Goals for Undergraduates: What You Should Know When You Grad

I loved college. I majored in a subject which fascinated me, took the classes I wanted to, and got great grades. When I graduated, I thought I knew everything I needed to know to succeed in the big postgraduate world. I was wrong. Most of my undergraduate classes taught skills which I knew already or which came naturally to me; skills which were harder for me to master I had mostly skipped over. And what huge gaps I still have in my cultural understanding! An academic no longer, I still occasionally think about all of the knowledge and skills which I missed out on, and which would have been useful in both academia and the non-academic world.

Here is a laundry list of the skills and knowledge that anyone with a bachelor's degree should acquire before he or she graduates.

Expository writing skills.
Every college graduate should be able to write a decent essay on a non-fiction topic. The ability to communicate in written form is important not only in post-graduate study but also in almost any non-academic career if you want to rise to a high position. If writing papers is not your forte, make sure to struggle through enough college papers to know that you can (moderately) succeed at high-level writing anyway.
--Relevant classes: Many literature and social science classes require papers.

Basic research skills.
If you are interested in pursuing an academic or research-based career after you graduate, you need to gain some experience with serious research as an undergraduate. You shouldn't be afraid of classes which ask you to analyze and synthesize complex data, formulate a hypothesis, and write a paper proving or disproving the hypothesis. If you have fears about plagiarism, creative thinking, extended critical analysis, or research paper writing, you should take a class that forces you to develope the research skills you need to successfully work through these issues. Make your mistakes in undergraduate study where expectations are low, before you mess up in graduate school where the expectations are ten times as high.
--Relevant classes: Take advanced classes like a senior research seminar, an honors thesis class in your major, or an undergraduate research assistant position. You can also take less advanced classes outside of your field that require intensive research.

Ability to analyze information critically.
This is a key skill that will stand you in good stead for the rest of your life. You must be able to sort through information you read and hear to know if it is valid, factual, authoritative, matched to your needs, etc. Taking all information at face value is naive and dangerous.
--Relevant classes: A critical reasoning philosophy class or critical argumentation speech class will provide some of the tools for critical analysis.

Ability to find patterns in data, make inferences, and create algorithmic solutions.
Many higher-level problem-solving classes stress this skill.
--Relevant classes: An introductory linguistics class will give you lots of practice in pattern analysis.

Basic mathematical, algebraic, and statistical skills.
From personal money management to polls to health articles to gambling, you need these basic numerical skills to understand many aspects of adult life.
--Relevant classes: Take classes in mathematics, algebra, and statistics.

Basic acquaintance with history, philosophy, literature, and art.
This is the quintessential knowledge of a person well-educated in the liberal arts. A basic comprehensive knowledge of these subjects will enable you to converse with kings.
--Relevant classes: Take history, philosophy, literature, music appreciation, and art history classes.

Basic acquaintance with the life and physical sciences.
A well-educated person in today's technologically-advanced society has a basic understanding of the sciences, the human body, and the physical environment.
--Relevant classes: Take physical science (chemistry and physics) classes and an anatomy class as well as life, earth, or space science classes.

Basic knowledge of American governance, political philosophy, and economy.
As American citizens, we are part of a participatory democracy and a powerful capitalist economic system. To keep our country strong, we must be well-educated in American history and politics. We should also understand how our economic system works.
--Relevant classes: Take classes in American History, the American political system, and economics.

Basic understanding of human diversity.
We live in a troubled, hostile world, where many people find it hard to tolerate and understand each other's differences. The undergraduate experience allows you to counteract this tendency by exposing yourself to various cultures, languages, and lifestyles. A liberal arts education should teach that underneath our many differences, we share all of the same basic needs.
-- Relevant classes: Human beings are diverse in a multitude of ways, so there is a wide variety of classes that explore these differences. Take classes in anthropology, sociology, abnormal psychology, linguistics, foreign languages, and history (other than American or European history). There are also many classes that explore cultural differences in ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, and other demographic groups.

About the Author

Andrea Jussim is an experienced writer with experience in teaching and research. She entered a prestigious 5-year Ph.D. program immediately after completing her undergraduate studies, but left with an M.A. and her sanity two years later.