how college doesn’t prepare students for the work world

For all the talk about how college is essential to landing a good job after graduation, higher education often fails to prepare students for the workforce in several key ways. Even with a degree from a competitive school and a high GPA, many students graduate without ever having been taught these 10 essentials for the workplace.

1. Effort doesn’t matter; results do. It’s great to try hard, but if you’re not getting the job done well, it ultimately won’t matter. In the workplace, you’re judged by the quality of what you produce, not by how hard you worked to produce it.

2. Procrastinating is a really bad idea. In school, if you waited until the last minute to do a project in college, you were the only one who suffered. At work, if you put off a project until the last minute and then you’re sick or something else gets in the way, you risk your professional reputation – or could even get fired.

3. You need to be concise when writing in the workplace. Colleges tend to teach students to write long – assigning page count minimums, and encouraging long explorations of a single topic. While this has its own value, it’s exactly the wrong approach for the workforce. When writing for work, shorter is nearly always better. Most bosses don’t want to read long memos – they want the key highlights, ideally in bullet points.

4. Good writing isn’t stiff and formal. Many students come out of school believing that good writing is formal. But to the contrary, the ability to write conversationally is a highly valued – and marketable – skill. Whether it’s a cover letter or a business memo, the best writers don’t sound stiff.

5. You need to address both sides of an issue. In college, you could (and were often expected to) argue one point of view. At work, you’re expected to consider all options thoroughly and make a recommendation that includes pros and cons. And you should even poke holes in your own recommendation before you take it to your boss, so that she doesn’t have to.

6. Conforming to business culture matters. In college, individuality is often rewarded. In the workplace, employers are looking for employees who fit in with the culture. That means conforming to office norms about dress and conduct and even small things like how phones are answered or how meetings are run.

7. Employers are looking for experience, not just knowledge. Don’t spend all your time taking classes. Get out there and get some experience doing actual work.

8. Appearance counts. In most industries, if you dress overly casually or too “young,” you won’t be taken seriously. Flip-flops, nose rings, ultralow-rise jeans, visible bra straps, or revealing necklines all say that you’re still dressing for class, not a job.

9. You have to keep learning. Too many students come out of college not even knowing what the authoritative publications are in their field, let alone keeping up with them. You’re expected to keep your skills and knowledge up-to-date and continue learning throughout your whole career. College is just the beginning!

10. No one will care about your career like you do. If your boss promises you a promotion or raise and then never brings it up again, don’t sit around waiting for her to broach the topic again. You’re in charge of your own career now; there’s no caring faculty watching over you!

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 28 comments… read them below }

  1. Emily*

    Great article. You’d think students would know at least a couple of authoritative publications in their field though, how else do you finish that 10-page minimum paper?
    I don’t disbelieve you, I’m just surprised that’s a trend among grads.

    1. Julie*

      The field you’re majoring in (particularly if you’re in the humanities) often has no actual bearing to the field you’ll be in when you find a job. I have an M.A. in Medieval Studies, and while I could have told you the authoritative periodicals in that field at the time, I have yet to crack a single one of them open since leaving university.

  2. Anonymous*

    A couple of things:

    My college did teach how to be concise, particularly in grad school. Sure, we still had those long papers, but there were two page papers we had to write on just to say what happened in a 1000 page book!

    And there are some classes that do enforce students wearing professional attire.

    So, somethings are being taught; it’s just a matter of where.

    1. Emily*

      True. I actually did learn the basics of technical writing at college.

      Maybe the issue isn’t that college should prepare you for work but it doesn’t, maybe the issue is that’s not what college is for but students think they will be ready to work when you graduate. They don’t get summer jobs/intern/volunteer because they don’t think they will need the experience.

      1. Anonymous*

        In regards to your last sentence in reply to my posting earlier, my college also included a component for having an internship related to your field built in. If you were an education major, then that would be student teaching, but if you were in other fields, you had to seek out internships. And you couldn’t graduate without it, so sometimes a required course would be designed for you to do it.

  3. Kat*

    This article is so on point. As a college student in her 30’s I am especially guilty of the procrastinating and effort subjects. Especially when writing research papers — It’s a habit of mine. So I turn the tables on myself. Since I’ve been in the workforce for most of my life I’ll look at the paper I’ve written and the effort I’ve done and ask myself if I turn this into my boss would it be sufficient? As a paralegal, would this help our client? When it comes to procrastination I ask myself – would I be able to procrastinate and get this assignment done if it was given to me by my attorney? And if so, would it be my best work? Then I either revise accordingly or get off my butt and get the JOB done. College students should look at every assignment as an assignment given to them by their boss.

  4. Christine*

    Alison – Higher education has been an off-and-on interest of mine, so I am really glad to see this from your perspective. It’s been over 15 years since I got my Bachelors so I don’t know if anything changed at that level.

