Career skills to increase your marketability

Employers value seven basic categories of skills in college graduates during the hiring process (Appleby, 2014), and the presence or absence of these skills also determines whether new college hires succeed or fail on the job (Gardner, 2007).

The three purposes of this article are to:

  • Make you aware of these seven basic skill categories.
  • Help you identify the specific skills within each of these categories.
  • Provide you with career-development advice about how to use both the curricular and extracurricular components of your undergraduate education to develop and/or strengthen these skills.

If you lack these skills when you enter today’s competitive job market, you place yourself in a risky position because your more skillful peers will have a clear advantage over you during all stages of the hiring process. Once you become aware of these skills — and begin to collaborate with an academic or career advisor to create a semester-by-semester plan to attain them — then you can begin the process of including them in your cover letters and resumes in ways that will convince employers to hire you. Do not postpone your attempts to develop these skills. Begin this process now, not tomorrow, not at the end of this semester and absolutely not until after you graduate when your undergraduate education has ended and it will be too late to use it to develop these skills.

1. Communication skills

– Writing, speaking, listening, reading

People employed in the positions to which most college graduates aspire must not only write and speak clearly, coherently and persuasively, but must also attend to, remember, understand and act upon the information they read and hear. All students take basic communication courses such as English composition and speech. Unfortunately, many students do not understand the relevance of the skills taught in these courses to their professional futures and, therefore, take them to simply “get them out of the way” rather than to learn from them. Please take these courses seriously; without the skills they teach, you will put yourself at risk not only in the process of acquiring a job, but also in your ability to succeed in that job and to keep it once you are hired.

Take advanced classes in these areas (e.g., interpersonal communication and technical writing) and seek out experiences that will provide you with opportunities to practice your ability to read, listen, write and speak (i.e., classes that require extensive reading assignments, information-rich lectures, demanding written assignments and formal oral presentations).

2. Collaboration skills

– Working well in groups
– Dealing sensitively and effectively with diverse populations
– Exhibiting various forms of leadership, including supervising, influencing and motivating others

Your employer will require you to perform complex tasks that require teamwork. No one works alone, and almost all teams are composed of people who differ in terms of gender, race, culture, ethnicity, religion, marital status, education, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, age and physical or mental ability.

The skills necessary to be a productive member of a diverse team can only be acquired through practice, and the best place to practice these skills is in course-based group projects or extracurricular activities that involve working with groups composed of diverse members. The worst possible thing you can do in college is isolate yourself from diversity by deliberately deciding to live, study, work and spend your leisure time with only those students who are similar to you.

3. Critical thinking and research skills

– Applying information to solve organizational problems
– Using statistical skills to summarize, organize and analyze data
– Finding, gathering and organizing information from a variety of sources
– Creating new knowledge by integrating existing information

Employers seek out people who can solve problems, analyze data and create new ideas. One way to develop the critical thinking and research skills employers value is to participate in research projects that require the following critical thinking skills:

  • Retention and comprehension of information about the subject of the research.
  • Analysis and evaluation of the body of research upon which the research is based.
  • Creation and testing of new hypotheses and the application of research findings to advance knowledge and/or improve the quality of human life.

(Note that research refers to any systematic and organized method of asking questions and finding answers to these questions. It is not limited to the research method(s) of any particular academic discipline or area.)

4. Self-management skills

– Being flexible and adaptable
– Learning new skills and information
– Managing time, stress and conflict successfully

Employers avoid hiring people whose inability to manage time, stress or conflicts causes them to perform poorly on the job by missing deadlines, exhibiting stress-related problems or lowering workplace morale. Strengthen your self-management skills in college by seeking out courses whose instructors expect you to perform in the same responsible, conscientious and mature ways your future employers will demand.

Avoid classes taught by instructors:

  • Whose classes are perceived as non-stressful because their subject matter is easy or they do not require you to learn new skills.
  • Who reinforce procrastination and irresponsible behavior by accepting late assignments or allowing you to make up missed tests.
  • Who do not seem to care if you come to class late, leave class early or miss class entirely.

