Impressive grades might earn you congratulatory nods from your professors, but beyond college, academic performance takes a back seat to practical skills. The 300+ hiring professionals who responded to Interships.com's 2012 survey on workforce demands said on-the-job experience outweighed academic performance. Part of that could be chalked up to how unprepared graduates are for the realities of the working world: An increasingly disturbing body of research suggests that despite the cost of college increasing at an intimidating rate, graduates still lack many of the technical skills and workplace maturity employees value. Developing those qualities is oftentimes up to the student and completed outside of an official academic curriculum. Here's what employees really want, and what they don't.
Where students get it wrong
Let's start by examining this crucial point. A survey commissioned by Chegg of more than 2,000 students and 1,000 hiring managers showed that students tended to overestimate the importance of their GPAs, name-brand education and personal connections. These features were significantly less important to actual employers. Seventy-seven percent of students believed that personal or professional connections in their field are "very or extremely important" in landing a job, versus just over half of employers. Holding a degree from a prestigious institution and maintaining a high GPA had similar value discrepancies, with students valuing both nearly 20 percent more than employers.
"It is much less important where you go to college. … What's really important is how you go to college, how you study, the kind of involvement you have," says Dewayne Matthews, vice president of strategy development for Lumina Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing the population of college-educated Americans. "... It is being involved in projects, long-term projects in your discipline or in your field, being involved in teams, having the ability to apply and use what you're learning. Students who seek out those kinds of experiences — and they are available — have better outcomes both in terms of employment and in terms of quality of life than students who don't."
What colleges do and don't teach
Only 11 percent of business leaders in a Lumina Foundation Gallup poll strongly agreed that higher education institutions are providing students with the skills and competencies needed for their organizations. As for what those are, applied skills in the field and knowledge of the industry topped the list. The ability to work in teams, problem-solve, organize and prioritize work, and verbally communicate with those both in and outside the office were ranked as the qualities employers most want, according to separate research from the National Association of Colleges and Employers.
Colleges oftentimes provide opportunities to cultivate the field knowledge aspect of this equation, but those skills are less likely to be cultivated in a classroom. That's why it's generally up to the student get wise to their field, says Oliver Raskin, head of customer insight for Chegg.
"There are different ways to do it," he says. "You can obviously self -teach. There are tremendous numbers of online resources and tutoring experience and volunteer opportunities to do. One of the great things in the online [space] is there's the rise of [Massive Open Online Courses]. ... Students that are motivated and focused can build and close these skills gaps that they have around technology or business quite readily."
Rich Feller, former president of the National Career Development Association and a professor at Colorado State University's School of Education, also recommends reading journals "that tie directly to the language of the industry [students] want to move into" and blogs that can provide an insider's glimpse into the culture of a specific field.
"Learning about the culture of that industry is critical, [as is] hanging out with people who have the title of the kind of work [students] want to do …," Feller says. "We learn so much from each other. The closer we are to talking to people who we trust that are closer to where we want to be, they help us get there a lot faster."
How soft skills are built
As for softer skills — such as problem-solving, communication, organization and teamwork — those can be developed through a wide array of experiences, anything from completing an internship or paid job to taking a leadership role in a campus organization to getting involved with a professional association in your field, says Heather R. Huhman, author of "Lies, Damned Lies & Internships: The Truth About Getting from Classroom to Cubicle."
"It's not just of course showing up to meetings," Huhman says. "You have to actually be an active participant to build those skills."
Students should also be able to prove that they have taken active steps to develop those skills, show documentation of how they did it and communicate why those skills make them a better job candidate, according to Oliver Raskin.
"Not only are [employers] looking for specific skills, but how those skills were obtained and why those skills were obtained, because at the end of the day, you're looking for a new hire to demonstrate initiative because initiative is predictive of how they're going to behave for the rest of their careers," he says. "You're not looking for a pair of hands; you're looking for a brain and a heart and energy and motivation."
"Bridge That Gap: Analyzing the Student Skill Index," Chegg, Inside Higher Ed, Fall 2013,
Rich Feller, Professor Emeritus at Colorado State University and Former President of the National Career Development Association, Interviewed by the author, June 5, 2014
Heather R. Huhman, Author of "Lies, Damned Lies & Internships: The Truth About Getting from Classroom to Cubicle," Interviewed by the author, June 5, 2014
"Internships Survey Reveals the Increasing Importance of Internships for Both Students and Employers," Internships.com, Dec. 6, 2012,
"What America Needs to Know About Higher Education Redesign," Lumina Foundation and Gallup, Feb. 25, 2014, pages 25-29
Dewayne Matthews, Vice President of Strategy Development at Lumina Foundation, Interviewed by the author, June 6, 2014
"The Candidate Skills/Qualities Employers Want," National Association of Colleges and Employers, Oct. 10, 2013,
Oliver Raskin, Head of Customer Insight at Chegg, Interviewed by the author, June 6, 2014