Let me preface this blog by acknowledging that I am not a parent. But I get asked by a lot of parents and occasionally college students about what undergraduates should do to maximize their chances of success in the business world. Here are some objective and hopefully helpful thoughts.

Some philosophy about the goal of education

One of my high school mentors imparted that the academic goal of a high school education is primarily to teach budding brains how to study and how to learn. This makes inherent sense to me. In high school students need to learn how to listen, take notes, read complex material, gain understanding, and apply knowledge to class discussions, writing papers, and taking tests. On the other hand, the academic goal of a college education is to learn how to solve problems and be a critical thinker.

Application process and the importance of school selection—or not

I know third hand how hard the college application process is today. You have to apply to 8, 10, or 15 schools because that is how the game is played. It is a bit frustrating to see it from the sidelines, even before addressing the shocking bribing that is going on.

When the highly anticipated acceptance letters come in, the talk is about what schools accepted you into their hallowed halls. Then you make the big decision: which one to accept? It is less important than you think! In reality, it is not the school that you have selected that will ensure your success in business or in life. It is how you apply yourself once you are there. Based on my many years consulting with companies on their hiring decisions, any good hiring manager would take the top of the class from a state school over the bottom or even middle of the class of a “prestigious” Ivy League. What you do, how you learn, and how you apply critical thinking to solving problems begins in undergrad. An April 30, 2019 New York Times article, “Almost All the Colleges I Wanted to Go to Rejected Me. Now What?” talks about this very subject.

The importance of developing “executive presence”

I would also argue that the whole concept of developing executive presence begins in undergrad as well. The key elements of executive presence are reputation, communication, leadership, and charisma. All these traits can be seen in varying degrees in recent college graduates. The types of activities you choose to engage in as an undergrad directly affects the foundation of your executive presence and what people think of you—what leadership roles you pursued and secured, what speaking engagements you undertook. These are all differentiators and indicators of your potential in the workplace that your future employer will carefully consider.

The right major for getting a jump start on your career path

A question I get asked frequently is what majors are most sought after by businesses looking to hire entry-level workers. I would encourage you to focus on a liberal arts degree coupled with courses in computer science (CS) and business/accounting. The liberal arts training will teach you to think critically and the CS and Business courses will give you practical knowledge. Depending on the program you are enrolled in the reverse could also be true: focus on CS and Business, but take enough electives in the liberal arts program to round out your education.

The value of attending junior college

If you are a high school grad who is not quite ready for a four-year program, attend a good Junior College. This can be a brilliant strategy! Many JCs in California have automatic acceptance routes to the UC system. This approach gives you time to catch up academically and/or emotionally if this is the reason you are not going off to a four-year program. The general ed topics that are mandatory for any undergraduate degree may indeed be taught more effectively at JC than some four-year schools. It clearly reduces the financial burden, which is no small issue for most students and their families these days. Finally, I can tell you for a fact – if you go on from a JC to a four-year program no one will ever know. In my 24+ years of recruiting it has never occurred to me to ask a candidate where they did their first two years of school. But do I look at where you graduated from? Of course.

Undergraduate diploma vs experience

So how much weight does an undergraduate degree carry? Is someone 10 years out of school from an Ivy League an immediately superior candidate to someone from Chico State? Not in my book. What we look at 10 years out are your achievements in the roles you took on. What sort of progression have you achieved? What types of companies have you worked for? Who have been your mentors? What are your accomplishments?

To counter this argument, it may be true that the top-rated universities have more on-campus recruiters from top-tier companies combing the ranks for the best and the brightest undergraduates. But if you are in the best and brightest in a lesser-known program which may not be on the on-campus radar, it is upon you to make yourself known to the companies you want to work for. This entails a diligent effort, but it most certainly can be done.

As a follow-on to this blog, I will write one about MBA programs, a different animal.

Congratulations on your graduation and acceptance. Now, go forth and learn to solve complex problems; we need your contribution in this complex and ever-changing world! If you feel so inclined, shoot me an email with your comments and or questions at dave@arnoldpartners.com. I look forward to hearing from you and wish you a productive and satisfying career.