What Makes a Recent College Graduate Employable?

What Makes a Recent College Graduate Employable?
portrait of Julia K. Porter, Ph.D.
By Julia K. Porter, Ph.D.

Published on May 6, 2021

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Gone are the days when a four-year degree is all you needed to enter the workforce. Now, not only are employers looking for more from their new hires, but college students themselves are searching for the types of degrees that will help them obtain — and keep — a job.

A 2018 article in The Washington Post explains how there's been a shift in the types of degrees and jobs students are seeking. Increasingly, college students want job stability and financial security over careers they might consider personally fulfilling.

A 2020 BestColleges survey supports this conclusion. Compared to older generations, millennials were more likely to think of college majors in terms of potential career opportunities over softer concerns like personal enrichment.

Given the tough economic realities we live in — especially in light of the pandemic-driven recession — it's perfectly understandable why today's college students want an education that will afford them a stable job and income.

What Employers Want From College Students

The skills that employers used to look for back when our parents were applying for jobs aren't necessarily the same skills that those interviewing today's college graduates want.

CEO and founder of RegAlytics and 8of9 Mary Kopczynski, JD/Ph.D., is mainly on the hunt for enthusiasm. "I like bright eyes, interest, and the natural excitement that lights up when I explain what we are building," she said. "It's the stuff you can't really fake."

Candidates must also possess bare-minimum skills, such as basic knowledge of Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, and Excel — though Kopczynski wants more. "I like to see people that have taken on challenges and overcome obstacles. Most importantly, I like people who know how to sell themselves," she said.

“I like to see people that have taken on challenges and overcome obstacles. Most importantly, I like people who know how to sell themselves.”. Source: — Mary Kopczynski, JD/Ph.D., CEO and Founder of RegAlytics and 8of9

To effectively sell yourself, Kopczynski advises discussing other things you did in college, beyond just attending courses. "Even if you did nothing else but eat popcorn and play video games, there has to be a way to highlight your accomplishment."

For example, if you organized a dormwide World of Warcraft competition with over 30 participants — 30% of whom were female (which, Kopczynski notes, is 5% higher than the national average of female gamers) — that's something she'd like to know about.

Take a hard look at what you've accomplished throughout your college career and figure out how to tell your story in a way that will make employers understand the work you've done outside the classroom.

The Importance of Internships and On-the-Job Experience

Classroom learning is not enough — students need to practice applying their skills in a professional setting before entering the workforce. Some colleges even require students to complete internships before graduating.

A 2017 study by the NACE Center for Career Development and Talent Acquisition determined that the biggest predictors of career outcomes were a student's GPA and the number of internships they'd completed in college.

In other words, college students who complete an internship often secure gainful employment after graduation, either as a direct result of the skills they acquired on the job or because the company they interned with decided to hire them.

At Northwestern Mutual, which claims to be one of America's top internship providers for over two decades, interns can acquire hands-on experience in the financial sector.

Tips for Enhancing Your Employability

Reach Out to Your School's Career Services: These job experts can help you figure out the specific skills and experiences employers in your field are looking for. Participate in Mock Interviews: There's no better way to prepare for an interview than to mimic the real deal. A practice interview can reduce anxiety and increase confidence. Shadow Someone in Your Field: Identify what this individual is doing, what skills are necessary for their position, and what aspects of the job you aren't prepared for just yet and will need to research further. Seek Mentorship Early On: I received this sage advice when I first started working in education. My mentors' guidance was essential as I worked toward becoming a teacher and a professor. Students can identify potential mentors by contacting people in their networks or enroll in a mentorship program.

"Our program offers a real-world business environment that provides training and support while working with experienced advisors, providing mentoring and business coaching," said Onna Hill, director of talent strategy at Northwestern Mutual in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

"Students have the opportunity to improve skills, such as time management, communication, discipline, and perseverance, making them marketable to any organization should they not continue with Northwestern Mutual," Hill explained.

