Transitioning between college and your first “real” job can be daunting. After so many years in an academic environment, you might even feel like you don’t have any valuable skills employers will actually care about.
Having worked with college students as a career counselor for years, I can tell you that many students feel this way—regardless of what they’ve accomplished in their undergraduate studies. I’ve even worked with patent holders who need convincing that they’re qualified for a related internship. That’s on the extreme end, of course, but really everyone needs a bit of a pep talk. This is all to say that no matter what you majored in, you have plenty of transferable skills that are incredibly appealing to employers.
Here are nine skills you learned in college—whether you knew it or not—that you can put forward in your first job search. (And if you’re looking for openings to apply to, you can search for internships and entry-level jobs right here on The Muse!)
1. Time Management
College schedules are a mess. Classes can start at what feels like the crack of dawn and take place late in the evening after dinner. Some meet for less than an hour every day and others are three-hour-long weekly seminars. Tests, midterms, and deadlines all pile up. And students inevitably add some extracurriculars or a work-study job to an already hectic schedule. So yes, as someone who successfully navigated all the scheduling challenges of college and managed to graduate, you’ve definitely developed some time management skills.
Managing your time involves setting personal deadlines for short- and long-term goals and projects, planning ahead, prioritizing tasks, using a calendar effectively, and avoiding procrastination. Having strong time management skills tells hiring managers you know how to get more done in less time.
One way to show off this skill in your job applications is to highlight your college juggling act in your cover letter like so:
“In the classroom, I pursued a comprehensive study of public health and social change through my majors in community health and sociology. Outside the classroom, I enjoyed leading organizations and initiatives that reflect my interests—including but not limited to guiding first-year students through their transition to college as an orientation leader, organizing the university’s first public health–centric art exhibit, and serving as vice president for the school’s largest student organization focused on service work.”
People who are great at organization sometimes don’t realize it’s actually a skill set until they meet someone who doesn’t have it. There are many different kinds of organizational skills, but we’ll focus on digital organization, which is about creating processes and systems for keeping computer files and online work easily searchable and accessible.
As a college student, you developed your digital organization skills as you juggled papers, group projects, and problem sets—a lot of which you likely did on your computer. Even if your desktop is usually packed with icons, at some point you probably ran out of space and put the files somewhere else. You’ve sorted your assignments to turn them in on time, arranged your notes to help you ace that final exam, and coordinated and combined pieces of group projects to submit one cohesive finished project.
It’s not a big leap for a hiring manager to assume you’ll be able to stay on top of your work after seeing your track record of creating systems to keep yourself or others organized. To show off digital organization chops, consider writing up a bullet point focused specifically on this skill like this one that could go under a project on your resume:
Developed a digital organization system for the project that allowed the team to visualize phases and track tasks, optimizing project workflow and efficiency.
And be prepared to answer if your interviewer asks you directly, “How do you stay organized?”
3. Presenting and Public Speaking
No matter your major—and possibly despite your best efforts—you probably ended up doing a final presentation or two while in college. By the time you graduate, you’ll have some experience with putting together a slide deck, figuring out the most important points to talk about, and finding the best way to articulate your ideas out loud in front of a group of people. You also likely took at least one discussion-based class. Speaking up in class isn’t too different from speaking up in meetings.
Strong verbal communication skills are always highly sought after by employers. Some roles even require an interview presentation as part of the hiring process. Aside from that scenario, though, you can show off some of these presentation and public speaking skills on your resume with a bullet point like this in your education section or under a project entry:
Presented findings to an audience of 50+, including field experts, condensing down 80+ page thesis down to three major takeaway points.
Most universities require some kind of first-year writing course regardless of your major, so it’s unlikely you’ll get through college without improving your writing skills a bit. In fact, many classes will require you to write essays, and a number of schools also have a senior-year writing requirement like a thesis or capstone project. These obligations, on top of regularly emailing professors, TAs, and extracurricular groups, mean you’ve had a pretty substantial amount of writing experience by the time you graduate.
Writing well means you’re able to communicate clearly via the written word—a useful skill to have no matter what job you’re after. No one wants to read a novel of an email that’s impossible to follow, so your coworkers will appreciate someone who can craft a couple of clear, succinct paragraphs that get right to the point. What’s great is that most job applications actually ask for a writing sample in the form of a cover letter. The posting may not require a cover letter, but if you want to show off this universally desirable skill you should still write one—and make it good. (Here are some tips for a stellar recent grad cover letter.)
The “ability to work in a team”—or some variation on this language—shows up in nearly all job descriptions because most jobs require working with others. Luckily, you likely got a great deal of experience working with a team while in college. Team sports are an obvious example, but so are group projects, student government, Greek life, and other group extracurriculars.
