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Female and male student climbing up a pile of books with titles such as "experience" and "supervisor.”

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Here are some things faculty members say when administrators start talking about career readiness:

  • “We are not here to teach skills.” (The word “skills” often comes out covered in stank.)
  • “We teach students how to think critically, communicate clearly, and analyze interestingly and those are things any employer should value.”
  • “We need to make sure students understand our disciplinary approaches.”
  • “We are not a community college/polytechnic/regional public/kindergarten.”

Here are some things employers have told me about recent college grads who want to work for them:

  • Kids today are entitled, arrogant and narcissistic little jerks and have no idea how to interact as professionals.
  • We don’t care what they major in. Minors? Who gives a hoot!
  • We don’t care where they went to college, or even if they have a degree.
  • New hires will be a drain on resources until we train them, no matter what they learned in classes.

Here are some ways recent grads think about applying for jobs:

  • I need to be confident and sell myself.
  • I want a cool job that pays a lot of money, and I have no idea what that is or how to get it.
  • My résumé needs to look pretty.
  • Talking to strangers makes me anxious.

During the pandemic, after I tasked my editor with coming up with a new book project for me, she told me some things she was hearing from friends who hired recent college grads and suggested I write a guide for “kids today” who don’t know what they don’t know.

As a professor of creative writing, I tend to hear a lot about the lives of my students. They are young, scrappy and hungry—sometimes literally. There’s a lot they’ve never been taught, like how to email a professor or what office hours are for.

When students want me to help them with applications to Ph.D. programs and law school, show me their job cover letters, or ask me to serve as a reference, I always ask that they share with me their application materials.

Then I recoil in horror. On the page, they come across as braggy and unlikeable.  “I am the most qualified applicant for the job,” they declare. “You could not find a better candidate than me,” they assert.

I ask: “What happened to all the stuff I taught you about writing in the first-person personal? How did the person I’ve come to know, like and admire get lost in this caricature of professional prose with no specific or vivid examples of anything you’ve ever done?”

“Um,” they say, “I was told to sell myself.”

Recruiters and hiring managers say applying for a job might be the hardest job you’ll ever have. You must research each organization, analyze what they say about their values, and then translate your own experiences into something that will contribute to their mission. You also have to dig deep enough to know if their stated values line up with employee’s lived experience. To find out, in other words, if it’s a good match.

Technology has made things easier on both sides of the hiring desk. Kind of. It’s just a few quick clicks to upload materials to job sites and apply everywhere. Organizations use AI bots to screen cover letters and résumés for keywords. Not knowing how those systems work will get an application rejected in seconds. That’s an easy thing for faculty to teach students.

What are the harder things? To me, one of the harder things is getting my colleagues to understand that our student learning outcomes are almost exactly in line with the skills employers seek. We can teach students all the traditional values of a liberal arts education, and we can help them learn how to translate their experiences, expertise and desires into things employers say they need. Both/and, not either/or.

Some disciplines are already doing this. Jim Grossman, head of the American Historical Association (AHA), told me his field is clear-eyed about academic job prospects. Historians know they are not creating mini-mes. He mentioned The QA Commons, an organization that helps train faculty and staff on employability, which had a booth at the AHA annual meeting where instructors could bring their syllabi and get help showing students how to translate what they’re learning into skills employers want and need.

And really, the problem is not that students aren’t being taught essential proficiencies in their academic coursework. Rather, the main thing they are missing is a mindset that makes working adults want to bring them on board.

In their cover letters, even my low-income, first-gen students come across as entitled brats. They are told they need to sell themselves, so they brag in unappealing and unsupported ways.

Instead, what employers want are good citizens. In the words of author and organizational consultant Patrick Lencioni, people who are “humble, hungry and smart.”

The shift from childhood and school, where everything is about them, to the world of work where employers don’t care if you are a beautiful and unique snowflake—they need people who can get shit done—is often jarring for young adults. We encourage them to develop personally and don’t ask them to think about how they can contribute to an organization. And we (and their families) often don’t do a great job of preparing them for rejection.

After talking with employers from investment banking to ranching, engineering to publishing, I have come to believe we can give students a recipe for success.

First, we have to tell them most people get jobs by networking. Gen Z does not like to reach out and touch someone, especially those with fancy-pants jobs. But even the busiest and most successful people will happily respond to a (well-crafted) LinkedIn request for connection and will give 15 minutes to an eager young person seeking advice.

What I’ve come to believe is the formula for getting someone—anyone—to do what you want, whether it’s a quick chat, a job or even a date, is simple. It’s why you, why me, why now.

We need to teach our students that if they want to work for an organization, they need to show why. Why this place? Why these people? Why this product?

And then: What have they done that shows they are a good match for this position?

Why you, why me. While the order doesn’t matter much, it is only polite to put another’s needs ahead of your own.

For recent grads, why now should be easy enough to answer. Unless they’re reaching out for a connection while still in college and want to show they are thinking about the future and would love information about how to prepare.

Based on what I learned (so much!) in the process of writing this book, here is some specific advice for faculty members who care about what happens to students after they leave the classroom:

Help them develop a growth mindset when it comes to the job search. Let them know they don’t have to know everything, just show they’re eager to learn and to contribute. That alone may set them apart from the pack of braggers.

Translate their coursework into examples of real work. If they have done a research project, they can demonstrate how they had to analyze information, consult sources (including interviews with real live people), synthesize materials, write a clear report and present it to others. They might have written a senior thesis on similes in Harry Potter but we can help them show how that may translate into what’s needed for a job in marketing.

Extracurriculars are experience. Employers often love athletes because they tend to have good work ethics and can take coaching. But if all a student does is play Dungeons and Dragons, they can show how that requires setting up a calendar, coordinating with others, and making sure everyone gets what they need.

Give feedback on tone. All of us, certainly including students, need people to tell us how we come across on the page, because if we thought what we wrote made us look like jerks, we wouldn’t write that way. It helps to have people question word choices that clang, assertions that ring of smugness.

Educate yourself. If you haven’t applied for a job in a while, or have only ever worked in colleges or universities, there’s a whole lot you may not know. Handshake? LinkedIn? Glassdoor? Inviting folks from the career center to class may be as useful for you as it is for your students.

Mostly, what faculty members can do is realize that by doing our traditional jobs, with a couple of small tweaks, we are actually preparing students for the world of work.

Rachel Toor is a professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University and a contributing editor at Inside Higher Ed. An excerpt from her just-published book, Why Me, Why You, Why Now: The Mindset and Moves to Land That First Job, from Networking to Cover Letters, Resumes, and Interviews can be found here.

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