If you had to guess, what would you say employers are looking for in a fresh-out-of-college candidate?
- Insane proofreading skills?
- The ability to apply formalist theory to corporate memos?
- An encyclopedic knowledge of Jane Austin’s work?
None of these (though you’d probably already guessed where this was going).
The top skill employers need English majors to have isn’t the ability to read long texts. Nor is it a mastery of grammar (those both of these are valuable skills).
No, the top skill employers want is much more fundamental.
What Employers Need Most
There’s no way to prepare for everything you will encounter in the workplace. Every job tends to rely on a different set of skills, and every workplace has its favorite tools.
Trying to learn all of them is impossible. You’ll wear yourself out.
So don’t do it. Instead, take a smarter approach that will make you a much more flexible, attractive candidate: learn how to learn.
Knowing how to learn quickly makes you a great asset for your employers. By increasing the value you offer your company, you will insulate yourself from layoffs, wage cuts, and other hazards of working in the twenty-first century.
In one of my first jobs, my manager asked me to reach out to former customers and create an email campaign. Up until that point, I’d never used anything but Gmail or Outlook to send emails (the same might be true for you, too). It turns out sending professional emails requires a completely different platform that operates on its own set of rules.
Fortunately, I’d made it my goal as an undergraduate to be able to learn quickly. I found articles about how to choose an email service provider, writing a compelling subject line, and formatting emails for maximum readability. In about a day, I knew enough to begin planning an effective email campaign
Of course, 8 hours of learning didn’t teach me everything I needed to know. But I set a foundation that allowed me to run the most successful marketing campaign the company had ever seen.
My ability to understand my audience (which was based on years of analyzing characters in lit classes) and write clear prose (which came from hours of practice) helped me write a winning email campaign.
The Most Important Skill
The most important skill you can learn as an English major is the ability to learn. Understand how you learn (I waited way too long to do this) means you can confidently tell any interviewer, “I’m able to learn any software/style guide/workflow/etc. much more quickly than other applicants.”
Though “learning styles” have been somewhat disproven (even by Gardner, the scholar who developed the concept of multiple intelligences), understanding how you learn can improve your ability to quickly absorb and apply new knowledge.
Your time as an undergraduate is the perfect period to examine and develop your ability to learn.
As Edutopia (by George Lucas!) notes,
“There is no scientific evidence, as of yet, that shows that people have specific, fixed learning styles or discrete intelligences, nor that students benefit when teachers target instruction to a specific learning style or intelligence. However, providing students with multiple ways to learn content has been shown to improve student learning (Hattie, 2011).”
With that in mind, here are some useful links for understanding your personal learning preferences:
In future (shorter!) emails, I’ll share some secrets to learning about learning, absorbing lots of information quickly, and applying it to your experience as an English major. I’ll also share what I’ve learned at work I wish I knew as an undergrad.
In the meantime, may I ask you a favor?
If you have any requests for the kinds of information you’d like to see us cover in these articles, would you email me and let me know? Simply reply to this email address (firstname.lastname@example.org), and I’ll see your suggestion.
And if you’re ready to start identifying, developing, and demonstrating the skills real-world employers want in new hires, check out The English Major’s Guide to Getting a Job. It’ll show you everything you need to know to
- Overcome English department bad habits you didn’t know you had
- What you need to be doing now to get a job after graduation (and it’s not just getting an internship)
- How you can make $48,000 per year or more while you go to school – no matter where you live
- The technical skills every English major needs to know to rise to the top of the resume pile (these are simpler than you would think, and you can learn them for free)
- Why 90% of your English department professors will give you bad job advice (and the ones to which you should actually listen)
- …And more
Learn how to get instant access to the guide (plus plenty of bonus materials) by clicking the button below.
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