The Importance of Soft Skills to College Success

Students With Weak Soft Skills Less Likely to Complete College

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Most people understand that cognitive skills such as the ability to read, write, and perform basic math problems are important for success.

However, according to a report by the Hamilton Project, students also need noncognitive skills to be successful in college and beyond. Noncognitive skills are also known as “soft skills” and include emotional, behavioral, and social traits, such as perseverance, teamwork, self-discipline, time management, and leadership ability.

The Importance of Soft Skills

Researchers have established several links between cognitive skills and academic success. For example, one study found that in middle school, self-discipline is more likely to predict academic success than I.Q. Another study revealed that such psychosocial factors as self-regulation and motivation contributed to community college students remaining in school and excelling academically.  

And now, the Hamilton Project reports that students who don’t have as many noncognitive skills and/or have weaker noncognitive skills are much less likely to finish high school and then go on attain a college degree.

Specifically, students in the bottom quartile are only 1/3 as likely to earn a postsecondary degree as students in the top quartile.

The findings are not surprising to Isaura Gonzalez, Psy. D., a licensed clinical psychologist and CEO of New York-based Latina Mastermind. Gonzalez says the development of noncognitive or soft skills allow students to step out of their comfort zone and also form better relationships. “If someone is used to blaming their successes or failures on other people or outside factors, it’s usually a lack of soft skills that is not allowing them to take ownership of their actions.”

And one of those soft skills is self-management. “If students are unable to manage themselves and their strengths and weaknesses, they will have a far more difficult time negotiating a school environment where demands and requirements change from class to class – and sometimes from week to week."

Some of the components of self-management are time management, organization, responsibility, and diligence. “Poor frustration tolerance also needs to be taken into account when we address poor completion rates at a college level,” Gonzalez says. “If students are unable to manage frustrations - that are often copious in a college setting - and unable to be flexible, which is another soft skill, they are less likely to meet the demands of a high-pressure, fast-paced college environment.” This is especially true for students pursuing some of the hardest college majors.

It's Not Too Late to Develop Soft Skills

Ideally, students would develop soft skills at an early age, but it’s never too late. According to Adrienne McNally, director of Experiential Education at New York Institute of Technology, college students can build soft skills by taking the following 3 steps:

  1. Identify the skill you want to develop.
  2. Have a faculty member, friend, or advisor routinely check on your progress in developing that skill.
  3. Once you have achieved the desired confidence in your new skill, reflect on how you developed it and how you can apply it to other areas of school - and work. This last step is crucial for your personal development as you add this skill to your list of characteristics.

For example, if you want to improve your written communication skills, McNally recommends asking your advisor (or another person you’ve identified) to critically view your email messages for a semester, and provide feedback. “At the end of the semester, meet to talk about how your writing has improved,” McNally says.

Being open and receptive to feedback is critical in soft skills development. According to Jennifer Lasater, vice president of Employer and Career Services at Kaplan University, people often make the assumption that they’re great at being a team player, managing time, or communicating, but feedback may reveal that this is not the case. 

Lasater also recommends that students record themselves giving an “elevator pitch” and then send it to their school’s Career Services office for feedback.

To develop time management skills, Lasater says, “Set small goals to achieve, such as completing class assignments or reading materials within a certain time frame to keep them on track and get used to regular deliverable schedules.” This exercise will also help students to develop discipline and learn to prioritize their tasks to ensure that the most important activities are completed. For students juggling college and work, this is an invaluable skill.

When students have group projects, Lasater recommends asking team members for feedback.   “Sometimes you might get responses that you don't like, but it will help you grow as a professional - and you could potentially use that learning experience as an example in a behavioral interview question in an interview situation.”

Also, consider participating in an internship. “In NYIT’s internship program, students learn how such skills as research, problem solving, and verbal communication can be used in their communities outside of work,” McNally says. The interns also have opportunities for practical application. “For example, if their local community faces a particular social problem, they can use their skills to research the causes and possible solutions of the problem, work with others by listening and collaborating on developing a solution, and then present their views and solutions as citizens to their community leaders.”

Soft skills are needed to succeed in school and in life. Ideally, these traits would be learned early in life, but fortunately, it's never to late to develop them.