Updated on 08.18.14

10 More Essential Skills You Didn’t Learn in College

Trent Hamm

I thoroughly enjoyed this recent WIRED article entitled 7 Essential Skills You Didn’t Learn in College. Among them:

Statistical literacy-the ability to critically interpret presented statistics and sniff out the actual useful information to separate it from the nonsense.
Applied cognition-the ability to evaluate your methods of thinking and processing information and seek out and apply improved methods.
Writing for new forms-the ability to communicate nuanced thought in fewer words (think Twitter’s 140 character limit, for example).
Domestic tech-the ability to make things and repair things at home, from cooking to home repair.

(I particularly liked that last one.)

This article was yet another reminder to me that most of the skills that a person uses in a financially, professionally, and personally successful life are developed outside of a classroom.

In the past, I’ve written about the value of transferable skills, but I thought I’d expand on that by offering up ten more essential skills that aren’t typically taught in college and how you can learn them in your own life.

Money Management 101

How to keep out of debt and spend less than you earn

If more Americans had these simple lessons as part of their life, there would never have been a housing crisis and the economic downturn of 2008 would have been far softer. The fundamental key to money management is to simply spend less than you earn every single month. Part of that involves not overcommitting yourself to future bills – in other words, get sensible mortgages and avoid other debts. It also means learning how to resist the temptation to have all of the material stuff that other people have.

Idea Organization 101

How to organize many ideas to tell a single coherent story

I receive many emails that consist of just a long glob of text with lots of facts and ideas spread throughout. Unfortunately, without a lot of work, those emails are incomprehensible. Using basic strategies for organizing your ideas can make a huge difference in terms of the recipient understanding you and effectively handling your wishes. Key strategies include sticking to only one fact per paragraph, listing all of the facts you want to convey before you start writing, and putting yourself in the shoes of the person receiving the message.

Persuasion 101

How to convince others of your ideas – and understand how others convince you

You don’t persuade others by merely being right on your own terms. You persuade others by making your case clear on their terms. One big part of this is to simply use honey rather than vinegar. Be kind and understanding and leave being judgmental by the wayside.

Personal Growth 101

How to consistently evaluate and improve yourself in every dimension of life

We all succeed in some areas and fail in others. Almost every situation in our lives offers some room for improvement, if only we’re willing to see it and take it. Personal growth requires a willingness to look at our own faults and mistakes and ask ourselves constantly what we can do to improve on those faults in every area of life. It requires that we accept that we’re not perfect and that we can always improve. It also requires us to take action to improve those faults.

Time Management 101

How to organize your time – without over-organizing it

At one extreme, we have people who do no time management at all and seem to just stumble onto whatever task comes next. At the other extreme, some people have every element of their day scheduled down to the five minute mark. There’s a happy, healthy medium that allows freedom while still giving enough structure to make sure we get done the things we need to do. The first step is to keep a calendar. Another step is to constantly keep a “to-do” list going – and constantly add to it as ideas come into our head, writing them down instead of just trying to remember them.

Goal Setting 101

How to set reachable, manageable goals

Goals enable us to work towards something instead of just struggling in a random direction without any real forward motion. A good goal not only specifies where we’re going, but makes it very clear when we’ve reached our goal as well as providing milestones for getting there. Try setting a goal that involves a number so that you can clearly track your progress along the way and can see the impact of your daily choices as you go.

Focus 101

How to eliminate distractions and put your attention on a single matter

How many of you have another web browser or another tab open right now? Is your cell phone on? How about a Twitter client or Facebook? All of these things are distractions that can easily pull you away from whatever task you happen to be working on at the moment.

Public Discourse 101

How to discuss issues without resorting to name-calling

The public arena is filled with incredible viciousness, with people on both sides hurling such hateful terminology at people who merely disagree with them on an issue or two. Discussion and public policy can’t move forward in that state. If more people adopted a more sensible form of public discourse, we could find middle grounds that allow society to move forward. Share the positives of your ideas, not the negatives of other ideas. Don’t resort to name-calling. When criticized, don’t respond with more criticism. Listen (and by that, I don’t mean just wait until your turn to talk).

Marketing Interpretation 101

How to understand how marketing manipulates you in every avenue of life

From politics to what gadgets you want, from the shows you choose to watch to the food you buy at the supermarket, marketing plays a role. The simple ability to figure out what ideas in your head and what ideas spoken by others are actually based on facts or are based on marketing and promotion makes it much easier to cut down to the reality of things, as well as get a grip on your own personal choices and ideas.

