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The Market Value of a UM Degree

This week, I attended an internal higher education conference sponsored by UM LSA Academic Advising. One of the sessions that I attended featured four employers who provided feedback on the value of the University of Michigan degree. I thought that this information was very valuable and would be of interest to all of our readers, no matter if you are a prospective SI student, a current student or alumnus of SI, or an employer.

Three specific questions were asked and the employer's provided their perspective. The four employers were Susanna Brennan from Media Genesis, Jason Keech from the American Cancer Society, Tyler Coffey from Target, and Angela Shelby of the State of Michigan.

The first question asked of these employers was, "What is your perceived market value of the University of Michigan degree?" The employers provided that when they see the UM degree on a resume, they know that the applicant will have been an outstanding student and therefore, an outstanding employee. UM students are bright, talented, and hardworking. They established a reputation of these characteristics from when they were in high school, as they needed to establish these traits that early on in order to get into Michigan. Students are tech-savvy and can juggle multiple priorities.

However, they also shared that the UM brand/degree won't get you the job. The degree creates a great foundation of skills and work ethic, but its up to you to demonstrate what kind of "house you will build on that foundation" as an employee. However, what's great about UM is that you basically have unlimited opportunities in which to develop your skills in leadership, research, and extracurricular activities. Students are able to get involved in programs such as AIESC, Dance Marathon, Rackham Student Government, amongst a wide range of other roles. What is a key selling point to employers is that many UM students hold professional-level roles in their student organizations while going to school full-time and excelling.

Media Genesis most often recruits for Project Managers, which is a role that is more about communication skills and problem-solving than anything. Michigan grads are able to meet their requirements because the education system provides the opportunity to develop excellent reading and writing skills, often proficiency in a second language, good overall communication skills, the ability to analyze information and to learn very quickly. They are good at managing deadlines -- and their own managers.

The Ann Arbor environment is also large enough that it a good foundation for students to move into any other environment, whether it be New York City or a more rural situation. Also as a product of the environment, UM students are more independent than students from other schools, and as employees, then seem to have less issues with housing, benefits, roommates, etc. The presence of the school in a some-what sizable metropolitan area also makes students aware of urban issues in away that is not possible in a more-insulted "college town".

The recruiter from Target, a recent UM grad, stated that what was the best thing that she took from her UM degree (from Organizational Studies, was here ability to understand and relate to people, especially a diverse range of people. In everything from her classes to social activities, she learned how to work with people -- and also how to influence them positively through her work.

The second question that was asked was, "How can students enhance their UM experience in the eyes of employers?"

Not surprisingly, the three main tips provided were volunteering, networking, and doing internships that are relevant to your area of study.

All of these experiences enhance your resume and indicate to the employee what kind of employee you will be. Networking can be an experience in which you talk to someone who talks to someone who puts you in contact with just the right person.

Internships are an opportunity to build upon that foundation that was mentioned earlier. In an internship, it should be known that all eyes are on you as an employee and that not only is the organization concerned that you are learning and getting your work done, but that you are adding value to the organization. Internships now are pretty much a requirement for a four-year degree, and more commonly so for graduate degrees. Without one, a candidate is not as competitive as that other applicant who has at least a few months of real-world work experience. Doing an internship can provide students with familiarity with office culture and organization vernacular in a way that they just can't get from the classroom experience.

It was shared that the student with the 4.0 GPA but no other activities is less valuable to any employer than the 3.4 GPA and a resume full of other experiences. Being studious is good, but being well-rounded is much more valuable.

Again, the point that leadership opportunities are everywhere at UM came up here. Service is everywhere -- student government, sports, LeaderShape, volunteering with Washtenaw Historical Society. It was also said that doing service work is "good karma" -- if you give, you will be benefited in return.

Networking was also pointed out to be not just a way to get a job, but also a way to exemplify your ability to build relationships, which is important in every job.

Employers also like to see creative-thinking, the ability to learn and grow, and for students to be well-rounded. Again, UM provides opportunities for students to take advantage of in order to fine-tune these skills, which puts them at an advantage over other students at different schools.

One of the recruiters made the point that although Ann Arbor is a good size city, in itself it can be insulating. So, it is up to the student to gain skills and experiences that make them capable in a diverse, fast-paced setting and they can do this through exploring the Michigan surrounding areas.

Another collective thought shared was that good experience doesn't have to come from an internship. Many students work part-time jobs and discount the value of such experiences. These jobs can be thoughtfully described in resumes, cover letters, and interviews as experiences that demonstrated loyalty, an excellent work ethic, well-developed customer service skills, time-management, attention to detail, or a multitude of other important and highly-transferable soft skills. Don't discount your weekend job of waiting tables!

The recruiters all also pointed out that quality over quantity is better in terms of experiences. An applicant who's involved with everything on campus never had the chance to really immerse themselves in anything, so a student who's only in one organization, but has been involved with them for years in a variety of positions would be considered to be the better candidate.

The last question asked was, "What are the best ways that UM students/graduates can represent themselves?"

Its probably of no surprise that the focus was on the resume and cover letter writing. It was suggested that the most important information on a resume should be right around the top crease of a piece of paper that has been folded into thirds, as this is where the eyes fall naturally when first viewing a piece of paper. This could be a skills section, education, or a listing of important achievements. The resume should not be a full-detailed explanation of your current job, just the basics on what you do as relevant to the position at hand. You'll get the chance to explain in more detail in the interview.

The cover letter should not be a review of your life. This is like making the employer fit the square peg of your life into the round hole of the job. Don't make them struggle to see the fit! One of the recruiters talked about how their organization just received almost 600 resumes for two posted positions. When there are that many resumes received, your resume needs to be obvious and tailored to the position so that the relevant information is not looked over.

Interviewing is all behavioral based. Behavioral interviewing is based on the concept that past performance/behavior is an indicator of future performance/behavior. In the past hypothetical questions were asked -- however, it is now felt that hypothetical questions result in hypothetical answers. Be prepared to talk about past achievements -- and also mistakes, but don't be too honest or to blatant about your mess-ups! Be sure to practice out loud before the interview -- this really does make a difference!

Thank you notes are still important. Media Genesis indicated that they prefer to receive old-fashioned hand-written cards/letters than an email. They felt that the email was pretty much the easy way out - and we all already receive too many emails!

A few other interviewing tips:
--Don't play it cool in the interview. Act like you want the job and let them know you do. Be enthusiastic!
--Go beyond why you like the company -- be specific about why you like the company, but also include tailored information about what it is about the job.
--It is okay to say, "I don't know the answer to that" -- but be sure to get the answer asap!
-- Ask questions about company culture, environment, a typical day.
--Being confident in huge and can make all the difference in an interview. Many other skills are trainable, but confidence and enthusiasm are not.
--Carry business cards and give them out at career fairs at in interviews. This is especially important if this is a norm for your field (i.e. graphic design) or a way to display your talents/skills.

In the end, old-fashioned, professionalism was deemed much more important than being the most progressive, tech-savvy applicant. Those skills are important too, but the foundation of professional abilities was what was pointed to be essential for success.

Posted by kkowatch at May 14, 2009 09:12 AM

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