Myth: Job skills come only from jobs.
Truth: The effort to pass even a single course in college hones skills you will use in your professional work life.

In fact, classes where you struggle the most are often the courses where you practice the skills needed for success because you got the work done well enough to pass.

Instead of thinking about school and professional life as different worlds, realize that they are merely different contexts that use different labels to describe the flow of activities. Sure, outcomes, deadlines, fonts and email programs will likely be very different, but the means to the ends are very similar.

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Academics classify thinking. Employers describe skills.

Class Activities Employers’ Label for Skills Used in That Activity
Analytical Thinking How you use information to create options: Analysis, Analytical thinking, Research
Class Discussion, Participation Being a team player, Collaboration, Communication, Critical thinking, Oral communication
Creative Thinking How you create new solutions using past experience without repeating past experience: Ability to “Hit the ground running”, Creativity, Working independently
Critical Thinking How you evaluate pros and cons to decide a path of action: Research, Reporting, Thinking critically (just switch that order!)
Exams Analytical thinking, Creativity, Critical thinking, Problem solving, Time management,  Working independently
Getting Help Collaboration, Communication, Creativity, Critical thinking
Papers and Essays Analytical thinking, Communication, Creativity, Critical thinking
Presentations Communication, Critical thinking, Planning, Presentation skills
Projects Creative thinking, Critical Thinking, Organizational skills, Project management, Time management, Scheduling/Ability to keep schedule
Team Assignments Collaboration, Communication, Creativity, Critical thinking, Organizational skills, Project planning


Analytical Thinking: Analysis, Research

This is the hallmark of how most college professors describe the universal value of their courses. It means, generally, determining a conclusion or solution based on an information set which is usually used to create options for next steps in some process. It is, indeed, a valuable skill to hone for any workplace.

It’s interesting to note that “analytical thinking” is very common as a skill listed in a job description, but the academic lables for “critical thinking” and “creative thinking” have variations on the same meaning when employers describe these skills.

Class Participation: Communication, Critical Thinking, Oral Communication, Teamwork/Collaboration

Any workplace is filled with discussions. At the core of those discussions are fundamental values of communicating in a learning environment: listening, articulating details in an organized fashion, persuading, taking notes for later, brainstorming new solutions when old solutions don’t follow and detailing status for where you are on a project, as one uses group time to change plans and presenting ideas.

Creative Thinking: Creativity, “Hitting the ground running”, Independent Work

Another hallmark of how education articulates its value, creative thinking is typically creating a new solution based on analysis of an information set which usually includes how things were done in the past and how they don’t apply now. Most often creative thinking is engaged when one is doing something new and the boss would like you to figure out what you can before you come for help.

Critical Thinking:  Research, Reporting, Thinking Critically (yes, really!)

The final ubiquitous hallmark of how education describes value, critical thinking is, for the most part, critical thinking centers on evaluating the pros and cons from analysis of an information set which is usually used to make a decision on next action. If you are writing an academic paper, you characterize with the label “critical thinking”. If you are working for someone, he/she says, “I want you to think critically so that you can solve problems the 2nd and 3rd time after we’ve worked through it the first”.

Exams, Quizzes and Other Timed Worked: Analytical Thinking, Creativity under pressure, Critical Thinking, Problem Solving, Independent work

Timed work is deciphering, calculating, evaluating and relaying facts, supporting opinions under pressure. Every time you apply knowledge you’ve gleaned to a situation you are unfamiliar with, you are using thinking skills to determine either a course of action or to explain whatever you’ve been asked about. In the work environment, no one takes official “exams”, per say, but the requirement to write out your plans and explanations permeates work. Every day you are asked to look at a current situation and either apply what you’ve been trained for that situation or tailor what you’ve been trained on quickly. Very often, you are asked to document your steps and rationale after you’ve completed that task. Doesn’t that sound like an exam? Well, it is! It is the workplace equivalent of exams!

Getting Help: Collaboration, Communication, Creativity, Critical Thinking

Study groups, tutoring, office hours: every time you actually reach out and get help, you are doing what every professional needs to do in new situations: find mentors and teachers who know what you need to learn.  And the better you are at inviting people to help you, the more successful you will be in any work place.  Think about it: doesn’t it feel good when someone asks your opinion? Doesn’t it feel good when someone says, “would you be willing to share how you do this?”  Now this isn’t the same thing as: “do this for me, I can’t” or “let me take up all your time with my questions”. The heart of getting help is noticing what’s convenient and easy for someone to help you with and keeping it easy for the person helping you.  You can do that, you do that when you study with classmates, when you seek out tutoring, and when you attend office hours of your instructors.

As you understand this skill, consider that the ability to get help is, very likely, the most important skill you could rehearse for any job, much less your entire life. When you make it easy and enjoyable for people to help you, you tend to find all the help you need. When you make it difficult, help is harder to find.

Papers and Essays: Analytical Thinking, Communication, Creativity, Critical Thinking

Your written communication in papers and exams is always prefaced with you planning out a response to conditions for that essay or paper. This written communication is only effective when you plan out what you want to say, which could very well include discussions and advice from other people (instructor, advisor, team members!).

Presentations: Communication, Critical Thinking, Planning, Presentation Skills

Translating written ideas to a public forum where you address an audience is one of the most common ways people engage in the workplace.  Sometimes, you may not have a formal “presentation”, but you walk through the presentation steps every time you are required to address a group, even if it is as simple as giving a status in a meeting.

Projects: Creative Thinking, Critical Thinking, Organizational Skills, Project Management, Time Management, Scheduling/Ability to keep schedule

You will lead, be involved in, and execute all or in part many projects over the life of your career arc. Projects tie the fundamentals of collaboration all together in a single focus with defined outcomes. They will involve planning and change management, time management, communication in multiple ways, all of the three thinking types.

What’s interesting about projects is that in school, what the teacher thinks is most important. In the work force, most of the time your ability to remember the details of your project(s) are what is most important. Those projects will become your personally compiled list of resources on the knowledge of your job and you will be critiqued along the way as you share your thoughts with your team.

Team Assignments: Collaboration, Communication, Creative Thinking, Critical Thinking, Organizational Skills, Project Planning

One of the most difficult-to-find skills employers consistently report is teamwork. Collaboration is as essential as it is rare. But every time you work in a group format, whether small group discussion, team projects or papers, or any situation where you are required to discuss with others and find, as a group, a way forward on an assignment, you are practicing this skill set.


Transferable Skills From College to Work:

Employer Requested Skills Typically Learned in College, aka “Baseline Skills”:


About the Author: Jenny Jones has an MS in Math and an MBA. She’s acted as the chief analyst at InfoSurf Consulting since 2018 and she loves helping people empower themselves, particularly through life-long learning. She knows from her own experience that if someone can, anyone can.