5. Professional skills

– Organizing, planning and carrying out projects
– Managing resources
– Acting and dressing in a professional manner

Employers want to hire employees who can carry out tasks in a professional manner. Therefore, you should choose classes taught by instructors who have the same high expectations as employers, such as those who:

  • Help students develop a strong work ethic by providing them with opportunities to work hard and receive high grades only for excellent work.
  • Do not allow students to make up for low performance on assignments or tests with extra credit.
  • Require students to plan, organize and carry out complex projects.
  • Do not tolerate behaviors in their classrooms that are unacceptable on the job (e.g., texting, surfing the web or receiving cell phone calls; coming to class unprepared to participate; falling asleep; or behaving and dressing in a distracting manner that disrupts the learning process).

6. Technological skills

– Computer literacy, word processing, email

You must realize that texting your friends, checking social media and shopping online are not skills valued by employers. In fact, the presence of these actions on the job can lead to highly undesirable outcomes. Employers expect their employees to select and use appropriate technological tools to identify, locate, acquire, store, organize, display, analyze and evaluate verbal, numerical and visual information.

Therefore, students should enroll in classes that require:

  • Papers written with word-processing programs.
  • Organization of information with databases.
  • Manipulation of numbers with spreadsheets.
  • Analysis of data with statistical programs.
  • Location of information with search engines.
  • Enhancement of speeches with presentation software.
  • Communication with their instructors and fellow students via the Internet.

Savvy job-seeking students master these skills while they are in college so they can “hit the ground running” when they are hired and not waste their employers’ time by having to be taught these skills on the job.

7. Ethical reasoning skills

– The ability to make ethical decisions based on appropriate ethical knowledge
– The willingness to act on these decisions

Although this was the least often mentioned skill by employers during the hiring process, it is crucially important for job-seeking college students to possess because of the dire consequences for new hires who fail to demonstrate it on the job. You should be aware that job interviews can include questions designed to evaluate your ability to think and act in an ethical manner, such as “Tell me about a project that required you to be aware of and act in accordance with a set of ethical principles.” The only way to answer this question in a credible manner is to have actually participated in such a project.

Therefore, you should engage in:

  • Research projects that require the creation of institutional review board protocols.
  • Writing assignments that conform to guidelines prohibiting plagiarism.
  • Internships that require you to be aware of, understand and act according to ethical guidelines such as those you would need to follow when you would work with clients whose confidentiality must be protected or who may be exposed to risks.

Reposted with permission from the American Psychological Association’s Psychology Student Network 


Appleby, D.C. (2014). A skills-based academic advising strategy for job-seeking psychology majors. In R. Miller & J.G. Irons (Eds.), Academic advising: A handbook for advisors and students, Volume 1: Models, students, topics, and issues (pp. 143-156). Retrieved from (PDF, 2.44MB).

Gardner, P. (2007). Moving up or moving out of the company? Factors that influence the promoting or firing of new college hires. East Lansing, Michigan: Michigan State University. Retrieved from (PDF, 9.41MB).

Author’s note

If you would like copies of a sample cover letter and resume that have been created using these skills as their organizational structure, please email me. These are Word documents you can modify to include your own contact information, career objectives and skills.

I would also like to offer two more ways to help communicate the information in this blog. One is a two-page PDF handout and the other is a PDF that can be enlarged into an academic advising poster. Both are available below as attachments.

If you would like to identify and investigate 300 careers that you can prepare to enter with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, please go to my online resource.

Image result for pdfA Skills-Based Cover Letter and Resume for Job-Seeking Psychology Majors (Poster)

Image result for pdfJob Skills Table

About the Author

Dr. Appleby received his BA from Simpson College in 1969 and his PhD from Iowa State University in 1972. During his four-decade career, he chaired the Marian University Psychology Department, was the Director of Undergraduate Studies in the IUPUI Psychology Department, and served as the Associate Dean of the IUPUI Honors College. He used the results of his research on teaching, learning, advising, and mentoring to create strategies that enable college students to adapt to their educational environment, acquire academic competence, set realistic goals, and achieve their career aspirations. He published over 100 books and articles (including The Savvy Psychology Major); made over 600 conference and other professional presentations (including 24 invited keynote addresses); received 44 institutional, regional, and national awards for teaching, advising, mentoring, and service; and was honored for his contributions to the science and profession of psychology by being named a Fellow of the American Psychological Association, the Midwestern Psychological Association, and as the 30th distinguished member of Psi Chi (the International Honor Society in Psychology). Most importantly, during his 13 years at IUPUI, he was designated as a mentor by 777 graduating psychology majors, 222 of whom indicated he was their most influential mentor by selecting the following sentence to describe his impact: “This professor influenced the whole course of my life and his effect on me has been invaluable.”