potential bosses is going to take place electronically. Learn how to write respectful emails, because “Hey Prof. James, r u ok with me turning my paper in late??” isn’t going to cut it. Starting with “Dear,” “Hello,” and “To whom it may concern” are going to be better options. “Cheers,” “Sincerely,” and “Thanks” are going to work well when you’re trying to sign off. Tailor your emails to whom you are writing; the formality level will change whether you know the person, where you rank in comparison to them, and the topic. I tend to use “Thank you” as a sign-off when talking to a superior or someone I don’t know well, but “Cheers” when the email is less formal. You’ll develop your own voice over time.
- Along the same lines, you need to develop phone skills since correspondence that doesn’t take place electronically often takes place over the phone. Set up a professional voicemail: “Hi, you’ve reached Jane Doe. I’m unavailable at this time, but if you leave your name and number, I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.” Avoid setting a ringback tone—no one wants to listen to your favorite Taylor Swift song while waiting for you to answer the phone. When you do answer, “hello” does just fine.
2. Learn how to make lists.
In high school, you may have had a heavy workload, but it’s nothing like what you’re going to experience in college and beyond. Your high school teachers may also have coordinated when planning tests (with the exception of finals) so that you weren’t taking more than one test a day. That’s not going to happen in college. You may have a research paper due the same day as your chemistry midterm and a presentation for another class. Buying and using a planner to keep track of your assignments is going to help you prioritize and get everything done in time. Plus, you get to experience the wonderful feeling of crossing something out as soon as you finish a task. Keeping priority lists is going to help you beyond college, too. You’ll come to find that in adulthood, there’s always something that you’re forgetting to do, whether it’s at home or in your job. Lists will keep you on the straight and narrow.
3. Maintain your résumé.
Keep an updated résumé on file and learn how to properly write a cover letter. Your résumé is going to be your ticket to a job outside of college, and it should be updated regularly (every time you work a new job, gain a skill, or complete a degree). Make sure that you have your current contact information at the top and that your jobs and education are listed in reverse chronological order. You will have to write a different cover letter every time you apply to a job, but the format should be the same. Explain why you want the job and what makes you a qualified candidate. A well-written cover letter can set you apart from a pile of everyday résumés.
4. Become a team player.
You may have been a lone wolf in high school and you could prefer to do your work alone as opposed to in groups, but college is full of group projects. It can be obnoxious to coordinate around class schedules, team practices, and meal times, but when you’re assigned a group project, throw yourself into it. Being able to work well with others is a skill that translates into almost any job that you could find yourself performing after college graduation, so getting some practice in now is a good start. No, not everyone is easy to work with, and becoming a team player also involves developing a bit of patience, but if you can prove that you’d work well in a collaborative environment, your résumé may just find itself at the top of the pile.
5. Learn how to write to your audience.
We’ve already talked about how you can tailor an email to the person you’re writing, but you can do so with other forms of writing (and speaking) too. Not every job is going to entail writing at length, but you may apply for jobs, apply for grad school, or have to write something in the future. Science writing, for instance, is very different from legal writing, but the way you approach either will depend on the target audience of the piece. At the National Park Service, I wrote pamphlets about the geology of the park to be distributed to visitors, meaning that I had to write at a very different level than if I were writing to other scientists. You’ll find this too, when you apply for jobs or complete a writing sample when applying for grad school. Your tone will change depending on whether you’re writing to a hiring manager, a CEO, a potential advisor, or a program director, as will the content. Your college assignments will give you good practice at writing well for an audience.
6. Learn how to research well.
You’ll be taught how to research in college, especially if you go to a school that requires you to complete a thesis project before graduating. Knowing where to look for credible information can help you in your career (problem-solving) and your adult life as well (looking for the best deals on cars, finding jobs to apply for, and deciding where to live). A well-researched application and cover letter are going to garner more interest than anything generic, and while you may not end up in a career that is research-based, the ability to find the information you want when you need it is an ability that you will continue to use throughout your adult life.
There are “hard skills” that are useful when it comes to job hunting, like knowing how to code or build a website, but soft skills are transferrable between all jobs. These form the basis of a career, whatever your career turns out to be, and you’ll be glad that you learned them.