Liberal-arts graduates sometimes don't buy the idea that they have
salable skills -- especially when they see students in such business-oriented
majors as computer science, accounting and finance being courted by employers as
early as the summer before their senior year.
"Some liberal-arts students really have trouble believing they're
marketable," says Brian Salvaggio, director of career services at Bridgewater
State College in Bridgewater, Mass.
Inevitably, he drags out job placement data from the past five years to show
the students what other psychology, sociology, history and other majors have
done with their degrees.
If you doubt the worth of the "soft" skills you've gained through your
liberal-arts education, consider the findings of a survey of what employers look
for in new college graduates by the National Association of Colleges and
Employers (NACE), a nonprofit organization in Bethlehem, Pa.
Top 10 Personal Qualities Employers Seek
1. Communication skills
3. Teamwork skills
4. Leadership skills
5. Academic achievement/grade-point average
6. Interpersonal skills
8. Technical skills
10. (tie) Work ethic
10. (tie) Analytical/problem-solving skills
"The employers don't pick these skills from a list. They write them down
themselves," says Camille Luckenbaugh, employment information manager for NACE.
"And 'communication skills' always comes in at No. 1 . . . If you look for these
skills in one particular group of seniors, you find that liberal-arts students
are very polished in most of these areas."
The view of Don Dion, president of Dion Money Management, an
investment-management firm in Williamstown, Mass., is typical of employers who
hire new college graduates. "What I need are people who are well-rounded, who
can figure things out quickly, who don't need tremendous supervision and who do
what they say they'll do, the first time," he says. "We need people who have a
good gut sense of how you should do things and who know the importance of having
high integrity and honesty. And if you think about it, the philosophy major, for
example, is one of many where you encounter those concepts; the same is true of
the history major and the religion major."
Amanda Kreusch, a political-science major who graduated in June from William
Smith College, a cooperative liberal-arts institution in Geneva, N.Y., says her
liberal-arts background will give her an edge in her career. "It's given me a
chance to excel in a wide variety of subjects -- everything from chemistry to
Russian -- without having to devote my entire four years to them," says the
contract specialist for the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C.
"This proves to employers that I can think in different ways, analytically as
well as creatively. They know that I'm well-rounded and that I can achieve in a
variety of settings." Her nonpaid internship with Zero Population Growth, a
nonprofit environmental organization in Washington, D.C., contributed to her
With most new graduates, a degree alone probably won't put you in the best
position to land a satisfying job after graduation. Employers, career counselors
and new graduates all stress that work and leadership experience are key, as is
learning how to identify and market the valuable "soft" skills your liberal-arts
education has given you.
Internship experience is a critical piece of your overall "package" of skills
as a liberal-arts grad. Even if you don't have any internship experience when
you graduate, Salvaggio says, it's not uncommon to get some after you've
Most schools also offer career counseling to help students identify the
skills they have to offer, whether those skills come from internships, jobs and
leadership experiences or even volunteer work and classroom projects.
"Identifying what you consider to be your skill set is critical," Salvaggio
says. "Career counselors can help you do that by helping you look at everything
you've done in school, including your classes."
For example, geography majors interested in urban planning may have used in
class the software being used in that field. Or, grads considering sales and
marketing may have done a project with industry in a class. They can show how
they conducted the research, put together a presentation, presented to a group
and developed evaluation tools.
Luckenbaugh notes that many liberal-arts graduates also tend to downplay, or
even ignore, the skills they've gained through the part-time or summer jobs
they've taken to earn extra money for tuition, books or rent. It's essential,
she says, to identify the skills you've gained from these experiences, keeping
in mind the qualities employers want.
"If, for example, you've been a waitress for two summers, you've gained good
interpersonal skills -- you've dealt with people a lot, gained customer service
skills and even gained some good organizational skills by not messing up
people's orders or bringing them the wrong food," Luckenbaugh says. "Of course,
these skills and experiences probably won't be as important as those you might
gain from, say, an internship. But it's important to focus on what these jobs
have given you -- even if it might not be obvious at first sight -- instead of
overlooking them altogether."
Mr. Vogt is a career counselor and
writer in Eden Prairie, Minn.
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