What Students Don’t Learn About Work in College

Employers are looking for experience, not just knowledge.

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Alison Green
For all the talk about how college is essential to landing a good job after graduation, higher education often fails to prepare students for the workforce in several key ways. Even with a degree from a competitive school and a high GPA, many students graduate without ever having been taught these 10 essentials for the workplace:

1. Effort doesn’t matter; results do. It’s great to try hard, but if you’re not getting the job done well, it ultimately won’t matter. In the workplace, you’re judged by the quality of what you produce, not by how hard you worked to produce it.

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2. Procrastinating is a really bad idea. In school, if you waited until the last minute to do a project in college, you were the only one who suffered. At work, if you put off a project until the last minute and then you’re sick or something else gets in the way, you risk your professional reputation—and you could even get fired.

3. You need to be concise when writing in the workplace. Colleges tend to teach students to write long—assigning page count minimums, and encouraging long explorations of a single topic. While this has its own value, it’s exactly the wrong approach for the workforce. When writing for work, shorter is nearly always better. Most bosses don’t want to read long memos—they want the key highlights, ideally in bullet points.

4. Good writing isn’t stiff and formal. Many students come out of school believing that good writing is formal. But to the contrary, the ability to write conversationally is a highly valued—and marketable—skill. Whether it’s a cover letter or a business memo, the best writers don’t sound stiff.

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5. You need to address both sides of an issue. In college, you could (and were often expected to) argue one point of view. At work, you’re expected to consider all options thoroughly and make a recommendation that includes pros and cons. And you should even poke holes in your own recommendation before you take it to your boss, so that he or she doesn’t have to.

6. Conforming to business culture matters. In college, individuality is often rewarded. In the workplace, employers are looking for employees who fit in with the culture. That means conforming to office norms about dress and conduct and even small things like how phones are answered or how meetings are run.

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7. Employers are looking for experience, not just knowledge. Don’t spend all your time taking classes. Get out there and get some experience doing actual work.

8. Appearance counts. In most industries, if you dress overly casually or too “young,” you won’t be taken seriously. Flip-flops, nose rings, ultralow-rise jeans, visible bra straps, or revealing necklines all say that you’re still dressing for class, not a job.

9. You have to keep learning. Too many students come out of college not even knowing what the authoritative publications are in their field, let alone keeping up with them. You’re expected to keep your skills and knowledge up-to-date and continue learning throughout your whole career. College is just the beginning!

10. No one will care about your career like you do. If your boss promises you a promotion or raise and then never brings it up again, don’t sit around waiting for her to broach the topic again. You’re in charge of your own career now; there’s no caring faculty watching over you!

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Leader's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development. She now teaches other managers how to manage for results.