College Preparation v. Career Readiness: Close the Gap!

6187_544272209083923_3541349427109924735_nIn March, I presented at the Symposium on Languages for Specific Purposes in Phoenix on the mismatch between college preparation and career readiness.

When a new academic quarter began at the University of Chicago this week, I was determined to try to bridge the college preparation – career readiness gap at the level of administering the course I teach.  

Throughout the spring quarter, I will share specific examples of career readiness activities I deploy in class.

First, some background. Here are a few examples of what employers want in recent grads who are new hires and why college might not be preparing students properly:

1- Organized problem-solving, decision-making, information-obtaining individuals. The National Association of Colleges and Employers publishes the results of annual surveys, “Job Outlook: The Candidate Skills/Qualities Employers Want.” Those skills and qualities include decision-making; problem-solving; planning, organizing and prioritizing work; ability to obtain and process information.

But on campus, nearly everything is highly prescribed: our courses, syllabi, assignments, project descriptions, etc. make all the decisions for students. We plan & prioritize the work in tidy 10-15 week chunks. We point students in all the right directions for obtaining information, rarely asking them to explore new sources on their own and recoiling at the thought of them consulting Wikipedia.

2- New hires with real-world professional experience. The Atlantic cites the Chronicle of Higher Education in this piece on What Employers Want. It turns out employers want to hire recent grads with work experience, internships, volunteerism, extracurriculars.  College major does matter.  GPA doesn’t matter much.  

Screen Shot 2014-04-14 at 8.06.04 AMBut on campus, grades rule.  A’s matter. GPA’s are everything. How disappointing for the recent grad who has been trained over decades to value grades and GPAs above almost everything else in the educational experience.

3- A tolerance for ambiguity. Jeff Selingo has a second book on the campus to career transition coming out in April 2016, “There Is Life After College.”  Here’s my favorite quote from his LinkedIn post, “For What Kind of Future Work Are We Educating Our Kids?” 

Success in the future will belong to those able to tolerate ambiguity in their work. Too many recent graduates approach their job descriptions the way they did a syllabus in college—as a recipe for winning in a career. They want concrete, well-defined tasks, as if they were preparing for an exam in college. But jobs are a mash-up of duties. 

But on campus, we hand out the syllabi full of concrete, well-defined, short-term tasks. See item 1 above.  Also see my post here on one small way we can free ourselves and ours students from the tyranny of prescribed tasks and start to develop a tolerance for ambiguity.

4- The ability to apply the rich skills acquired in college to the real-world setting of the workplace. The Association of American Colleges and Universities’ “Falling Short? College Learning and Career Success” reports that employers value applied learning, including “written and oral communication, teamwork skills, ethical decision making, critical thinking, and the ability to apply knowledge in real-world settings.”

But on campus, we focus on theory and neglect application. Our students have wonderful written and verbal communication skills when it comes to academic essays. But can they apply that to the kind of communication they’ll have to do in the workplace: writing emails, memos, agendas, reports; meetings with supervisors, vendors, customers?

Here is how I have started off my spring quarter course with some attempts to address the college preparation – career readiness gap:

Day 1.  Warm-up activity to start class: Talk to at least 3 classmates, find out names, majors and something you have in common.  After 3-5 minutes, a few students present their results to the whole class.

My favorite today: two students had worked–at different times– for the same Principal Investigator in the same lab on a combined psychology-biology project.

Professional takeaway: Networking must start with something that you have in common.  In early conversations, find out what that is. Then you can build on that through a lifetime of networking–first, just keeping in touch on a topic of mutual interest, eventually sharing opportunities, then doing & asking favors (note I put doing the favor before asking the favor!)

This takes a lifetime! It’s not a one-time conversation. It’s not a transaction. And it will never fit into a 15-week semester!

pencilsDay 2. Warm-up activity to start class: Take down my contact information, then exchange contact information with each other. The logistics of this activity are described in day 3 my earlier post, Make Professional Development and Career Prep Part of Your Language Courses–Every Day! 

The new twist for career readiness is that students received full credit or no credit for taking down my contact information correctly. The message to students is twofold:

1) In the workplace, there are no letter grades.  You succeed or you fail.  If you have one letter wrong on an email address or one digit wrong on a phone number, you might not be able to contact that person. You don’t get “partial credit” from your boss for having nine out of ten digits right on that phone number you took down and passed on.