    I think Emily’s second post (at 11:27 a.m.) hits the nail on the head. While the coursework is good for getting good all-around knowledge as well as knowledge related to your chosen field, I think colleges need to encourage extra-curricular activities, such as student council or major-specific clubs, emphasizing that this isn’t just something fun to do…it can help you gain important skills for the work world, such as working on a team or, if you’re the club secretary, taking meeting minutes.

    Career centers also play a critical role, and I would love to see them collaborate more with academic and student life departments and find ways to help students connect the skills and knowledge gained through their coursework and activities to future jobs and careers.

    Even grad school felt short on this. My MSW program was very focused on theories and, unless you were already working in the field, you felt pretty unprepared come graduation. Don’t even get me started on Career Services here too!!

    Dang, I could write a novel on this…I think you just inspired me Alison!

    1. Christine*

      “Even grad school felt short on this” – Whoops, I meant “Even grad school falls short on this”.

    2. Recent Grad*

      I second your point about extra-curricular activities! I recently went through the job search process and found that most employers could not care less that I had taken a varied courseload, but were very impressed by my extra-curricular activities. It doesn’t even have to be related to the career you want–I volunteered as an EMT and now work in the legal field, but my position highlighted leadership, communication skills, and the ability to work under pressure.

      I would even recommend branching out and joining a club that interests you but is not career-related. I felt that my volunteer work made me really stand out because it wasn’t a more generic pre-law activity (plus it gave me really great stories for those “Tell me about a time you faced a difficult situation and how you resolved it” questions!).

  5. Anonymous*

    #6, about conforming to company culture, really hit home for me. But the problem really isn’t college–it’s the fact that people who conform never make the news (or case studies in books). So when you’re in business school and you have to read up on key players in the industry, you read about someone who went over his boss’s head to help a client and ended up saving a huge account, or so-and-so who had an idea to save the company millions, etc. I was recently reading “Working with Emotional Intelligence” and they mentioned a salesman who would call his customers at home when new things came in that he thought they’d like. So college students, or anyone in the workforce who reads these things in order to self-educate, tries to emulate the people highlighted in those blurbs.

    Problem is, no one writes about the person who went over his boss’s head to help a client, saved the account…and got fired for insubordination. Or my cousin, who worked in a nursing home and tried to be real friends with the residents, loaning them her books and movies and baking goodies for them (with the nurses’ approval, not like it wasn’t on their diet)…and got fired when one of the residents’ family members lodged a complaint because she resented her father (the resident) liking my cousin so much.

    College tries to teach you to be a leader, and to think outside the box. And I’m not saying they shouldn’t, because hopefully enough leader types getting out there will mean that things will change later on. But for right now, it’s dangerous to enter the workforce thinking that you can actually make a unique contribution. They want interchangeable robots, not leaders.

  6. Anonymous*

    I’m sorry, but any college that doesn’t teach you to write concisely while considering all sides of an issue and being open about evidence that doesn’t support your argument is a pretty terrible college. Also, if you’re college grades you on effort rather than results, I’d argue that you’ve chosen the wrong college. I agree that college doesn’t prepare you for the workplace (and would argue that it shouldn’t, that’s not its purpose) but these three points are only relevant if you had terrible professors.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It’s actually very, very common, including among graduates from great colleges, for students to enter the workforce not knowing how to do this stuff. I see it all the time! I cannot tell you how many smart employees from excellent colleges I’ve had to train to concisely present key information rather than writing a 2-page memo.

      1. Anonymous*

        Oh I don’t doubt that many graduates from good colleges aren’t able to write concisely, I’m just saying that any good college will teach and emphasize this and that a professor who encourages length rather than substance and clarity in written work is a professor you probably shouldn’t listen to. My program drilled this into our heads, but many students paid no attention because they were convinced they already knew how to write. I wouldn’t blame colleges for this, I blame students who don’t listen.

  7. Fifi*

    As someone who graduated in the last few years and is on her second job I thoroughly agree with all of these points (although my languages degree often had vastly shorter word limits on essays than your average humanities degree which meant less room for waffle… :) )
    One thing most colleges don’t really prepare you for is working closely with people from a range of different ages and even different backgrounds and nationalities. You’ll need a job for that. I’d had part time jobs but didn’t truly grasp this until I was sitting next to someone in her forties with someone in his sixties a few desks over.

  8. Anonymous*

    As someone who has been working in higher education, I want to note that many faculty are very proactive in trying to teach these lessons. Students are encouraged to take advantage of internships, volunteer work, practicums, etc.. Departments work together (e.g., career services with a specific major program of study). Many colleagues of mine require business etiquette for emails. And more…

    Certainly there are some faculty members who do not engage with students and the campus community in this way; however, many do. The issue I see is that students do not take advantage of this information and advice. Even when a policy about dress or appropriate communication is explicitly outlined on a syllabus, some students will ignore the rules.

