Transferable Skills for Students

Round wordcloud in pink and teal on a light grey background. Words are transferable skills: Critical thinking, communication, management, problem solving, analysis, presentations, leadership, listening, public speaking, adaptability...

Transferable skills are so important for students, and this is the best time to gain experience and build them. When you are just beginning your university journey, it may be difficult to identify and describe your aptitudes and experiences. When I was doing my undergrad, I did not have a good understanding of the skills I was gaining and I could not describe them well on my resume or in interviews. It turns out that a lot of them were transferable skills.

Transferable skills are general skills that are important for the majority of workplaces and careers. These are skills that you can build through your studies and work experience, even if those things are not directly related to your future career. Just by getting a degree, students will have leveraged many transferable skills, and you may not even know it yet. What are some examples of transferable skills? I’ve made a list for you below!

RBC published a report in 2018 called Humans Wanted. It highlights shifts in the job market and trends that may impact young Canadians, like a shift towards automation of rote tasks and an increased need for skills like “critical thinking, co-ordination, social perceptiveness, active listening and complex problem solving” (p. 3). These are all transferable skills that students have experience with.

Think about which of these skills you are particularly strong at and what you have experience in. This can help you understand yourself, and your strengths, better. It will also help you articulate and highlight clear examples of the transferable skills you’ve built as a student on your scholarship applications, resumes, cover letters, and in interviews. If you are not sure yet, have a look at the list and keep an eye out for where you see these skills.

Working Independently. A lot of your work at university will be done independently. Are you skilled at organizing your time to get a long-term research project done? Do you find it easy to motivate yourself to work on projects? Can you figure out how to meet an outcome when you don’t receive detailed instructions? Most employers want to know that employees can work independently and will be able to ask a minimum of questions in order to meet their work goals, so these are all helpful skills.

Teamwork. Do you enjoy working with a team and collaborating on projects? This is a necessary skill in almost any workplace. Employers don’t want to hire people who are difficult to work with or don’t get along with others. Think about the best team projects you’ve worked on. What role did you take on? What were your main contributions to the team? How did you facilitate collaboration and support your teammates? How did you contribute to resolving any team conflict? There aren’t many jobs where you can avoid working with others, so being able to show that you are an agreeable, collaborative and supportive coworker will impress your future bosses.

Teamwork and working independently are not opposites. You may prefer one over the other, but you need to know how to do both in order to get through university and in the majority of workplaces successfully. Your future employers will likely want to know that you can do both. Even if you are planning to have your own business or be your own boss, it’s very likely that you’ll have clients or other people you have to work well with, so don’t disregard teamwork.

Leadership. The traditional view of the leader as the “boss” is no longer accurate. The leader is not necessarily someone who tells others what to do. Leadership includes motivating, coordinating, and supporting others. You don’t need to be in a formal role of “leader” to do these things. Do you have other examples of ways that you’ve helped others find motivation? How do you coordinate and support others on your team? These are all important leadership skills.

Leaders are also ready to make decisions when needed, and to take responsibility when something goes wrong. Making decisions for a team can be difficult when you don’t have formal authority (when you’re not an actual “boss”), so you may need to rely more on convincing and persuading your teammates. Taking responsibility can also be difficult – but the best way to deal with an issue is generally to accept your role in it and figure out how to move forward.

Project Management. As a student, you will have multiple opportunities to organize longer projects. Maybe it’s a research paper that you start in September and submit in December, requiring you to figure out all the steps and then track the project over the semester to make sure you get it done on time. Maybe you join a club and get to organize the end-of-year celebration, or a case competition or a mentorship program.

The RBC Skills Report talks about “co-ordination” as a skill that’s going to increase in demand. Sometimes there are too many minute decisions and nuances in a process and that makes it difficult to automate. This may eventually change, but in the meantime, being able to coordinate the millions of small details for a project or event is an in-demand skill.

Research and Analytical Skills. Every research paper you write will help build these skills! This is about being able to research a topic, and then distill and synthesize what you learned into an argument of some kind. Research and analysis isn’t easy, but putting the time in to do this well at the start of your degree will benefit you until you graduate and probably beyond. Your university library is likely to have research resources, and your university might have a writing centre that can help you with this, too.

Quantitative analytics skills are also increasingly in demand. Organizations have an increasing amount of data about their customers, clients, or environment, and will need more people to be able to make sense of all that data, so if you have a the chance to refine your quantitative research and analytics skills, you may want to take advantage.

