Building a Better Student: Beyond the Diploma, Part 1

graduation cap sitting on table

Every year, the job market is swamped with millions of new high school and college graduates, each racing to land one of the few job openings. The competition is not unlike musical chairs, with more applicants than positions, and it can be heartbreaking for a student who has worked hard for four years – or more – in preparation for this one opportunity.

Often they end up settling for a position unrelated to their studies. In fact, according to The Washington Post, barely one-fourth of college graduates are in a position closely related to their major. Even more eye-opening, forty percent of them take a job that doesn’t even require a college diploma.

Pretty daunting, especially since the college loans stick around to taunt them.

It’s important to impress upon our kids that – given the competition – it takes more than a piece of paper. The college degree may help, but many times the intangibles are what sway an employer. What does it take beyond the diploma to make a difference?

There are external factors (those that can be observed by others) along with internal elements – those of a more personal and intimate nature. This edition of Building a Better Student focuses on the external side; next week’s column, Part 2, will move inside the head and the heart.

As someone who has interviewed and hired prospects over the years, there are six external areas – some might call them extrinsic – where young people should focus when not hitting the books.

1)  Communications skills with adults . . . and, yes, these are different from the everyday chats with their friends. Speaking in a mature and professional manner definitely influences an adult who is deciding whether or not to put the fate of their business in a young person’s hands.

2)  Promptness. Need I say more?

3)  Willingness to work longer hours than anyone else. I’ve interviewed my share of recent graduates who informed me that they’d need three weeks of vacation and all holidays off. They left still unemployed.

4)  How to dress well. This is increasingly difficult for some young people, because impressing their friends is still the most important thing in their lives. Soon they’ll discover that a solid income is a bit more important than “being comfortable in my flip flops.”

5)  General business skills outside of their degree. If I have ten people applying for a job, I’ll look more closely at someone who displays business competence. Understanding how companies work – customer service, cash flow, etc – goes a long way in distinguishing one candidate from another.

6)  True networking skills. These are not the same as ordinary social media “friendships.” It’s never too early for students to observe how networking creates relationships that help the company while benefiting them professionally, as well.

There are others, of course, but, if a student learns these half-dozen, they’ll put themselves ahead of a vast number of their peers who think it’s all about the degree.

Today’s students have grown up in a society that preaches that we “shouldn’t judge.” But that’s exactly what an interview is: a judgment. What are your skills? What do you know? And why exactly do I need to hire you instead of her?

Going beyond the diploma can deliver the necessary edge. In the next episode of Building a Better Student, we’ll see how a series of internal shifts can also make a positive difference.

Dom Testa is an author, speaker, morning radio show host, and has kept a ficus tree alive for twenty two years. He’s also the founder and president of The Big Brain Club, a non-profit foundation that helps young people recognize that Smart Is Cool. More info at www.DomTesta.com.

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