2) This is a minor failure–the kind we all make everyday. You’ll fail in some small way everyday. Your boss will too.  The three important takeaways are to try to avoid mistakes, accept the reality that you will make mistakes, and embrace the consequences.

When you do make a mistake, own it! Acknowledge that you messed up, apologize and take steps to correct it if possible. Don’t engage in subterfuge, react defensively, or try to negotiate your way out of trouble.

This last point is where the gap between college preparation and career readiness is the biggest. Within the educational context, we tend to encourage students to negotiate for partial credit, to ask us to give up time to “solve their problem” of missing a point, or to argue over a point lost on a test item. That’s exactly the opposite of an appropriate professional interaction–employers will want employees who are accountable for their actions and who own their mistakes; not employees who take up a bunch of other people’s time trying to cover up or weasel out of their mistakes.

Day 3’s participation quiz consisted of arriving on time.  Full credit for those who were present at 9:30 when class officially starts. Zero credit for those who had not yet arrived.  I cited Sreeraman Thiagarajan’s quote on BuzzFeed’s “36 Career Tips No One Will Actually Tell You:”

Reviews only happen once or twice a year, but appraisals happen everyday. Assume that everything you do will have an effect on your raise and promotion opportunities. 

I’ve seen this with students’  service-learning experiences–and it mirrors the professional workplaces they are likely to encounter after graduation. If you consistently show up late, nobody’s going to say a word to you—but it will be reflected in your annual performance review. Likewise, community partners will give a low overall evaluation at the end of the service-learning experience and comment that the student consistently showed up late. To which the student will respond, “what!? I knew I was running late a lot, but nobody ever said anything so I thought it wasn’t a problem!”

Before students graduate and go out into the working world, they need to know this: if you consistently show up late (or otherwise behave unprofessional in a consistent manner), you’re not going to get tapped for any interesting work—new teams, new projects, out-of-office activities at which you represent your employer, extra assignments that can help you get ahead. You’re going to stagnate. That’s high stakes!  What’s low stakes: your quiz grade or participation grade stagnating in this class. Better to learn & practice now when the stakes are low!

Day 4’s lesson on ambiguity, obtaining information, problem-solving, decision-making. At the end of class today, I went over the first composition that students will have to hand in next week.

 The two professional takeaways:

1) Use good judgement when the prompt asks for “a complete answer.”  This small amount of ambiguity is a challenge for many students. They want to know “how many words should it be?” “how many lines should it be?” “what font should I use?”  

My answer: use good judgement and give me a complete answer.  I won’t punish you because you didn’t reach some arbitrary word count; but if you’re answer isn’t complete, you will lose points.  If you use bad judgement and turn in an assignment with script yellow font on white paper, your grade will suffer. But better to learn that lesson now than once you’re in the workplace.  And in the workplace, your employer will likely delegate small tasks like email writing, memo writing, agenda preparation–assuming that any college grad can handle it.  They won’t want to answer questions about word limit and font choice!

2) Google your question to find out how to do something new. In this context, I told students to set the language to “Spanish” in Word when they write their compositions. One student asked how to do that.  

IMG_4945My answer: type this questions into Google: “How do I set the language to Spanish in Word?” I know you can figure that out on your own.  No need to ask anyone else–especially not your instructor or supervisor in the workplace.  

Be resourceful! Obtain information on your own! Solve all those little “problems” and make all those little decisions for yourself.  

Week 2 participation quiz: draw a seating chart and label each seat with the name of the students sitting in each seat.  

Knowing names is important in professional contexts–including networking: people are impressed when you know their names on a second or third encounter.

Also important:  knowing how to quickly and smoothly get over the awkwardness of forgetting a name. It’s easy: “I’m sorry. I forgot your name.  My name’s Darcy.  What’s your name again?”  We did that in Spanish to wrap up this warm up activity.

Note: I’m teaching a multi-section basic Spanish course so there isn’t much room in the curriculum for me to “do my own thing,” but I do have flexibility with students’ “participation” grade so each day one of these daily activities is a 10-point “participation quiz” and the average of all those will be the 5% of the grade at the end of the course that is participation. You don’t have to rewrite your curriculum (nor abandon the humanities) to integrate career readiness into your courses.  

2009 Head ShotDarcy Lear is a career coach specializing in academic writing, job search documents, professional school applications, and interview preparation. To schedule a campus workshop or for help navigating your career transition, contact Darcy:
This entry was posted in Career Advice, Careers for Humanities Majors, darcy lear. Bookmark the permalink.

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