Does College Really Prepare Students for Work & the Real World?

Written by Jacqueline B

So you’ve made it through the last 4+ years of essays, labs, and exams, and are ready to head out into the working world and begin “adulting”.

You let out a sigh of relief and think excitedly about what awaits you, but are you actually ready?

More than ever before students are expressing that they feel their college experience has done little to prepare them for the practicalities of the workplace, and the real world in general. Not only are students feeling this way, but many employers would also agree that a large percentage of graduates are underprepared.

If you are feeling anxious about graduation because you feel you are not ready to face what comes next, or have already graduated and are struggling to make progress, do not worry because you are not alone.

Recent studies show that as little as 40% of college seniors feel they are adequately prepared to start their job search upon graduation.

We’ve decided to dig into the question of whether college really prepares students for work and for the real world a little further. We will be taking a look at the various ways in which the college experience does and does not address and educate students on situations they will undoubtedly encounter post graduation.

In What Ways Does College Prepare Us for the Real World?

Don’t get us wrong, we are not saying college doesn’t provide us with any of the tools necessary for post graduation success.

College, or any other post-secondary program you are or have completed will have provided you first and foremost with the educational tools needed to further study or work in your desired field. Be it medicine, law, business, a trade, etc. the array of classes you’ve taken over the last few years will have undoubtedly drilled every last bit of knowledge necessary for someone entering those fields.

But is knowledge enough?

We don’t think so, and neither do majority of employers.

In What Ways Does College Fail in Preparing Us for the Real World?

Unfortunately, there are more than a few ways in which the traditional college educational system is failing to prepare students for their transition into the working world.

Below, we’ve outlined the aspects we found to have the most negative impacts on students as they enter the real world.

  1. Memorization Centered Learning

You read the textbook. You make notes. You write an exam.

This is more often then not the process by which your college course operates. There will be a few assignments thrown in there, possibly a paper or two, maybe a lab. There is one thing all of these teaching methods have in common: they rely on a student’s memory.

You memorize the content, the answers, the steps, and then you spit them out onto your exam when the time comes. You read and re-read the material until it becomes like a pattern, engrained into your brain.

So if you are learning the course material why is this a problem?

Real life does not rely on memorization.

Real life situations demand critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, and creativity; all of which are foregone when memorization is the center of education.

These skills are crucial for anyone in the real world if they are to be capable of handling new or unique situations, whether in the workplace or in other areas of their life.

  1. Little or No Real World/Workplace Experience

With the exception of a few college programs, most students graduate and start looking for jobs with no real experience in their chosen field.

This is detrimental for a number of reasons.

First, most employers seek candidates with experience in the field. This creates an extremely irritating and unfortunate cycle for fresh graduates: they can’t get a job without having experience, but they can’t gain experience without getting a job. What are they to do?

Second, when graduates do manage to find work, they know very little about how the job operates on a day-to-day basis. This lack of practical knowledge means they basically need to be trained on the job in order to complete even the simplest of tasks.

This is undesirable for the employers, who must spend additional time and money educating already educated individuals, and is frustrating for the new employees, who may feel overwhelmed and even slightly embarrassed.

  1. No Exposure To Those Employed in the Field

This is quite related to the lack of experience mentioned above.

Without being able to connect with individuals who are already currently working in the field they are hoping to enter, students will have no realistic understanding of what the workplace is like.

Being able to ask questions will help students gain insight on the jobs day-to-day operations, how certain situations are dealt with, what the fields prospect outlook is like, and most importantly, can help them learn from mistakes previously made.

  1. No Education on Necessary Life Skills

These last two aspects are so incredibly important, not only for in the workplace but also for being able to successfully handle common situations in everyday living.

While college is busy providing students with every last academic requirement needed for their fancy degree, they fail to provide students with the practical skills required to carry out everyday tasks.

In regards to the workplace, some of the skills colleges should be helping students’ master include: communication skills, time management skills, organization skills, independence, and relationship building. These are all qualities that most employers look for in a potential candidate. Without these traits, an individual will not be able to successfully function in the workplace on their own or amongst their peers.

Aside from these workplace skills, colleges should offer life management courses, where students learn how to complete normal everyday tasks. Some examples of things that are necessary in life but are rarely taught include: how to prepare for a job interview, how to do your taxes, how to build and maintain good credit, etc. These seem like things that should be common knowledge, but more often than not young adults struggle with tasks like these because of their lack of education on the subject.

  1. Failing to Help Students Mature

Employers want educated, experienced, mature young adults: individuals who they see potential in, someone who can prove to be an asset to their team.

What they are not looking for are kids. Individuals who are naïve to the responsibilities of the real world, ignorant of their need to change, and reliant on luck to face difficult situations are unlikely to catch the attention of potential employers.

This problem often lies in the party-centric attitude that many colleges are home to. While this is not necessarily the college’s doing, many do not do anything to counter this. In addition to this, college students are often sheltered or babied. Without being exposed to unknown, uncomfortable, or flat out difficult situations, they have no true need or desire to mature.

How Can Colleges Address and Remedy These Failures?

  • Implement High Impact Practices

Often called “Engaged Learning Practices”, this typically involves techniques such as: challenging students’ ways of thinking, adding meaningful interactions to lessons, providing opportunities to learn through real world applications, providing frequent and constructive feedback.

  • Support More On Site Exposure

Whether this is done through practicum placements, school supported internships, or simply organized volunteering, giving students the opportunity to immerse themselves in their future workplace will give them a better understanding of the job ahead than any textbook ever could.

  • Bring in Experienced Professionals and/or Recent Graduates to Speak to and Mentor the Students

Without experiencing the workplace for themselves, students have no way of knowing what to expect.

One way this can be remedied by giving students access to a mentor who was or is currently employed in the job they are working towards. This mentor can give them insider knowledge on the day-to-day musings of the job and can give them advice based on previous experiences.

It would also benefit students to speak with recent graduates about what to expect when transitioning from college life to work life. Recent graduates know first hand what the job markets are like and what employers are looking for.

  • Make Life Skill Classes A Requirement

All post secondary institutions (and even high schools, as not every young adult attends post secondary) should create and offer mandatory life skills classes. These classes can cover both aspects of life skills, such as important traits and qualities necessary for success as well as practical knowledge on the common tasks required throughout adulthood.

So To Answer The Question

Does college prepare students for the real world and their entry into the workforce? We are going to say no.

There are clearly many regards in which college seems to fail students in terms of preparing them for graduation.

However, we have outlined a few impactful ways in which post secondary institutions could improve their curriculums to improve students’ exposure and understanding of what post-college life will look like and consist of.

It’s A Start

In reality, we are coming to a time where education reform is being demanded and is, in many regards, desperately needed. Education curriculums have seen little change over the last few decades despite the speed at which the world is changing around us.

Now more than ever, students are feeling inadequately prepared post-graduation for the tasks and challenging they are facing in the real world. In order for students to succeed in life, their education needs to be reflective of what that life will consist of. This means the education system needs to address and remedy the reasoning behind why so many students feel their education has failed them.

Until we see a drastic change in the way education is both viewed and delivered, the small changes we outlined above, such as on site exposure, life skills classes, and high impact practices, will have to be enough.



About the author

Jacqueline B

Our favorite Canadian Jacqueline is a graduate of the University of Alberta. She freelances for variety of online publications, and we're thrilled to to have her as part of the Career Geek team.