    There are students who already know these lessons, students who are willing to learn them, and students who just don’t care.

  9. Christa*

    As a relatively recent grad (I have been working full time now for a year), I can agree with a lot the article, especially the experience part. Getting out there and doing an extracurricular within or out of your major gives you valuable experience that classrooms can’t give you. Not only when it comes to knowledge, but also general interpersonal skills, which are absolutely essential and always what hiring managers are looking at when they are considering candidates. Without that outside experience, I don’t think I would be where I am right now.

  10. Elo*

    Good points! I learned to write concisely during my classes, but my professors never designated a minimum page limit. As a recent grad I’d also like to point another thing out that irked me at my university. In the good majority of majors students didn’t have classes on Fridays, which many faculty mentioned is unlike the workplace. Especially jobs where you have a set schedule and are expected to come in on Fridays. Therefore, Thursday nights were designated drinking nights.

  11. Barbara*

    I would like to point out that all you can truly say about college graduates is that they do not demonstrate that they learned certain things in school. You have no way of knowing what every professor/instructor of every college actually taught. Colleges and universities cannot hold Johnny back if he didn’t learn how to write concisely. It is up to the student to learn the material and apply it in class and after school.

  12. Nathan A.*

    I think graduate programs offer more *hands on* examples that reflect the workforce life than most undergraduate work. The most effective on-the-job skill my undergrad degree gave me was how to make a good argument.

    For instance, when I was an MBA student, I produced business plans, risk models, simple regressions, arguments for/against mergers, upgrades to legacy systems, workflow and budget management, etc. It provided me framework for how various roles in a large corporation function as far as the technical aspects are concerned. When I entered my first corporate job, I felt like I was more acclimated than a peer who had not had the same academic training.

  13. just me*

    I have some friends that just finished their Masters. They believe that alone should make them qualified for managers jobs/leadership positions of which they have no exp.
    One time he was trying to explain in philisophical terms of communications what was wrong with a process and used all these $10 words, etc. I looked at him and said… so another words, the system is messed up. He looked at me and we bough laughed !!
    My other friend basically says.. ” I have a Masters so therefore I deserve…..”

    If there is anything that college BS, BA Masters, should teach is a little humility and that book learning is nothing like practical exp.

    Don’t get me wrong I am all for education, as much as one wants and can get. Maybe the prof’s should add a little bit of.. just because you have this degree doesn’t mean you are automatically qualified for anything you want. Use the knowledge as you start jobs but after you leave college the learning does not stop.

    1. Nathan A.*

      All it really does is provide the framework for what experience can be modeled against. It’s not a quick route to management. The only (rare) exception might be interning through a fortune 100 or consulting firm (if you have a top tier MBA), and even that isn’t a guarantee.

      Good MBA programs teach students how to manage processes – there’s no course that can teach a student how to manage people. If anything, psychology and sociology would be more apt to prepare a business savvy person for personnel management than any business course could.

      1. class factotum*

        Yes. The formulas are easy. Getting people to change is what’s hard. When skeptical recruiters would question the value of my BA in English, I would tell them that I had spent a few years analyzing what motivated the characters in the books I’d read and why they were really doing what they did. Understanding what makes people do what they do and knowing how to use that knowledge to effect change is as important as knowing how to optimize inventory balances.

      2. just me*

        Yes that is true. The one friend just accepted the job. While I can see him OK in the job itself doing the work, the actual managing of people will be intersting. Not too long ago he was not happy the his manager was questioning why he was punching out 5 mins early. What is the big deal he said. It is only 5 mins. ( this is apparently consistant ). Well lets see what his employees do and how he will feel about it.

  14. Katya*

    I agree with several of your points but totally disagree with #5, “You need to address both sides of an issue. In college, you could (and were often expected to) argue one point of view.” In college, it’s never acceptable to address only one side of an issue! A paper that doesn’t explore and deal with the potential weaknesses of a particular argument is a terrible paper. It’s probably the writing skill that I improved the most on in college. Successful arguing of an issue relies on considering multiple points of view, and exposure to alternate ways of thinking is one of the greatest opportunities offered by the kind of critical thought you practice in college.
    Unless you actually mean that in the work world, it is always best to treat both sides of an issue as if the are equally viable as opposed to coming to a decision about which is probably the better idea, I don’t think there’s any discrepancy between successfully supporting an argument in a college paper and in the work world.

    1. Anonymous*

      Thank you, totally agree. College is where I learned this and I’ve seen it modeled far more in academia than in the work environments I’ve been in. That said, I graduated with a degree in the social sciences from a major research university, so it is very possible they placed much more of an emphasis on this there. I could imagine that people with a business or math degree or a degree from a different kind of college might not have had this drilled into their heads as much.

  15. Cheryl*

    I would love to use this article with my students in the college class I teach. Is that possible? Would you mind terribly?

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