Organization and Time Management. You are going to really struggle with your degree if you don’t figure this out early on! As a student, you won’t have a lot of extra time, so managing your schedule and organizing yourself will be very important. Perfecting these skills and knowing how to organize yourself and your time will benefit you for the rest of your life. If you have to juggle university courses, a part-time job, and a role in a student club, then you can use your organization methods as a great example in future employment situation.

Communication. I know sometimes we picture employees working alone in cubicles, but this is not realistic. Even if you do work alone in a cubicle, you’ll be required to communicate with others. This includes speaking with others, active listening to understand others, organizing and participating in meetings, composing emails and documents, and doing presentations. These are all things you’ll get to do in your time at university, so make sure you focus on building the skills and collect examples for your interviews in the future.

Presentations and Public Speaking. Apparently public speaking is one of the top fears around the world, but in a lot of careers, you’ll be expected to communicate information to an audience that may have multiple people in it. I used to be incredibly nervous to speak in front of crowds, and I definitely still get nervous, but I’ve presented to groups of 400+ students, and I can tell you the key is practicing a lot and continuing to do presentations. Embrace your fear and do it anyways – it will benefit you in the long run.

Information Technology and Adaptability. I am what I have seen described online as a Geriatric Millenial: I grew up without cell phones and the internet, but I’ve watched them both grow in popularity through my young adulthood. I didn’t have a MySpace account, but I could have (if that makes no sense to you, just keep going, it doesn’t matter). I had to adjust to all these forms of technology as an adult. I can tell you how my workplace phased out its fax machine; I can talk about scanning and digitizing all the records in one office I worked in; I can tell you about how another office I worked in shifted from paper memos to email; I can explain to you how a pager works. When I need examples of adaptability and learning new technology in a job interview, I can talk about any of these examples and many others.

You are probably much younger than me and much better at new technologies. What are you skilled at? What have you adapted to or learned? Think of examples that can showcase these skills, and remember to highlight any new technology that your future (older) boss may not be familiar with.

Problem Solving. The whole reason an organization hires employees is to solve its problems! You will have a better university experience and career if you can effectively identify problems and then solve them. Part of this is about your analysis and critical thinking skills – how do you identify and evaluate the problem – and part of this is about being able to come up with an appropriate solution to whatever problem you uncover.

You can gain experience in problem-solving by resolving issues as they come up. Did some issue happen in your group project, and you figured out how to resolve it and move forward? Maybe you got to do this in an internship, co-op, or in a student club. Try to find examples where you’ve managed to identify and resolve a problem (maybe even before it became a problem) so you can highlight them later on.

Critical Thinking. Critical thinking is really about being able to look at a situation and context thoroughly and understand what’s going on (or what could be going on) outside your line of sight. One way to do this is through a SWOT or PESTLE analysis (or similar – there are dozens of iterations of these). Using these models regularly will help you assess situations quickly without them, eventually. This is esentially about being able to see a situation from multiple dimensions and perspectives.

Attention to Detail. When I used to post jobs, I would get hundreds of applications, and every time there were dozens that listed the wrong employer or position on their cover letter. Usually, these would get discarded because they indicated a lack of attention to detail. Attention to detail is about being able to find errors in documents, spreadsheets, and datasets, and being able to verify that everything is ready for a client. But you want to make sure, if you are going to tell someone you have an eye for detail, that there are no small errors on your application. Quadruple-check for typos and errors before you apply! Get a friend to read over your application before you send it in, too.

Dependability. Who would want to work with someone who is not dependable? Everyone has had to work with what I call a “flake.” The “flake” is the one who doesn’t show up, takes forever to reply to messages or doesn’t reply at all, doesn’t follow through on their portion of the project, and then shows up late on the day it’s due. Don’t be that person! Be someone who does good work and is known for it – you’ll be able to build a network much more easily, and you’ll get good references and recommendations that may lead to promotions and new positions.

Transferable Skills Resource: RBC Skills Report

Check out the RBC Skills Report from 2018 here for more information on the transferable skills that students need and how they are increasing in demand. Highlights include:
→Descriptions of possible career paths that include education and various jobs/careers over time.
→Summaries of shifts in hiring that are anticipated in the next ten years.
→Anticipated demographic and employment trends that will have a larger impact on the economy and future careers.
→Honestly, even if you don’t want to read the full report, just flip through and look at the infographics and you’ll probably find some helpful info!

I hope you found this helpful! Transferable skills are really important for you to build, and while you’re a student you have so many opportunities to do it. Learn what they are, and how you use them, and then you can also talk about them in job interviews.

Read more about discovering the career options available after graduation in this post: How can I explore my career options?

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