As the CEO and founder of CareerQueen and InternQueen, Lauren Berger also recognizes the importance of college internships. Together, her two websites reach more than 9 million people, helping them obtain their dream careers.

"Internships are essential to helping students … land jobs after college [and] are instrumental in helping them understand the types of jobs, industries, and opportunities that they'd be best suited for," said Berger. "Ideally, the internship provides the student with guidance on what they do and do not want to pursue in the workforce."

Gaining Essential Skills Through Certificate Programs

From the time we start school, it's ingrained in us that college is the pathway to a career. And though I strongly believe education as a whole is a great way to secure employment down the line, a traditional four-year degree isn't the right trajectory for everyone.

Mia D. Johnson, Ph.D., vice chancellor of academic affairs at Indiana's Ivy Tech Community College, shared how important certificate programs are for students who need to make an income right away — possibly even on their way to earning an associate or bachelor's degree.

"We are ramping up technical and other certificates that get students credentialed to start working, even if another degree is their end goal," said Johnson. "Short-term credentials help them earn [money] faster. We have been intentional about making [certificates] stackable so that students can earn them on the way to a two-year degree."

Certificate programs can help students more quickly and more effectively acquire the skills and experience they need to begin working.

Certificate programs can help students more quickly and more effectively acquire the skills and experience they need to begin working.

These nondegree options can be immensely useful for students, especially those who don't fit the mold of the stereotypical 18-to-22-year-old receiving financial support from their parents or guardians. According to Inside Higher Ed, 70% of college students work full time or part time.

One example Johnson gave was the welding certificate. Individuals who earned this credential were not only making money right out of high school but filling a critical community need.

Johnson also noted how certificates in fields like patient care can prepare students who want to work in the medical field but not necessarily as a nurse or a doctor: "We need people to get patients checked in at a hospital [and] greet them. … This is important work."

Prospective students who plan to work as they earn their degree or who are eager to start working in a particular field may want to consider earning a certificate. These shorter-duration programs can help you quickly obtain specific skill sets that are required for employment in a given industry.

What Colleges Are Doing to Make Students Employable

Ohio's Tiffin University has made great strides to create a curriculum centered on cultural diversity in order to produce graduates with employable skills. But how did the institution identify which skills were necessary?

According to TU's president, Dr. Lillian Schumacher, the university "created a framework that consists of four cluster areas and 13 competencies that are built into [the] Tiffin core curriculum and then reinforced within each TU major field of study."

Schumacher went on to explain, "Some examples of these competencies are diplomacy, objectivity, professional practice, critical thinking, emotional intelligence, and ethical behavior. All of these are examples of tangible, real-world, needed skills that employers want."

Brooklyn College, which is part of the City University of New York system, also recognizes that students must learn how to write compelling resumes, improve their interview skills, and utilize their connections to find employment.

“Diplomacy, objectivity, professional practice, critical thinking, emotional intelligence, and ethical behavior. All of these are examples of tangible, real-world, needed skills that employers want.”. Source: — Dr. Lillian Schumacher, President of Tiffin University

A 2020 New York Times article discusses the college's efforts to actively recruit alumni in order to help current students sharpen their skills, learn more about the fields they plan to work in, and prepare to enter the workforce.

"There are some majors that embed career activities or education in their courses. Choosing a major and career is tightly connected, so as students choose a major, the conversation is certainly going to touch upon careers," said Natalia Guarin-Klein, director of Brooklyn College's Magner Career Center.

"Students who want in-depth and comprehensive guidance can find support by being proactive through attending events [and] getting a mentor," Guarin-Klein explained. These are the kinds of experiences that can help students become more employable.

Brooklyn College also believes that campus diversity and learning from peers can make students more attractive to employers.

"Brooklyn College is one of the most diverse college campuses in the country. … We want our students to develop strong critical thinking skills [and] a deep commitment to inclusion," said Brooklyn College's president, Michelle J. Anderson. "The Brooklyn College experience makes our students natural team players, a skill that is essential in today's job market."


Feature Image: Morsa Images / DigitalVision / Getty Images

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