As a college professor, I want nothing more than to see all my students graduate and transition into great jobs. When I’m working with seniors, especially, I love to get them thinking and talking about their future.
A few weeks ago I had my students write down their top three strengths on index cards and turn them into me. The good news: they had all thought about the question already and had answers to write down. The bad news: almost all of them had some version of the same three strengths. Card after card read something very close to: hard-working, responsible and personable. Guess what! These students are not ready to set themselves apart in a job interview!
Even more troubling, when I asked a few of them to tell me WHY they knew that these were their strengths, they gave very vague answers. “I always get along with everyone.” “I’m very reliable at work.” “My grades are strong.”
College students need more than these very general strengths and vague stories about themselves to land a great job. The problem is that they really don’t understand their real strengths or how they relate to the needs of employers. This puts them in a tough position in our high-stakes global economy. It’s exciting out there and there are tons of great opportunities for young people, but at the same time “getting ahead” is harder than it ever has been. College graduates who know their strengths and how to market them in a job interview are in much stronger positions to quickly find fulfilling work that pays the bills after graduation.
I’ve seen it often – college students need help to understand what really makes them remarkable. If you can do a deep dive with them and get them to explore their skills and experience, their self-esteem improves and they’ll begin to navigate the adult world with much more confidence and assurance.
Encourage your kids to talk to their advisors and college career counselors about their futures well before graduation. As their parents, you are also well equipped to help them uncover their nuanced strengths – those skills and experiences that ACTUALLY set them apart from their peers.
I do recognize that parent-child discussions where the parent pushes their college student to talk about their futures can be fraught with emotions. Here is how to make this conversation relatively stress-free:
First, I suggest making the conversation a two-way street; one where you are working together to uncover your strengths and figure out stories that go with them. That way the attention is not JUST focused on your student, but rather on an activity that you are doing together.
Second, dig in. Each of you writes down a list of your general strengths, and then you share them. Each of you can add to the other’s list. Now you each want to try to get more nuanced. Together, brainstorm several stories that illustrate each of your strengths. Talk through the stories together, and try to uncover what’s REALLY going on. How did the strength manifest in each story? See if you can figure out together how to describe yourself in more depth now that you have thought about how each strength functions in action.
Here are some examples of what I was finally able to pull out of my college students after coaching them further:
Tell a story about that strength in action. “After my junior year in high school, I really wanted to buy a car. I figured out that I needed to save up $2000. I worked two jobs that summer in order to save up the money. At the end of the summer I had enough saved to buy the car and pay for insurance.”
The nuanced version of your strength? “I am able to set goals and work extra hard to achieve them.”
Tell a story about that strength in action: “When I worked at a deli last summer my boss and I usually closed up the store together at the end of the day. One afternoon he had to leave early. He told me he had done everything that needed to be done out back, all I needed to do was clean up and lock the front door. Before I left, I went to the back just to check, and I noticed that the back door was actually unlocked. I locked it and double checked everything else.”
The nuanced version of your strength? “I pay close attention to my surroundings and notice when extra work needs to be done.”
Tell a story about that strength in action: :Two members of a class group I was in weren’t getting along. I had always gotten along well with both of them, so I was able to sit down with each of them separately and talk to them about the importance of getting a good grade on our project. After talking to both of them I was able to figure out a way to divide up the work in a way that would keep them both happy.”
The nuanced version of your strength? “I am really good at facilitating relationships in a team environment.”
When employers hire entry-level employees they aren’t looking for seasoned professionals; they are looking for people that have the POTENTIAL to be strong employees. Helping students to understand their strengths and craft stories that illustrate their experience and connect what they have accomplished in the past to what can contribute in the future is rewarding work. BONUS! If you do this work together with your college student, you’ll about yourself as well! Understanding ourselves and what we can contribute to the world is a lifelong process.
Emily (Porschitz) Benson, MBA, PhD is an Associate Professor at Keene State College and Partner and Career Coach with LaunchingU, LLC, a coaching company that focuses on college students and recent graduates. Her research interests include internships and early careers, and she has published numerous articles and book chapters. She teaches in the areas of Management and Organizational Behavior, and is passionate about teaching and working with students and young professionals to help them launch their careers.