W hat are employers looking for in college graduates, and how should that guide your decisions during college? It's a puzzle. The number of prime working-age Americans with college degrees quadrupled during the second half of the past century, according to the U.S. Labor Department. That makes distinguishing yourself from your peers more important than ever.

To do that, you must assemble a variety of pieces such as school, work, and grade point average (GPA) to present an employment candidate—you—who will make employers stop in their tracks.

The Ivy League: key to success?
So you're torn between attending a more selective, and oftentimes pricier, school and a less selective, but still good, college. What do you do? Worse yet, you have no chance of attending an elite school. Time and again you'll lose out to someone with Ivy League credentials ... right? Wrong.

"The most important factor in future success is the student," says Stacy Berg Dale, "not the school." As a researcher at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, she released a study in 1999 with Alan Krueger, an economist at Princeton University, titled "Estimating the Payoff to Attending a More Selective College." The study looked at graduates who had been accepted by highly selective colleges but chose not to attend them, and compared their earnings with those of graduates who had attended highly selective schools.

Dale and Krueger found no difference in average income regardless of where the students attended college. "No matter where you go to school, you have to do well," says Dale.

Marilyn Mackes, executive director of the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) in Bethlehem, Pa., agrees. "Clearly the data tell us that any one single factor isn't going to be decisive in terms of success," she says. "Employers have suggested that they are looking for a balance."

While an Ivy League degree may impress employers at first, it will take more than that to leave a lasting impression.

GPA: important to employers?
From as far back as you can remember grades have symbolized how well you understood something. Remember the pride and approval that accompanied a handwritten 100% at the top of an assignment? Now, perhaps for the first time in your life, grades may not be the best indicators of your ability. While having an excellent GPA certainly can't hurt you, the consensus is that GPA is only one piece of the puzzle.

"GPA is a factor, but it is not the only factor," says Brenda Wagner, manager of the IBM National Recruiting Organization in Armonk, N.Y., which recruited 3,700 college graduates in 1999. At IBM, someone with an outstanding GPA and no internship experience will not necessarily fare better than someone with a low GPA and experience.

"In the world of work, I don't always think GPA tells the whole story for employers," says Leslie Kohlberg, assistant director of the Letters & Science School of Human Ecology Career Services Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Many employers realize that by excluding solely on the basis of GPA, they miss the opportunity to recruit talented employees.

Yet, Kohlberg contends that in a competitive job market, where employers are looking for a reason to eliminate candidates, GPA becomes more of a factor. "Your past indicates future performance—it might symbolize that you will do well in the future," she says.

Learning beyond four walls
"The college education, be it two or four years, does not stop at the classroom," says Scott Lopez, director of labor and employee relations and recruitment at the Credit Union National Association (CUNA) Inc. in Madison, Wis. Lopez especially values involvement in activities that support the candidate's targeted position. For example, if an applicant is applying for a political position, having been a member of the debate team can support and strengthen his or her position.

For Janet McDonald, senior vice president of Purdue Employees Federal Credit Union in West Lafayette, Ind., involvement in activities during college can teach an employer a lot about a candidate. She says involvement can answer the question, "Are you a multitask individual or do you like to take one thing on your plate at a time?" This helps McDonald predict a candidate's potential for growth. "We are looking for people who are cross-functional," she says.

McDonald adds that employers look at applicants and think, "What are some future areas into which they can grow?" By demonstrating the ability to handle more than one thing, you show employers you won't settle into a routine. "We want to see some drive and ambition to progress in the credit union, " says McDonald.

The same holds true at IBM. "We're not just hiring a person for one job; we're hiring them to do well at the IBM company," says Wagner. New hires need to be able to succeed in more than one position. For companies that promote internally, the idea of cross-functionality is an important one.

Any involvement in activities outside of class is positive, and taking a leadership position is extremely beneficial. "One of the things we look at in extracurriculars is were you a participant or did you take on a leadership role," says McDonald. A leadership role requires commitment and ambition. In the eyes of prospective employers, these things are priceless.

Talking to employers ahead of time can give students valuable insight about what to get involved in during college. Kohlberg advises students to contact someone in their field of interest and ask what he or she looks for in new hires. "Ask them, 'How does someone with my background meet your needs?'" says Kohlberg. Armed with this knowledge, students will have a sense of direction. "Knowing where you're going makes it easier to get there," she adds.

Experience counts
Today, internship experience is invaluable. When reviewing resumes, Janet Simon, chairwoman of the School-to-Work Committee for the Society for Human Resource Management and human resources director for COP Construction in Billings, Mont., believes internships are helpful because they allow applicants to present an employer with not only degree experience but work experience.

