So how well does college prepare students for the job market? In a word: "terribly". So I'm offering a few brief, actionable lessons for recent college graduates. Of course, my experience is in tech, so your mileage may vary.
Lesson 1: Interviews are not midterm exams
In an interview for a technical position, it's standard to ask some technical questions that have right and wrong answers. For example, tech companies will typically give some sort of problem to the people they're interviewing, and ask them to reason about it. Job candidates usually have a pretty good idea whether their answers are correct. What's distressing is that many job candidates (especially recent college graduates) approach these questions as if they're taking a midterm exam, and their "answer" is the only thing that counts.
No competent interviewer is merely interested in whether a job candidate can solve a specific problem. We're interested primarily in other skills. We're looking for at least these skills:
- Ability to communicate. Can you explain your thought processes as you go about solving the problem? Can you justify your approach? Can you help us understand why you're thinking the way you are?
- Willingness to ask questions. Do you take a step back and consider whether you really understand the question? Do you follow up with questions of clarification when necessary? Do you take a moment to check with us that you're understanding the question correctly?
- Openness to suggestions. Are you someone who can work effectively on a team? When someone suggests a change to your approach, are you willing to seriously consider it?
- Patience. Do you keep a cool head if the right approach to a problem doesn't immediately suggest itself?
- Creativity. Can you come up with an approach that's not what you'd find in a textbook? In the best case, can you actually show the interviewers something they haven't seen before?
Recent college graduates are often caught totally off-guard if they think they've answered our technical questions correctly, but aren't offered the job. Their response is exactly as if they'd gotten every question right on a midterm exam, but given a failing grade. In the latter case, their frustration would be justified. But job interviews are not midterm exams.
To put the point simply, if you show that you're technically competent for the job, that's good. That competence gets your foot in the door. But in the end, it's only perhaps 10% of what you need to demonstrate. We're not hiring a machine to solve problems; we're hiring a colleague to work with in a collaborative environment.
Lesson 2: Know thyself
If you just graduated from college, you are almost certainly not an expert in your field. You are almost certainly not as good at your craft as someone who's been working professionally for years. When I was interviewing for jobs, I was frequently asked to rate my own competence at something. This is a fairly common interview question. If you claim to be an expert in something, you'd better be able to show that you're actually an expert. There's a big difference between someone who's competent and has a realistic view of their own skill level, and someone with the same level of competence who has an inflated self-image.
Similarly, if you're a recent college graduate, there are plenty of things you haven't learned, and which you don't even know you haven't learned. So don't claim to have a wide breadth of experience. If someone claims to have greater expertise than they actually do, there are three options: (1) They don't understand their own skill level; (2) they don't understand that their field is actually quite complex; or (3) they're lying. Interestingly, all three options indicate someone who's going to have a hard time learning anything, and that's deadly to a job candidate.
It's okay to not be an expert. If you're not an expert, and you know you're not an expert, then you're someone an employer can work with. If you're willing to learn, they'll be willing to put in the time it takes to train you.
Lesson 3: Do some homework
Obviously, it's become far easier to research almost anything, including the company you're interviewing with. There is now no excuse for failing to do so.
If a job candidate shows up and has no idea what our business does, it's a big red flag. It shows a lack of interest, and even a lack of general curiosity. Because it takes literally ten minutes to get a good idea of our basic business model, products, and history, only someone who's either lazy or oblivious would fail to type our company's name into Google and read through the top few results. If you really don't know anything about the business, you're going to have a very difficult time convincing anyone that you're a good fit for a job there.
Conversely, if you put in a little bit more effort, you can really stand out. It's legitimate to ask who will be interviewing you; and you can surely find many of the relevant employees on LinkedIn. The founders of the company and their executive leadership almost certainly have some kind of online presence. And if the company has patented anything, you can find those patents online in a few seconds. Sadly, very few job candidates (especially for junior-level positions) will make this small effort. So if you do, you'll have an advantage.
Lesson 4: Don't be an asshole
This one's pretty simple. Don't be an asshole. I don't care how good you are in your field; you won't get the job if you're an asshole.
There are many ways to be an asshole in a job interview. One is to be condescending. Lecturing interviewers about their own field does not make a good impression; nor does explaining to them why they shouldn't have asked a particular question or that they structure their interviews poorly (by the way, interviewers don't always have a choice about how the interviews are structured). Becoming angry and lashing out if you don't know the answer to a question is another way to be an asshole, as is interrupting people for no good reason. Accusing interviewers of having an ulterior motive will also make people think that you're an asshole.
You cannot compensate for being an asshole by also being really smart. Assholes drain productivity from their work environment to such a degree that there's no way to offset it. Any intelligent employer will know this. So, if you happen to be an asshole, but you get the job anyway, you'll probably be working with other assholes, idiots, or both.
As a college student, you could succeed even as an asshole. You got a good grade if you got the answers right. You didn't need to do any work that wasn't specifically required. And you didn't need to have an accurate self-assessment. In short, you've been rewarded for behavior that's irrelevant or downright detrimental in a job interview. In fact, you've been rewarded for behavior that's harmful in many important real-world situations. On behalf of my fellow professors, I apologize for this.