Poised For Success: Language Students in Transition from Campus to Competitive Job Markets

This post is based on a workshop I gave at the Languages for Specific Purposes conference at the University of Colorado Boulder April 19, 2014

After a review of problems that plague recent graduates (high debt, high unemployment, demand for skills training merged with the classic broad learning associated with humanities degrees) and higher ed (the inability of departments to adapt and a lack of funding on campuses to develop resources for skills training), Jeff Selingo’s article, “Building a Practical College Degree for the New Economy” highlights programs that collaborate with colleges to “provide short, immersive workplace experiences to college seniors or recent graduates.”

Then he moves on to make his point: such programs “shouldn’t be afterthoughts…bolted on to the end of the bachelor’s degree. Rather they should be baked into the undergraduate curriculum.”  

These are big problems that, in order to solve on a large scale, require a huge amount of resources, collaboration, and innovation within institutions that are not known for any of those things.  

Lucky for language educators, there is a lot we can do to weave career preparation into already-existing curricula so that it’s “baked into the undergraduate curriculum.”  

Here are just a few examples of strategies and skills building that can can be layered into the courses you already teach, then applied in almost any context after graduation.

NETWORKING. Who you are & what you can do is important.  But who you know is also important. To those working in the humanities, the word “networking” can sound cheesy—like something only slick Wall St. guys say, but here’s what I mean by it:

I’m at the bus stop, I recognize the only other person waiting as a parent from my kids’ school, I strike up a conversation along the lines of, “how long have you been waiting? I hate this bus line because…” and by the end of our bus ride I’ve found out she’s the French for Commerce & Industry instructor at Northwestern and booked a gig for the end of the following week.

In general you can’t go wrong with asking people about themselves (don’t talk about yourself too much) and finding commonalities. We all love the new student who approaches us after the first day of class and says, “Hi, I’m Lauren. My friend, Raven, took this class with you last semester and really enjoyed it.”  That gets you over the learning curve on Lauren’s name, gives you some positive feedback, creates personal/professional connections for both of you–and you’re both practicing your networking.

What we’re really talking about here is just social skills that allow you to make a good impression (hopefully a better impression than the competition).

So here’s what we all need to do all the time and how to integrate into your language courses:

1-find out names, remember names, use names (students have to remember each others’ names and politely find out names when they forget—in the target language.)

2- good body language: eye contact, offer hand to shake, shake with a medium-firm handshake—not limp, not vice grip.  Don’t cross your arms. Engage people with a friendly, warm smile.  Be aware of tics and control them (for me—that’s arm flailing, for others is “um,” and “uh”…)

3-Be a good listener; ask about others. Try not to talk about you too much and have a few “pitches” about yourself ready.

Deploy this in:

1-every think-pair-share activity you have your students do.  “Get in groups and make sure you know everyone’s name, use names, greet each other professionally, apologize if you’ve forgotten someone’s name, introduce two people who don’t already know each other.”

2-every professional situation you are in—especially at conferences, in interviews, etc.

And remember: practice, practice, practice.

PRESENTATIONS. Every presentation done in college (or grad school) should be practice for the job interview.

Let’s start by talking about what we hate about presentations:

  • reading or reciting,
  • poor dictionary use,
  • lack of practice,
  • not even knowing what words you are saying,
  • repeating content everyone already knows (such as information from class readings),
  • abuse of PowerPoint (such as filling slides with text then reading them out loud).

To avoid these pitfalls, preparation for every presentation should be run through this filter: “would you do this in a job interview?

For example:

-Can we have note cards?

-Would you take note cards to an interview? No! You have to prepare & practice so that the content is internalized.

Practice & polish to find perfect balance between scripted & spontaneous.

This is the hard part when it comes to in-class presentations; you have to really own it—which is much easier in an interview context where you have a lot of stake in the outcome than in a required class presentation.

Part of the solution is making “practicing and polishing” part of the grade so that the motivation for a good grade is tied to these essential presentation skills (points off for reading/reciting–or, even better, no points).

A better way to make students feel ownership of their presentations is by encouraging them choose topics that they care about and that are related to their professional aspirations. This has two purposes: first, it makes them more likely to be genuinely engaged with their topic and second, it draws the connections between their language studies and their professional careers.  Then when they ask you for a letter of recommendation for professional school it can be a genuinely good one (see one of my top-three blog posts to students on asking for a letter of recommendation from a non-science professor).  Letters of recommendation leads us right into the next topic:


You’re preparing your students for so many things employers want in new employees: written & verbal communication, transcultural competence, problem-solving, decision-making, ability to synthesize & analyze, ability to work in multicultural teams.

But this is what always shocks me: when it comes time to prepare a resume, students usually represent all of this with one word: “Spanish” down at the bottom in the “Skills” section with Microsoft Office–like a P.S., an afterthought.

To move beyond that, students have to stop listing language on their resume and start illustrating how they use their language. Start with:

How did you use language?

What did you do, specifically? (list tasks or activities and use action verbs, not “helped,” “supported,” “assisted with”).

Add quantifiable information.

Because students can’t say it all in a one-page resume and because they can’t expect hiring managers to read between the lines on their behalf, they must prepare to follow up (in cover letters, personal statements, or interviews).  There are three basic steps: 

1-share a specific experience,

2-say what they learned from it (it can be one of those soft skills employers want—it should be something from the job ad), and

3-close by saying how that skill would be applied as an employee of the industry or organization where applying.  

These are just a few of the ways to “bake” career prep into already-existing curricula.  I will continue to post suggestions and specific examples here.  If you are interested in workshop materials, send me an email: darcylear@gmail.com

2009 Head ShotDarcy Lear is a career coach specializing in job search documents, professional school applications, and interview preparation. For more tips on “baking career prep into the curriculum” or to set up a campus workshop for faculty or students, contact Darcy: darcylear@gmail.com
This entry was posted in Career Advice, document preparation, interview prep. Bookmark the permalink.

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