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Developing transferrable skills as a university student

Students will often hear the phrase ‘transferable skills’ when speaking to a careers adviser, but what does it mean? Richard Carruthers, deputy director of the careers service at Imperial College London, explains

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Richard Carruthers

Deputy director of the careers service at Imperial College London
September 6 2021
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During your time at university, you’ll hear many employers, academics, alumni and careers staff say you need to develop “transferable skills to secure internships and jobs. But what does this mean?

Generally, these transferable skills can be defined as being non-technical or subject knowledge related. They’re a broad set of skills that can be developed in one setting but be of great use in another, hence they “transfer” across a range of roles and industries.

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They include skills such as being able to plan, to anticipate and resolve problems, to handle pressure and adversity, and to demonstrate creativity or leadership. 

You may be academically gifted, but you’ll also need to evidence and discuss these transferable skills during recruitment to show that you’ll add real value to an organisation.

It’s hard to know where to begin as there are countless surveys that aim to uncover the top transferable skills, so instead I’ve listed my top four skills below from my personal experience and conversations with recruiters.

  1. Communication

This skill consistently ranks high in what recruiters want. It’s a very broad skill area, and often encompasses written and oral communication in varying formats, from reports and presentations to general conversations.

A senior manager once told me that there’s no point having amazing ideas if you can’t explain them to others”. They were absolutely right, and these words have resonated through my own career.

It’s incredibly important to convey a message clearly for your audience in a format that’s accessible to them. During your studies there will be plenty of opportunities to write reports and deliver presentations, but you could also create opportunities through extracurricular activities in forums such as debating societies or toastmaster clubs or through tutoring.

Try to challenge yourself and develop a variety of experiences. For example, if you dislike public speaking, you could see this as an opportunity to overcome these anxieties and request feedback to help you develop.

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  1. Organisation

​​​The ability to plan and juggle your time to meet deadlines and to keep commitments is crucial both at university and in your future career. To succeed, you will need to schedule your time, meet deadlines, and try to break large tasks into smaller, more manageable components.

You could try to keep a to-do list and block time in your diary to help you to focus. If things start to feel overwhelming, you could organise your list with the most urgent and important tasks at the top followed by the less urgent or important. 

Mark down important dates, deadlines or meetings in a virtual or paper calendar and spend time at the beginning of each week checking to see what you absolutely have to do that week. 

Identify distractions that you can either eliminate, or postpone to ensure that you keep on top of your to-do list. It’s also important to recognise your limitations and try not to take on too much at once so that you can keep the commitments that you do make.

  1. Teamwork

The ability to work well with others is a vital skill sought by employers as most jobs are collaborative and not done in isolation.

To be successful in a team you need to communicate well, keep commitments, negotiate to resolve differences and put aside personal objectives to achieve the collective goals.

Listening skills are often crucial to successful teamwork as is the ability to clarify if there’s confusion. Your degree will likely include elements of group project work, which is designed to help you develop teamwork skills and enables you to reflect on your experiences to identify what went well and what could be improved upon.

It is becoming quite common for university group projects to include a reflective task where you receive feedback from your peers and an assessor on your overall performance. If your degree programme lacks group project work, then you could look to extracurriculars or take on a committee position in a student club or society to help develop these skills.

  1. Small talk matters

This brings me back to my first point: communication. The art of conversation is a highly valued skill, especially if you’re seeking employment in a client- or customer-facing role.

Being able to chat with people and build their trust and confidence is an incredibly important part of developing professional networks and relationships. This isn’t really a skill you can be taught but you can develop abilities by pushing your boundaries.

For example, you could try to engage a classmate that you’ve never spoken to before in conversation. It may feel a bit unnatural, but open-ended questions that don’t elicit single-word responses may help a conversation to develop. This type of question requires the responder to share information, and it may open a discussion.

It’s not possible to detail every single transferable skill in a short article, but hopefully I’ve given some insight into the list of transferable skills and provided food for thought to help you understand the importance of these skills to the wider world of work.

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