Four skills every college student should pursue

February 4, 2015

student_imageA simplistic view of higher education is that people emerge from four years of college with a specific skill related to their primary area of study: Education majors learn how to teach, accounting majors learn how to crunch numbers, allied health majors learn skills particular to the healthcare profession, and so on down line.

Yet, no matter your primary field of study, there are certain generalized skills that will serve you well in the modern economy where the average worker will change jobs an astonishing 11 times. Abilities in the areas of written expression, public speaking, foreign language, and quantitative analysis can and should be honed while pursuing a degree in any field. If you emerge from any degree-granting program capable in those four areas, your investment will be rewarded many times over.


Elect to major in English and only one thing is for certain—you’re going to endure at least four years of barbs and jabs from your know-it-all, curmudgeonly Uncle Jerry. At family gatherings, he’ll interrupt your attempt to relate your love of Chaucer to a group of elderly female relatives whose names you have never been 100% sure of (Agnes? Gertrude? Doris?) with something along the lines of:

Q: “What’s the difference between an English major and a park bench?”

A: “The park bench can support a family of four…hardy har har.”

Light laughter and stares of pity from the rest of the room follow.

What Uncle Jerry and his peanut gallery don’t realize is that becoming a highly literate person actually makes you a very marketable person in the modern economy. Reports, emails, memos, newsletters, press releases, and presentations are just a handful of the ways in which written communication is required on a daily basis in most places of business. Good writing sets a tone for a company, as does bad writing. Poor grammar, misspellings and subpar sentence structure in workplace communication can be the equivalent of showing up for a client meeting sporting a mustard-stained tie (something Jerry would totally do).

Whether or not you major in English, it behooves you to sharpen your writing skills throughout college—chances are you’ll use them in your future profession. Survey executives from literally any industry and they all say the same thing—quality writing is a necessary skill for most jobs. In fact, within American companies, over two-thirds of salaried employees have some level of writing responsibility. As a result, the vast majority of companies take writing ability into consideration when making hiring and promotion decisions.

Many employers bemoan the level of writing ability demonstrated by recent college grads, even those from elite schools. At risk of sounding like the aforementioned Uncle Jerry, in a world filled with daily texts, tweets, and Facebook posts, the average college grad’s grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure is simply no longer up to the standards of many hiring officials. This, however, is good news for all of you strong writers out there, as your skills have never been in greater demand.

Public Speaking

Warren Buffett once opined that for those entering the business world, becoming an effective public communicator can boost one’s future earnings by an estimated 50%. Unfortunately, this bump in income would be viewed by most people as full-blown hazard pay—public speaking is simply that terrifying an endeavor.

Fear of public speaking runs so deep that, in survey after survey, Americans report fearing the act of oratory more than any more traditionally nightmarish situation you can conjure up: heights, plane crashes, sharks, getting stuck in an elevator, getting stuck in an elevator filled with sharks, and most famously—death itself.

In trying to avoid public speaking one might first cross off the obvious list of professions requiring the practice: minister, motivational speaker, broadcaster, and actor. Unfortunately, the list doesn’t end there: purchasing agents, marketers, non-profit fundraisers, sales reps, public relations specialists, teachers, professors, realtors, and corporate trainers all are required to speak to groups, large and small, on a regular basis. In any profession, even ones almost completely devoid of social interaction, most employees will still likely have to go through a harrowing interview process, participate in staff meetings, and discuss one’s worth at some type of annual performance review. Public speaking, in one form or another, is pretty darn close to unavoidable.

To fully comprehend the value of quality public speaking, reflect on the practitioners of the art that you have witnessed every day for the last 12 or so years—your K-12 teachers. Sadly, a great many of this cohort were probably such poor presenters that they made your brain melt on a daily basis (coincidentally, brain melting is #74 on the list of Americans’ fears). On the other end, the best teachers you had were able to transcend the monotony of the school day, engaging, enlightening, and inspiring you, while even evoking laughter and tears. Imagine what possessing such a skill set would do for you in your chosen profession.

Some colleges and universities require that all graduates take a course in public speaking; most do not. Either way, we recommend that you seek out opportunities to practice this intimidating but extremely worthwhile craft. Taking a public speaking course is a good start but don’t stop there—ask around and find out which elective courses require presentations and consider joining a club or activity that requires public speaking. College presents a unique time to work on becoming comfortable presenting yourself and your ideas to others; a skill that will pay off mightily in your career.

Foreign Language

The Soviet launching of Sputnik in 1957 is widely recognized as the impetus for President Eisenhower’s initiative to improve science education in America’s public schools. The strong push for STEM education persists in the modern era, with the revised aim of preparing U.S. youth to compete in the global economy.

Lost to history, though, is the fact that Eisenhower also spoke of the equally pressing need to help American pupils become proficient in foreign languages. By the 1960s, over two-thirds of higher education institutions required students to learn a foreign language as part of bachelor’s degree; today that number has fallen to just 50%.

The cold-war may have crumbled with the Berlin Wall, but we now reside in a globalized marketplace where knowledge, trade, and investments know no borders. For anyone entering fields such as business, finance, information technology, software development, government, law enforcement, or healthcare (just to name a handful), fluency in a foreign language has never been more advantageous.

The ability to converse with international clients in their native tongue is of great value. Bi-lingual college grads entering the private sector right now can expect a 10-15% pay increase right off the bat; those conversant in Mandarin Chinese, German, Japanese, and Arabic may demand even higher compensation. As a secondary bonus, research shows that the process of language acquisition is the mental equivalent of a P90X workout. Bilinguals develop increased grey matter in their brains which leads to heightened creativity, focus, and decision-making ability.

While studying language may no longer be required at many colleges and universities, we recommend that you consider completing multiple levels of a foreign language and taking advantage of now-commonplace study abroad programs. Learning a language during your college years will be easier than one day listening to Rosetta Stone tapes in your car as you drive your screaming kids to daycare.

Statistical Analysis

News flash: Quantitative analysis is no longer done exclusively by middle-aged men in pocketed, short-sleeved white dress shirts, robotically inputting punched cards into giant mainframe computers. In a world with Moneyball, Nate Silver, Freak-o-nomics, and widespread fantasy sports participation, stats have officially entered the mainstream.

It goes without saying that individuals majoring in areas such as math, engineering, actuarial science, pre-med, or architecture, will be required to become fluent in the likes of calculus, geometry, and trigonometry. On the other end of the spectrum, many liberal arts majors manage to take just one basic math course in college or even eschew mathematics entirely. Math-phobic individuals tend to cast the quantitative out of their lives forever as soon as they are able; a move that may not prove altogether wise.

Some level of data analysis is now a requirement in a surprising number of non-STEM fields including but by no means limited to business, politics, non-profit work, healthcare, and education. Becoming a human calculator is less important in today’s workplace than being able to accurately interpret data. Traces of an increasingly data-driven society are everywhere. Analytics are increasingly being utilized by human resource departments for recruiting, measuring productivity, and workplace planning. Companies like Walmart and Amazon have famously used logistical models to revolutionize retail. Even the formerly quaint world of public education becomes more and more data-reliant each year in this age of accountability.

In an effort to cultivate math literacy, we recommend taking at least one statistics course and one economics course (preferably in microeconomics) during your undergraduate years. Possessing some level of ability to analyze data will enhance your employability in just about any field, whether or not you ever choose to don a pocketed, short-sleeved white dress shirt.

Next week: So much attention is paid to the process of selecting a college that the selection of a major becomes almost secondary. We’ll explore how to properly size up the economic implications of selecting an academic area of study.