"It's a piece that they are able to present as an achievement," Lopez acknowledges. "The more closely an internship experience is related to the work experience, the more advantageous it is."

Still, not everyone can afford to take on an unpaid or low-paid internship. Don't despair—virtually any job provides you with an opportunity to take something away. It's up to you to capitalize on it. "Work experience, no matter which kind, demonstrates dependability," says Mackes. This shows employers you can manage your time effectively.

"We look at any experience and try to glean from that," says McDonald. "We're going to look and try to make as many comparisons to previous employment and our current position as we possibly can."

Students can help by focusing on how they perform their jobs. Have your responsibilities changed over time? Are you a quick learner who gets along well with people? Market your skills. Don't look at things from the perspective of "this is just a summer job," McDonald advises. "Don't minimize your work experience, draw from it."

Kohlberg believes that if a student is working to put himself or herself through school, it is worth telling employers. "It is an added dimension—employers are interested in work ethic."

She adds that there still are ways to make yourself more marketable from within the classroom. Kohlberg tells students to look for classes that take learning a step further. Some classes give students the opportunity to get involved with team projects, campaigns, and presentations. These courses give students something to "sell" to employers.

"If you have a track record of accomplishment—at almost anything you do—you can market this," says Kohlberg. She recommends creating a portfolio, "a scrapbook of successes." This can include letters from past employers, work examples, recommendations, notes, and coursework that demonstrate ability. The key is to work hard and be successful at your endeavors, whatever they may be—there will always be something you can take away from the experience.

What do employers want?
Employers really value someone well-rounded. For Kohlberg this means "not being too narrow in abilities." She has seen recruiters not necessarily recruiting the students with the best technical skills. Instead they seek out students who have the ability to communicate clearly and effectively. "They want the student who can write a memo and give an effective presentation," says Kohlberg.

"If you look at the crossover between the skills and qualities employers say are important, you can see that the skills that help people work together effectively come out on top," says Mackes. "Employers believe that candidates best suited to today's workplace are those who have the skills needed to excel in a team-oriented environment.

"It's not enough for a candidate to have knowledge—the candidate has to be able to share that knowledge effectively and tactfully in order for the company to succeed," she adds.

"I don't think people are hired for one reason, they are hired for the package deal," says Kohlberg. She advises graduates to be persistent in their job searches. "It's not always the person with the best grades or internship who gets the job; it's the people who show the most effort in the job search."

Fitting the pieces
Kohlberg says, "The advice I would give: Start early in your career search. Explore and investigate the possibilities." Many students visit Kohlberg's office too late—when they're frustrated and nearing graduation. The earlier a student can find out what he or she is best suited for, the better. Then you can spend the last years of college involving yourself in things that employers are looking for.

Take advantage of the career service center at your college. These centers have the resources, tools, and experience to help you determine what you're best suited for. "We're here to get you started," Kohlberg says. "Without dreams, goals, and ideas nothing happens."

Employers don't want to play a guessing game with applicants. "The best job you can do is to make it simple for the recruiter—show that you're an ideal match for the position," says Lopez. "A person who clearly explains what they have been involved in and accomplished will move on to the next level in the hiring process," he says.

With the World Wide Web at their fingertips, students have no excuse for not researching a company ahead of time. "I'm really interested in someone who has put some effort into the job search," says McDonald; "it can be very evident when a candidate has done their homework." Go to the interview sharp and prepared with a list of carefully thought out questions. Ask friends and family for ideas of things to ask. Have goals in mind. Express growth and long-term interest in the organization. "We're looking for people who really want to grow with us," says McDonald.

"There's no one miracle word on a resume, it's a whole lot of little pieces," concludes Lopez. Use your time in college to accumulate and organize the pieces. Upon graduation, the puzzle should be near completion.

     Employers rate new hire skills

     Top 10 personal qualities
     employers seek

    Make it simple
    for the recruiter—
    show that you're
    an ideal match
    for the position.

    The most
    important factor
    in future success
    is the student,
    not the school.

    Now, perhaps for the
    first time in your life,
    grades may not be
    the best indicators
    of your ability.

Employers rate new hire skills
(5 point scale:
1 = not at all important; 5 = very important)
Teamwork 4.51
Verbal Communication4.51
Written Communication4.11
Source: National Association of
Colleges and Employers (NACE), 2000 study

Top 10 personal qualities employers seek
1. Communication skills
2. Motivation/Initiative
3. Teamwork skills
4. Leadership skills
5. Academic achievement/GPA
6. Interpersonal skills
7. Flexibility/adaptability
8. Technical skills
9. Honesty/integrity
10. Work ethic*
10. Analytical/problem-solving skills*
Source: National Association of
Colleges and Employers (NACE), 2000 study

© 2000 Credit Union National Association Inc.