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An Open Letter to College Students

Dear college student,

There’s a group of people out there – besides your parents - who are talking about you all the time.

It’s the leaders of organizations who will be interviewing you for internships and jobs once you graduate.

Would you like to know what they really want from you?

As a leadership coach, I interact every day with people who run workplaces. They trust me and share their candid concerns with me. I’m struck by how consistent their wants are, whether they lead family businesses, universities, health care institutions, professional firms, or global companies.

No matter who I talk to, the same desired qualities pop up in conversation.

I want to share with you what I’m hearing. I offer this as a public service. I don’t have an agenda, except to let you know NOW – before you graduate from college – what attributes are likely to capture the attention and respect of prospective employers – whether on your resume, in your interview, or at a campus networking event.

Here’s what employers are looking for, no matter what your field is:

  1. “Smarts” – Employers want brainpower, a combination of intelligence and mental sharpness, and your GPA tells them only so much. Being smart includes the ability to process information accurately and quickly, including a knack for deleting unnecessary data. It also includes sharpness – the ability to distinguish what makes sense from what doesn’t -- and the ability to make decisions based on intuition as well as data. An increasingly important dimension is technical savvy. Technological change is ratcheting up anxiety everywhere, and leaders are looking for young staffers who understand tech and can adapt to its constant change. Highlight your "smarts" by telling stories about both what you’ve learned from mistakes and what you’ve accomplished.

  1. Maturity – Just as grades don’t define intelligence, your diploma doesn’t prove maturity. Leaders seek new hires with a realistic view of themselves, can take initiative as well as instruction, and see themselves as part of a team instead of as the center of the universe. Factual stories of adversity and resilience impress leaders. What were you up against and how did you grow from it? Those who hire realize the difference between looking good on paper and demonstrating maturity. Most prefer the latter. Maturity is demonstrated in part by the way you relate when under stress, such as in an interview. Exhibit poise, curiosity, and self-responsibility, and you will greatly enhance your chances of getting hired.

  1. People Skills – Here’s what an HR director told me last week: “John, it’s scary. They come in here for an interview, and they don’t even look you in the eye. Lots of times, they don’t ask good questions. They’re conversationally awkward. Their resumes tell me they’re smart, but how can I trust them to work well with others if they can’t even connect with me in an interview?” This HR director is talking about people skills – the ability to establish rapport, listen, relate, stay calmly present, and show genuine curiosity about others. Demonstrate your people skills by the way you greet, speak with and listen to the interviewer. Talk about why relationships are important to you.

  1. Work Ethic – I recently spoke with the manager of a bustling mobile phone store. She said: “I tell people when they are hired that I’ll have their back if they show me they’re here because they really want to grow and excel. I tell them that if they think this is just a job, I’ll be just their boss. I won’t go to bat for them, and they probably will get weeded out eventually.” She’s referring to work ethic and desire. Think about this: What employer wouldn’t do cartwheels to keep and promote an employee who consistently gives 100 percent, is not afraid to “get their hands dirty,” and always looks for opportunities to learn? If you want the job, explain how you could bring this kind of energy to the workplace.

There’s one additional quality that candidates may overlook: trustworthiness. Even a small violation of integrity in an interview likely leads to an immediate exit.

I would love to hear of your experiences. Shoot me a tweet with your thoughts!

With best wishes,

John Engels

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