Updated March 11, 2019

A parent of a college sophomore is starting a support group called “No Basement- Dwelling Grads.” Having seen his friends find their empty nests refilled by children who do “well” in college but are unable to get jobs, he doesn’t want it to happen to him. Studies show that about 60% of college graduates move back home.

Parents face many challenges in helping their children get what they need out of their college education, but the one thing mom and dad can do something about is to correct any mistaken belief that a college degree and a high GPA will guarantee the job their child wants. In a study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, GPA was ranked only 17th out of 20 attributes employers want. For most positions, a 3.0 is good enough to get a potential employee past the first cut. Skills and character determine career success; a college degree guarantees neither.

There is not much a parent can do to help college students to improve character, so let’s focus on skills.

Employers don’t want just degree holders; they want professionals who have the general skills that every job demands. A list of the 38 skills every employer wants, but rarely find, appears in the chart below. It is based on conversations with corporate recruiters, published research on career development and experience in advising more than 1,000 students over the past 26 years.

It sounds like a simple and obvious message, but most college students just don’t get it. Brainwashed from kindergarten that getting into a good college will guarantee their future, they have been turned into grade-getting machines, with college being just one more set of hurdles to jump. Since most of these hurdles come in the form of taking tests to unload or synthesize information, students assume that learning the content is what’s important – not learning the skills.

When students ask me what kind of job a specific major will lead to, I tell them “your major does not matter; the important thing is to develop skills like problem-solving, working with people, writing well and a variety of computer applications.” The next question usually is, “so if I major in sociology what kind of job will I get?” Sometimes it takes two or three years for students to get the point that “it’s the skills.”

College-bound students need to envision an ideal resume that will be ready by the fall of their senior year. The resume should provide clear evidence to employers that they have the requisite experience to have developed the right professional skills. These experiences might include:

  • Resident Advisor to show communication, problem-solving and work ethic skills.
  • A reporter for the school newspaper to show evidence of writing skills.
  • A steady record of community service to show caring for others.
  • High-quality summer internships to show that they were already “hired” and therefore mastered and have had the opportunity to further develop their skills.
  • University job with management responsibilities to show attention to detail, managing people and work ethic.
  • Telephone sales or survey job to show communications skills and the ability to deal with rejection.
  • Research project with a professor to show higher-level analytical and information gathering skills.
  • Courses that emphasize writing and team projects to show the ability to work well with others.
  • Treasurer for a student organization to show money management, attention to detail and leadership skills.

Students need to understand that coursework serves only as a starting point. The proof is in the doing in the world outside the classroom. Career-ready college graduates see everything they do in their four years of college as an opportunity to improve their skills.

This process should start in the freshman year. To compete for a career-expanding summer internship in the junior year, a solid track record is necessary for the two previous years. To be appointed a resident advisor or to work on research with a professor can only happen with previous skill-building experiences.

Here’s some advice for parents: place. Place the following quote from Aristotle under junior’s pillow: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” That should keep your offspring out of your basement — except during family holidays.

Bill Coplin is a professor of public policy at the Maxwell School and the College of Arts and Sciences, Syracuse University, and author of “Ten Things Employers Want You to Learn in College” (Ten Speed Press, 2003).

38 Skills That Will Make You a Pro in Whatever Field Your Choose

Establishing a Work Ethic 
Be Diligent o Be Honest o Manage Your Time o Manage Your Money

Developing Physical Skills 
Stay Well o Look Clean o Type 35 WPM Error Free o Take Legible Notes

Communicating Verbally 
Converse One-on-One o Present to Groups o Use Visual Displays

Communicating in Writing 
Write Well o Edit and Proof o Use Word-Processing Tools o Send Information Electronically

Working Directly with People 
Build Good Relationships o Work in Teams o Teach Others

Influencing People 
Manage Efficiently o Sell Successfully o Politick Wisely o Lead Effectively

Gathering Information 
Use Library Holdings o Use Commercial Databases o Search the Web o Conduct Interviews o Use Surveys o Keep and Use Records

Using Quantitative Tools
Use Numbers o Use Graphs and Tables o Use Spreadsheet Programs

Asking and Answering the Right Questions
Detect Nonsense o Pay Attention to Detail o Apply Knowledge o Evaluate Actions and Policies

Solving Problems 
Identify Problems o Develop Solutions o Launch Solutions

© Bill Coplin, 10 Things Employers Want You to Learn in College, Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2003