A Little Exercise to Help College Freshman Apply a Skills Perspective to their Educational Planning

By William Coplin

College career counselors face a daunting task in trying to get students ready for the job market. Students tend to put off thinking about their career/ job preparation until their junior or senior year when it would be much better if they planned for skill development at the beginning of their freshman year. Moreover, most of them wouldn't know where to start even if they wanted to.

This summer a group of instructors in Syracuse University's "Summer Start" program and I devised an exercise that career counselors could conduct in a variety of settings with groups of students ranging from 12 to 48. The exercise takes from one to three hours.

The goal of the exercise is to encourage students in their freshman year to envision the information they would like to provide employers through their resume and interview when they apply for jobs in their senior year. That information should demonstrate the general skills that all employers want job applicants to have.

Once you introduce the idea of envisioning a resume, the next step is to provide a list of skills. Any list will do, but one possibility is the NACE list of 20 in its 2002 survey. The list we used comes from a recently published book I authored entitled, “Ten Things Employers Want You to Learn in College”. The book provides students with a way to plan their four years of college by giving them a list of 38 skill sets across ten what I call "Know-how Groups."

The following 9 of the 38 skill sets in the book were used for the exercise. They were:

    *1. Kick Yourself in the Butt
    *2. Converse One-on-One
    *3. Use Word-Processing Tools
    *4. Work in Teams
    *5. Manage Efficiently
    *6. Use Library Holdings
    *7. Use Spreadsheet Programs
    *8. Pay Attention to Detail
    *9. Launch Solutions

The exercise was presented as a game where the highest score wins. Students were divided into groups of two. For a group of 12 students and 9 skills, we used the following procedures:

    *1. Six teams (A-E), each with two players randomly assigned.

    *2. Each team is assigned the Job Applicant Role or the Employer Role for three Different Skills. One Job Applicant Team and one Employer Role Team comes up to the front of the room for any given skill.

    *3. Employer Team asks the Job Applicant Team the first question and the conversation can go on for 2 to 5 minutes. The goal of the Employer Team is to assess whether or not the Applicant has the skill in question and the goal of the Job Team is to convince the Employer Team that it does.

    *4. The Employer Team rates the Job Applicant Team on the basis of 1 (poor) to 10 (excellent) after asking questions and stating why they gave the rating.

    *5. The Instructor rates the Employer Team on the basis of 1 to 10 on how it does in rating the Job Applicant Team. The Instructor makes comments to both teams and the audience about what activities need to be undertaken in order to demonstrate the skill in question.

    *6. Team with the highest total score wins.

The crucial component in the exercise is the Instructor's comments. Critical points can be made as the Instructor gives points to the Employer team about the nature of what employers are looking for. In the explanations, comments on what the Job Applicant team did or did not say can also be made. Because points are being awarded, the students will pay very close attention to the praise and criticism. Students will see how important it is to have specific experiences while in college to provide specific evidence to demonstrate that they have various skills.

The exercise can run for one to three hours depending on the number of students and the number of skills chosen and teams can consist of between one and five members. The exercise could be followed by briefings showing the tools that Career Services offices have to offer. A more intense experience could be provided if students are asked to prepare an "ideal" resume that they would like to have when they graduate and to list the courses and activities they will undertake.

It seems clear from the students' discussion and enthusiasm that the exercise worked. It appears that a skills perspective was not the students' focus at the beginning of the exercise, as they were thinking more about majors and how to get a high GPA as the clearest path to get a good job. Perhaps they also realized that the exercise helped them to provide a solid answer to the perennial question, "so what are you going to do with your college degree?" The answer goes something like this: "I am going to get a good job and have a great career because my college education will give me the skills that all employers want."

Bill Coplin is a professor of public policy at the Maxwell School and the College of Arts and Sciences, Syracuse University, and author of "Ten Things Employers Want You to Learn in College" (Ten Speed Press, 2003). He can be reached through wdcoplin@syr.edu

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