Teamwork boils down to cooperating with a group of people to get something done better and faster. It requires strong communication skills and the ability to take feedback. You need to be able to resolve conflicts amicably and stay focused on the required tasks. I guarantee you that the last time you worked on a group project with someone who didn’t pull their weight, you learned a bit about resolving conflicts and being goal-oriented, whether you addressed the issue directly or put up with it to get the project done. And these skills will come up in the workplace.
An easy way to highlight your teamwork skills on a resume is to find any experience where you worked in a group and add, “Collaborated with a team to…” at the start of your bullet point. So if the gist of your bullet was, “Fundraised for a local charity,” it would now be, “Collaborated with a team of four to fundraise for a local charity.”
6. Project Management
You may have heard of project management as a possible career track, but it’s also a skill set that, at its core, is about leading a team to complete a task under constraints. In other words, if you’ve ever planned an event—because you’re the social chair of the South Asian Student Association, a member of the Spring Fling committee, or an orientation leader, for example—you’ve done a bit of project management. Anytime you had a budget, a deadline, and/or some people to delegate to, that’s project management. Large class or capstone projects—whether with a group or solo—also count as project management experience with their many moving pieces.
As with teamwork, employers want this skill in their employees because knowing how to come in under budget, meet a deadline, and give the right tasks to the right people will help all of your coworkers get things done more efficiently, which ultimately helps the bottom line. With this in mind, you can highlight these skills when answering interview questions. In a response to a question about a time you managed numerous responsibilities, for example, you can say:
“As part of the volunteer service trip I co-organized to help clean up after the recent storms in the South, I had to coordinate flights and rental cars, negotiate lodging, balance our limited budget for meals while keeping in mind dietary restrictions, assign tasks and work sites to the student volunteers, and ensure that everyone was prepared and trained to handle any environmental hazards like lead paint. This experience helped me hone my project management skills due to the time-sensitive nature of the work, the need to manage and train multiple groups of people, and of course, the experience of getting a lot done with limited resources.”
7. Research and Critical Thinking
Research and critical thinking go hand in hand. Together these skills allow you to gather data, evaluate sources of information, analyze facts, and form a judgment. Employees with research and critical thinking skills can be trusted to make evidence- and data-driven decisions. Hiring managers know candidates who have these skills will probably need less oversight in the long run, making them attractive hires.
College is all about developing your research and critical thinking skills. Every major and concentration requires some form of research projects or papers. For example, you might have to pore over old newspapers and diaries to find sources for a history paper or find relevant research journal articles for a lab report.
During your job search, carefully think through your research experiences and pull out the distinct steps. Practice talking about the way you gathered, evaluated, and analyzed data and information to draw conclusions so you’re prepared to discuss this skill set in an interview, particularly when you’re answering questions about problem-solving or using resources to gather information.
8. Technical Literacy
I’m willing to bet that at some point during your undergraduate studies you encountered some new technology that you had to figure out how to use quickly. Maybe you had to design a poster for an event in Adobe Illustrator. Maybe you had to figure out how to find a specific primary source document in JSTOR. Or maybe you ended up in a class that required MATLAB for problem sets. Whatever it was, you ended up getting the task done one way or another. In other words, you have technical literacy, or the ability to easily learn new computer skills and programs.
Every field, company, and role has its idiosyncrasies—including specific software or platforms you’ll need to do your job but haven’t encountered before. Being technically literate will mean you’ll fly through the training and start contributing to the team sooner, something every hiring manager wants.
In an interview, you’ll usually get some behavioral questions that start with “Tell me about a time when…” and which are best answered with a story. Look out for opportunities to insert a time you rapidly learned a new technology well enough to use it for your assignment. And, of course, don’t forget to include these skills in your skills section of your resume!
9. Work Ethic
Work ethic is kind of a squishy skill—a.k.a., a soft skill—but the general idea is that you put in the effort needed to achieve your goals. Having a strong work ethic means you have drive, initiative, and dedication. So it’s no wonder employers want to see it in employees. And you, college graduate, have work ethic. To get to that finish line of graduation, you spent years writing papers, reading textbooks, studying for exams, puzzling through problem sets, engaging in classroom discussions, and just showing up each and every day.
Like most soft skills, work ethic is often best left implied rather than outright named in your resume or cover letter. A strong GPA can indicate a good work ethic, as can leadership roles and work-study jobs. The topic could come up in an interview, though, so you should keep examples of your work ethic in mind. If you feel uncomfortable singing your own praises, you can always put those words in someone else’s mouth by saying something like, “My thesis advisor always includes a bit about my strong work ethic in her reviews of my work. I really appreciate the recognition.”
No matter where you went to school or what classes you took, the fact that you’ve completed your university studies means you have certain skills that will make you a fantastic employee. So don’t panic—with the right framing and preparation, you can show employers you’ve got everything they’re looking for in an entry-level hire.