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Know the Difference between Your Major and Your Skills in a Job Search

College graduation
Jane Horowitz
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Published on March 14, 2016

When I first start working with a college student, new or recent grad I ask his or her most dreaded question, “tell me about yourself.” Biology, engineering, accounting or sociology the answers are always the same, “I’m a (fill-in the blank) major at such and such university.” Did I learn anything about you that isn’t on your resumé? From an employer’s perspective, what does that response tell them about what you bring to the position and the company? Nothing. That’s because you are talking about your college major not your skills. What’s the difference?

Major vs. Skill

A college major is a group of courses required by a college in order to receive a degree –– an area you specialize in. Colleges assert— I am quoting from several college websites—choosing your major is an important life decision because your major affects your college success and happiness, your future career, who you associate with during and after graduation, and how you see yourself and the world around you. Think about those claims. I’m calling bullshit!

Ah, now a skill is something you are able to do and do well. Some skills, I think of as abilities that are for the most part inherited. For example, having a penchant for math or having a beautiful singing voice. However, many skills are learned. Skills are goal-directed because having a skill can allow you to attain a higher level of performance. Skills connect to a particular job. The engineering major who gets a job offer at one of the most highly regarded business strategy consulting firm is hired because of the skills learned through his major not because of his major. The library science major working at the global technology company is there because of the skills acquired through her degree not because of her degree. Your skills are why you are hired.

Could you choose a major based on your abilities? Yes. Could you choose your major because of the skills you will acquire that will make you marketable to employers? Yes.

Transferable skills

I work with college students long after they have selected their majors when they are starting to figure out what they want to do and what the value of their major is in the job market. Together we focus on their abilities, the skills they acquired through their majors and how these apply to careers and employers.

You’re a biology major. For you, it helps to explain how things work after all; biology is the study of life. That’s pretty cool! However, you don’t want to go on to med school. Where do you go from here? I don’t know much about biology but I do know skills.

Research skills Advanced mathematics Critical reasoning, analytical and evaluation skills Ability to handle and analyze complex data Written and oral communication skills Time management and organization Monitoring and recording

This range of skills is transferable to a variety of roles and workplaces and therefore, of interest to a wide range of employers. There are a huge range of options available, for example:

Financial Analyst Business Development Project Management Sales Attorney

What are skills developed from an anthropology degree?

Active listening Observation Research Interviewing Analyzing organizational structures and processes Communicating effectively with individuals in other cultures Critical thinking

And careers….
Market research Human resources Cultural resource management Forensic organizational development

I think you get the point. Employers interview to uncover your skills not your major. So, when I ask you, tell me about yourself, your answer is…..

Jane Horowitz

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