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Just Graduated? Focus on Transferable Skills to Land Your First Job

'Skills' written on a chalkboard.

How can you get that first job out of college when you’re told you need experience? How can you get experience without someone giving you a chance on that first job? It’s a Catch-22 that new grads have to face.

The answer? If you can successfully convey that you actually do have experience in some of skills many organizations value, you might just land yourself that first gig.

After consulting a few different sources (including Forbes magazine and the National Association of Colleges and Employers), the following appear to be the most consistently-desired attributes/skills employers are seeking in new graduates (in order of frequency of mention):

1-Ability to work in a team (virtually all sources had as #1)

2-Strong communication skills (especially verbal)

3-Ability to analyze and solve problems and develop workable solutions

4-Ability to obtain/research and process/analyze information

5-Ability to analyze quantitative data and statistics

6-Ability to plan, organize, and prioritize work

7-Computer/technology skills and their use in “real-world” settings

8-Adaptability and flexibility, to apply knowledge in new settings

9-Ability to sell/influence and lead

What do you notice about this list?

You’ve probably already developed all of these skills, just by getting through college! So the challenge in succeeding in the job search-and landing that coveted first position-isn’t just about becoming technically proficient for a role (only one list out of five I consulted listed “technical knowledge related to the job”) but more about communicating to potential employers that you already have the most sought-after skills and abilities. And while this list might not have a direct focus on nonprofits, many social-impact organizations look for people who have these skills as well (just take a look at the qualifications for some of these entry-level positions).

Your focus should therefore be on the transferability of your current skills, from environments in which you have already been (like college and extracurricular activities) into the environment you would like to enter (presumably, that of your target organization).

So how can you effectively convey these attributes in an interview? Let’s consider some examples:

1-Ability to work in a team: Have you completed any team projects, either in class or as part of your extracurricular activities? One option might be: “I’ve developed really strong team-building skills during college, as I led both my sociology class project group and captained the soccer team.  The most important lessons I learned were to always consider the good of the entire team when making individual decisions and to establish a team strategy before taking any action.”

2-Strong communication skills: Have you presented any projects in economics? Participated on the debate team or acted in a drama club play? A potential demonstration of this skill might be: “I’m proud of the communication skills I cultivated in college. For example, while I didn’t feel comfortable standing up in front of others during my first quarter, I headed up my team’s project presentation for the marketing competition by the time I graduated.”

3-Ability to analyze and solve problems and develop workable solutions: How many of you do this every single day? What are some logistical issues you can cite, for example, where you identified a problem and devised a solution? One possibility: “One day in chem lab, my team and I discovered our reagents weren’t working properly. We were under a tight deadline and didn’t want to have to repeat our experiment. We put our heads together and tried to brainstorm causes and solutions. I eventually realized that we were actually missing one key ingredient. After adding that one substance, the experiment went as planned, and we completed the project by the deadline.”

4-Ability to obtain/research and process/analyze information: You’ve probably used this skill every day of your college career. Simply select a research project and detail the steps you took to complete it. Here’s an option: “I was tasked with researching and developing a point of view on the strengths and weaknesses of the American justice system for a civics class. We weren’t allowed to copy-or even use- anything from the Internet and had to use printed media. I analyzed the sources I had at my disposal and went to the library to tap them. After perusing a few books, I came up with an initial hypothesis and drafted my paper. I used additional resources (library reference books, magazines etc.) to support my initial direction and presented my argument in a 10-page paper.”

5-Ability to analyze quantitative data and statistics: Here’s where that calculus class-or maybe even Biology II-can be a useful tool to demonstrate your skills. One possibility: “In statistics, we were using multiple regression analysis to evaluate the variables that might have been contributing to climate change. Working with a team of my peers, we carefully analyzed each element, (factoring in historical weather patterns, production of carbon gasses, etc.) and devised a tentative equation accounting for the effects. The teacher felt our solution was accurate with a probability of +/- 10%.”

In addition to offering up these kinds of responses to questions (or even volunteering them during interviews), your nonverbal communication should support the quality of information you’re sharing. Specifically, you want to come across as confident and positive through your tone of voice and body language, so that your great examples aren’t less than credible. Remember that 93% of our communication is non-verbal (38% is tone of voice and 55% is body language) so it’s critical to fully convey that you believe you’re the right person for the job. Keep in mind that employers use confidence as a proxy for competence in the interviewing process, and you want your attitude to support your words.

What are some good ways to communicate these abilities on your resume, before you even get that first interview? Below are some examples:

6- Ability to plan, organize, and prioritize work: “Organized and conducted five projects for a semester-long finance class, working closely with a seven-person team, prioritizing them according to four separate intermediate deadlines.” (Notice how adding numbers makes the details come alive.)

7- Computer/technology skills and their use in “real-world” settings: “Leveraged Excel and PowerPoint to analyze and display the 40-member Accounting Club’s balance sheet and Statement of Cash Flows for key administration of 10,000-student state university.”

8- Adaptability and flexibility, to apply knowledge in new settings: “Trained three new Track Coaches in team participant procedures over an 11-week period. Devised new learning manual, used during the following semester in defining policy for 35-member track team.”

9- Ability to sell/influence and lead: “Persuaded a four-person student team to participate in annual school Moot Court competition, eventually leading this diverse group to victory in citywide final presentations.”

Everyone has a first job, and we all have to start somewhere. You’re more likely to get that first role by effectively parlaying your transferable skills on your resume and carefully preparing your responses for interviews. Let us know how it goes!

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About the Author | Amy-Louise Goldberg is a certified Executive Coach and Career Counselor at NYU Polytechnic in Brooklyn, New York. She was an executive recruiter for 19 years and has an MBA from the Kellogg School.

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