Selling Your College Major to an Employer
If you're not a champion for your major, who will be?
Posted Oct 12, 2016
Every fall I work with college students and recent graduates who are preparing for job interviews. One of the first questions I ask them is “Tell me about your major.” I often get a confused look or a blank stare as they struggle to think of what to say. They might say, “Well, I really like it” or “My professors are great” or, worse yet, “It’s interesting, but really not related to what I want to do.” And that’s a shame. Because they have passed on a wonderful opportunity to powerfully differentiate themselves from other candidates.
Taking the time to analyze the value of your major and the skills, mindsets, and perspective you gained from it will help an employer see the value in what you studied. It’s important to take the time to develop an elevator pitch that sells your major. Even if you’ve been out of college for a while, employers often refer back to your college experience, so the more you can sell its value, the better.
Some majors seem easier to sell than others, but don’t be fooled by what seems easy. For instance, if you’re an accounting major, it seems like a slam-dunk when you apply for an accounting position—why would you need to promote your major? Well first of all, you’re not the only candidate who will have an accounting degree—in fact, pretty much every candidate for an accounting position will have the same major. Some may even have a graduate degree. So you have to find ways to differentiate what you studied. How can you make yourself stand out and be unique in a field of individuals with the same major?
And if your major isn’t directly related to the job you’re seeking, you have even more responsibility than other candidates because you can’t expect the employer to know or understand what your degree entails. In fact, the employer might harbor stereotypes about your major that aren’t accurate (“Religion majors must be religious” or “History majors just study the past.”) You need to connect the dots between what you have studied and the job you hope to attain—even, and especially, if those connections aren’t obvious at first glance.
Keep in mind that many employers, above all else, are seeking bright workers. Given that certain majors such as philosophy, psychology, and the sciences are often particularly demanding majors, a major in one of these subjects can often be sold just on the academic rigor you had to endure. Many science or related majors require hours in laboratories: a sign of your commitment to your education and your willingness to work hard. So one place to start is by thinking about the amount and type of work you had to put in to succeed in your major.
Here are some ideas to jump-start your elevator pitch about the value of your major:
- What was your most challenging course? How did it prepare you to face challenges? How did you succeed in it?
- What are the key skills you have acquired through your education? Writing? Presentations? Teamwork? Experimental design? Report (paper) writing? Organizing projects? Creative assignments? Managing your time? Strong comprehension of difficult or technical materials? Logical thinking?
- What are the requirements of the job you're seeking? Can you match some of those requirements with your major or education? (The more you have researched the position you're seeking, the better.)
- What opportunities did your major provide for acquiring hands-on experience during college?
- What personality traits helped you succeed in your education?
- What related courses have you taken? (One student who wanted to work in business, majored in Italian and minored in business. Even though the job she interviewed for didn’t require Italian language skills, she used her unique major choice as a selling point—she had acquired an ability to communicate and relate to people from another country. She explained that her comfort with travel to foreign locations combined with her ability to quickly assimilate into another culture made her very comfortable in a new environment. By layering these value-added traits over her traditional business courses, she presented herself as a unique and more versatile candidate to her potential employer.)
- How did your knowledge of one area help you better understand your knowledge of another area? For example, how did your study of characters in your English class dovetail with your study of personality traits in your psychology class? And how might that knowledge be applied to the job you’re seeking in the consulting field?
- How do you analyze or understand situations better because of your major? Perhaps you studied biology or chemistry and you use the scientific method as your approach to solving and understanding situations. Maybe your sociology or anthropology classes have helped you understand how and why people behave in group settings. Your psychology courses may have given you strategies for motivating yourself and others.
Take a look at the answers you've provided to the above questions and, again, connect the dots between that knowledge/perspective and the job you’re seeking.
So what do you do if you can’t connect your major to your current work, or you are not sure of its value to your present situation? Well, first, I would encourage you to think harder. You might be letting yourself off the hook a little too quickly. For instance, suppose you majored in music theory, but it’s five years later and you don’t work in anything related to music. You have a choice: you can say, “I studied music in college, but that’s in my past…” which isn’t a very good story, or you could say, “While I’m not a musician or working in that industry, I credit my years of studying music theory, harmony and counterpoint to developing my analytic thinking skills, my creativity, and my attention to detail. There’s nothing like filling in the harmony and turning a simple melody into a four-part arrangement for helping you develop a good ear for listening to details, decision-making, and experimenting with lots of options to find the best result. I still use those skills daily."
Your college degree and your major will be with you (and on your resume!) for the rest of your life. Why not take advantage of it and use it as a selling point in your next interview?