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When dreaming about a career, consider all the skills you will need, not just the expertise named on your degree

Picture a young student fascinated by foreign lands. She has a true talent for cultural awareness and historical nuances. She wants to use that to help foster understanding between cultures and make the world a better place.

So she's chosen a major in comparative politics and aspires to become a diplomat.

Then comes a cold splash of reality.

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When speaking with an older professor who worked in the foreign service, the former bureaucrat replies jadedly: All they want are experts in math and languages. The student leaves his office deflated, feeling that all those international relations and ethnosociology classes were for naught.

But they weren't. Although some jobs naturally lean toward certain skills, the current job market requires a much broader set of talents than ever before, student advisers say.

It's no longer about simply acquiring a degree and a specific skill set for a job. It's expected that post millenials will have far more jobs and undulating career paths than their parents. The only way to prepare for this, student advisers say, is by choosing a mix of academics and extracurricular activities that suit a student's goals, not by choosing what others prescribe.

In other words, follow your plan, not just the prerequisites, advisers say.

"I encourage students to think about their personal mission, as opposed to their major. Who do they aspire to be, and what does that look like?" said Janet Morrison, vice-provost of students at York University in Toronto. "Our experience has been that if students think what their personal mission is, and then choose a major that follows from that, instead of vice-versa, it can be a more successful approach."

Even if someone may advise a student to concentrate on math and languages, what about all the soft skills, such as leadership and cultural know-how – skills needed to implement the math and languages?

This is especially important because recent university grads can expect to have 20 jobs or more in their lifetime, far more than their mid-career colleagues, Ms. Morrison noted.

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"Employers are looking for a really wide array of skills: verbal communication, team work, global awareness, time management, flexibility. There's a wide range of majors that can help you build that skill set," she said.

Some majors, such as engineering, will continue to concentrate on very specific job skills. But all majors, particularly those in the liberal arts, hone a range of soft skills, from effective communication to intellectual nimbleness. These are vital.

And extracurricular activities are a key part of that mix. Concordia University in Montreal is among those which help students evaluate and record the skills they develop separate from academics. And it looks good on a résumé.

"It's an official university document to [record] any of the extra work that students do outside of the classroom, basically things that are not necessarily related to academic credit," said Paul Goubko, cocurricular record assistant in the Dean of Students office.

"The great thing about the program is that it really helps students reflect on the work that they've done outside of the classroom, and to have this document that translates things that they've done and bring it to an employer," he said.

So, in addition to describing the roles a student had in various organizations, it also allows the student to choose from a list of learning outcomes he or she gained from the positions.

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"When it comes to extracurricular activities, those are to me non-negotiable. If you just decide to go to school, take classes, do your homework, study and that's it, it's going to be very difficult for you to stand out," said Mai-Gee Hum, director of career management services at Concordia's John Molson School of Business.

"Employers and recruiters are looking for that very well-rounded individual, someone who can master the academics, content, material and knowledge, but was active in sports," she said, citing just one example. Or the student might be active in engineering competitions. Or student government. Or artistic clubs. The point is to acquire a breadth of experiences.

In short, the emphasis needs to be on soft skills as much as hard skills. York University's Ms. Morrison describes this as experiential education, in which real-world experience is included in the coursework. Students are then asked to reflect on those experiences, either as an essay or presentation or some kind of tangible work.

"Those types of learning environments really foster a deeper sense of who you are, and who you want to be, and what your future path might look like," Ms. Morrison said.

She emphasizes the need for transferable skill sets. "What are the skills and experiences that are going to serve you well throughout your career? Can you plan? Can you organize? Can you manage time? Can you communicate effectively? Do you have a sense of global awareness or diversity?"

To think in terms of a job requiring a very specific kind of education is far too narrow, she and others advise. Instead, it's all about acquiring and detailing a broad range of academic and extracurricular experiences, regardless of the major.

In a well-rounded education, "You're going to be writing. You're going to be doing group work. You're going to be presenting. Those skills matter," she said.

Which university is right for you?

More stories from the Canadian University Report

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About the Author

Guy Dixon is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail. More

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