3 Workplace Skills I Wish I'd Learned In College

Colleges prepare students for parts of the working world, but there are also some holes in what they teach. In some cases, that's a problem with the state of higher education.

Many college graduates leave school without any training in things they'll need to get through life. That includes everything from basic financial literacy, to how to interview for jobs, and even how to look for them. Of course, what each student learns varies by school and by program.

Our panel of Motley Fool writers all had different college experiences. Each of us, however, found that we emerged from school lacking skills we would need later in life.


Maurie Backman: Everyone likes an agreeable employee, but there comes a point when not speaking your mind can really hurt your career. When I started working, I said yes to everything and everyone around me because I was too intimidated to do otherwise. But after some time, I realized that not speaking up as needed not only put me in a bad position, but it also prevented my company from addressing certain flaws in the way it operated.

Over time, I did learn to be more assertive at work, and it helped me grow my career. But I do wish I'd gone into my first job knowing that it's perfectly acceptable to push back, voice concerns, or have a different opinion.

If you're struggling with assertiveness at the office, make a point to stop apologizing for things you don't need to be sorry about, and stop downplaying your own ideas as you're presenting them. There's a fine line between being humble and shooting yourself in the foot, and if you don't learn to stand your ground at least a little at work, you're bound to get overshadowed and taken advantage of. And that clearly isn't what you want.


Selena Maranjian: One thing I didn't do too much in college that would have served me well was planning. I took courses mostly on the basis of whether they interested me, and I chose my major that way, too. I didn't, however, give much thought to just what kind of job I would end up with, or what career. I thought perhaps I'd be a professor, but I had no plan B, and ended up not pursuing a Ph.D.

Had I planned more, I might have researched academic subjects and fields of interest to see what kinds of jobs I might get in each, how plentiful and in demand such jobs would be, and what they paid. I'd have made connections over the years with alumni in fields of interest, learning more about what those fields required and better envisioning my future.

Such planning is very useful in the workplace, too, as it's best not to just accept a job and then do it until someone offers you a promotion. It's better to be proactive, coming up with career goals and a plan for how to achieve them. For example, will you need another degree? Some professional certifications? When and where will you get those?

Being a good planner can help you get more work done, too, if you can learn to prioritize well and work efficiently and strategically. I'm glad I learned to be a better reader, writer, and critical thinker in college, but a little more time spent on planning would have been good, too.


Daniel B. Kline: In college, I was a big fish in a small pond. I spent two years as co-editor of the school paper, won "Man of the Year" as a junior, and was a Homecoming King finalist as a senior. I knew the university president well from our near-weekly meetings, and most people on campus knew who I was.

In the real world, however, I was just another kid straight out of college working in his first job. In fact, I was lucky to have a job at all, given that the job market for editor/writers in 1995 was not all that great.

That didn't stop me from being arrogant at my first job. I edited a magazine and was very young to be doing that. For a year or so, the correct behavior would have been to quietly watch my co-workers, learn my job, and execute as well as possible.

Instead, I wanted to change the world. Whether my ideas were good (some were) or bad (many were) didn't matter. There's a difference between confidence and arrogance, and college success had given me too much of both. Fortunately, the next few years were humbling, and I eventually found the right mix, but one of my college professors or advisors could easily have taken me aside and given me a heads up as to how to change my approach in the real world.

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