Why should I stay in Honors if my first job depends on my performance in the major?

The title of this post is a question I am often asked–by students, by advisors, by faculty and from time to time, by parents.

The question itself contains a number of assumptions, which as any good critical thinker should do, I’ll unpack.

The first is that your *first* job is the only one that is important.  It isn’t.  It is true that many institutions look at your GPA in your major as during the first step in hiring. But what you do after that is entirely up to you.  Don’t get me wrong: getting a first job is critically important. But you can’t just be looking for a first job– you should be looking at a career, and that means looking at a position that will allow you to grow and live a full life.  And Honors, after all, is about providing the extra opportunities for you to enhance your education and have a full collegiate experience.

Second, it assumes that staying in Honors undermines your performance in your major. It shouldn’t. It should, in fact, enhance your major.  New Honors options are available to bring Honors coursework into the major, and the cultural enrichment and service requirements are open enough that, with a little creativity, you should be able to connect them to your majors.  The Senior Symposium is explicitly linked to a capstone experience, if you have one, and should be linked to senior-level work if you do not.

More importantly, it is becoming increasingly clear that performance in the major just isn’t what employers want any more. David E. Boyes, co-founder and President of a high-tech placement firm Sine Qua Non associates, recently was quoted in the Chronicle of Higher Education as saying that recent graduates are proficient in technical matters, but lack the ability to synthesize large amounts of information into a coherent argument. According to the Chronicle, he believes: “It’s not a matter of technical skill, but of knowing how to think.”

And again, Laszlo Bock, senior vice president of people operations at Google, was recent interviewed by NY Times reporter Adam Bryant. The interview was quoted by Thomas Freidman in his column:

Laszlo Bock, the senior vice president of people operations for Google — i.e., the guy in charge of hiring for one of the world’s most successful companies — noted that Google had determined that “G.P.A.’s are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless. … We found that they don’t predict anything.” …

“There are five hiring attributes we have across the company,” explained Bock. “If it’s a technical role, we assess your coding ability, and half the roles in the company are technical roles. For every job, though, the No. 1 thing we look for is general cognitive ability, and it’s not I.Q. It’s learning ability. It’s the ability to process on the fly. It’s the ability to pull together disparate bits of information. We assess that using structured behavioral interviews that we validate to make sure they’re predictive.”

The second, he added, “is leadership — in particular emergent leadership as opposed to traditional leadership. Traditional leadership is, were you president of the chess club? Were you vice president of sales? How quickly did you get there? We don’t care. What we care about is, when faced with a problem and you’re a member of a team, do you, at the appropriate time, step in and lead. And just as critically, do you step back and stop leading, do you let someone else? Because what’s critical to be an effective leader in this environment is you have to be willing to relinquish power.”

What else? Humility and ownership. “It’s feeling the sense of responsibility, the sense of ownership, to step in,” he said, to try to solve any problem — and the humility to step back and embrace the better ideas of others. “Your end goal,” explained Bock, “is what can we do together to problem-solve. I’ve contributed my piece, and then I step back.”

And Friedman concludes:

The world only cares about — and pays off on — what you can do with what you know (and it doesn’t care how you learned it). And in an age when innovation is increasingly a group endeavor, it also cares about a lot of soft skills — leadership, humility, collaboration, adaptability and loving to learn and re-learn. This will be true no matter where you go to work.

He is absolutely right.  The “soft skills” Friedman is talking about are exactly those that form the backbone of the Honors program’s co-curricular requirements.

So why should you stay in Honors if your first job depends on performance in the major? Because staying in Honors demonstrates the “soft skills” employers are looking for, whether they say so explicitly or not.  “Soft skills” may not land you your first job — but they will help you get promoted. And that’s the difference between a ‘job’ and a ‘career.’