Last week I wrote about the “front end” of the college process, the SAT. This week I will address the back end: what the young adult in your family can expect to do with his or her college diploma, once it is in hand. There is a surprising, but reassuring similarity in the skills needed to succeed on the SAT and gain college admission, and the skills needed to successfully land and succeed in a first job after college.

These economic pressures have made things especially difficult for college graduates hoping to enter the job market. Yet no matter the state of the economy, graduating college students will find it more and more difficult to land fulfilling jobs in the years ahead, unless they take some basic steps to distinguish themselves.

Squeaking by with less-than-stellar grades may land your son or daughter a diploma, but it might not help him or her land a job offer. Employers are increasingly looking at college grades as part of their evaluative process and they are also beginning to test for basic skills such as writing, analytical thinking and quantitative reasoning before placing a job offer on the table.

Of course, one would think that students who fail to learn these skills would have a much harder time getting even to the campus gates, let alone graduating. That is true; in fact, putting aside for a moment the economic storm clouds of the past three years, the lesson of the of the past three decades is that basic skills – reading, writing and math – are the best predictors for SAT, college and labor market success. In the absence of those skills, the chances for a young adult to achieve the very best performance are severely limited.

All that I have written so far may be hitting you like a particularly cold shower, especially at the start of this new academic year. But all is not bleak. There are some basic steps that you can encourage your young adult to take, so that he or she is developing a skill set of interest to employers, or at least attempting to match his or her skill set to employers’ expectations. These steps include:

  • Factoring interests and passions into choosing the right major. Tell your young adult to take the time to make an informed choice about his or her course of study. Too many students choose a major based upon what they think will earn them the biggest paycheck.
  • Studying field projections of majors before choosing one. A recently released book called College Majors Handbook, available at major bookstores, offers field projections for 60 different majors, letting students know which occupational fields are growing and which aren’t. For example, the demand for elementary school teachers is expected to increase at a below-average rate of 13 percent between 2002 and 2012, while the demand for special education teachers is expected to expand my more than 30 percent during the same time. Understanding differences like this can pay off when students have to decide where to specialize their degree.
  • Acquiring the basic skills needed to do certain jobs, and not just assuming that a degree, with an interesting major that fits field projections, will do the trick. Studying a job, and skills required for it, will help graduating students figure out whether that job would suit them, whether they have the skills needed for the job, and whether it is a job they would be interested in.

When all is said and done, most students will probably discover that strong basic skills such as writing, analytical thinking and quantitative reasoning can make or break their employability. And since those same skills are a prerequisite to success on the SAT or in college itself, maybe there is a method to the madness.