Impulse Control 101

How to get a grip on your personal decision-making

All of us are impulsive at times, but impulsiveness can have huge personal and financial costs. The more control you have over your own impulsiveness (including the ability to know when to allow yourself to be impulsive), the more control you have over your finances and your ability to interact positively with the world around you. The easiest tactic is to simply apply a five second rule to each significant decision you make in a day – each item you buy, each thing you agree to, and so on. Just think quickly about the pros and cons of each choice and see how that reshapes your initial impulse.

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  1. Chris Gagner @ SmartPF says:

    I wish that colleges would teach a little more of the behavioral side of finance. They spend majority of the time teaching the numbers part of it, but don’t really teach a student to apply this in the real world. That’s something that I guess they rely on you to learn on the job.

  2. SavingFreak says:

    I have seen in the seminars and workshops we put on that people have no real understanding of percentages. We will ask what is 1% of $100 and there is always at least one person that says $10. I feel like we need to just scrap the government run education system for something else when this happens.

  3. Kathryn says:

    I think this is a really interesting post, but it also made me laugh because I DID learn almost all those skills in college. I attended a small liberal-arts college where the overarching mission is to create lifelong learners, articulate communicators, and responsible, engaged citizens–so every class was conducted with an eye to teaching skills like public discourse, idea organization, and applied cognition. Overall, I learned 11 of these 14 skills in college. So those 4 years (and tens of thousands of dollars) will never feel wasted–they were about personal development, not career training.

  4. ProfessorPope says:

    I am a college professor and enjoyed this post very much. I will say that many of these things are taught in college — at least the one in which I work. Among the Wired list, statistical literacy is part of our required math course, applied (or what we call “meta”) cognition is something built into a variety of courses, and the writing bit is covered in some courses (after students ostensibly master standard argumentative prose). In your list, many of the things (goal setting, time mgmt, money mgmt) are taught in our “Intro to College” course. Idea organization and persuasion are part of the core writing course. I’d wager a lot of your list is part of college, even if it’s not the name of a course.

  5. Kathryn Fenner says:

    I learned idea organization in college. I was an English major. Perhaps there is value in a liberal arts education after all.

  6. George says:

    @SavingFreak – if it weren’t for the government run education system, then it would be more like half your audience who would get the answer wrong as they wouldn’t have had ANY education.

  7. Kristen says:

    I would disagree with the first two. My university education certainly taught me how to evaluate the appropriate use of statistics, and how to apply a variety of methods of thinking, processing, and using information.

    In this new world of ours, it might be useful if schools put some emphasis on communication skills, learning skills, and time management to help graduates succeed in the workplace. Some of this stuff is the responsibility of parents, as well.

  8. Jennifer says:

    I learned both how to analyse stats & evaluate methods in college. I was an Anthro & Human Geography major. I had a class in each major where the primary activity was to discuss primary research. We’d analyze, comment on any info given about the authors/methods/data/conclusions.

  9. done that says:

    I work in education. More high schools are offering courses in financial literacy. English classes are a great way to learn to organize your thoughts. And as early as middle school they are incorporating homeroom advisories and teaching kids to use planners and organizational tools to keep track of their lives. The last time I taught 5th grade we had a unit on advertising, learning about the strategies marketers use and how to identify them. A lot of what you mention is available in our educational system. Like anything else, it won’t stick until the person is ready to receive it.

  10. Briana @ GBR says:

    There’s so many books out there, that you can really create your own educational program to teach you these things :) Personal College!

  11. Great list!

    I struggle with wondering if college is worth the expense. I mean we strap on so much debt only to learn they didn’t really teach us anything and the only benefit of having the degree is that other people expect you to have one.

    Something isn’t adding up.

  12. Kathleen says:

    I studied Arts (literature) and Law. I can’t get a job with the Arts and spent an extra two years in that degree (postgrad) which was too long as it lost its mystery and I lost a great deal of respect.

    However: Like @#3 Kathryn Fenner, my Arts degree (especially that extra time) taught me idea organisation, persuasion, public discourse and marketing interpretation, with a vengeance.

  13. lurker carl says:

    All these topics should have been covered before graduating high school so the students can hone such skills in college. It’s up parents to teach their children things the schools don’t.

  14. cynthia says:

    Nice post, especially where you write how we all succeed and fail and so need to keep working.

  15. just me says:

    Almost every arts degree will teach all of these things.

  16. SwingCheese says:

    Actually, when I was teaching Western Civ, we worked on organization, persuasion, and public discourse. I was very disheartened by the amount of students I had who never went beyond the minimum (when I suggested it, they looked at me like I had another head) and who wouldn’t even try to interpret what they found when running a google search. In fact, we the teachers listed a number of reputable websites for their project topics, and still, I had several who would just google, then complain to me that they couldn’t find anything on the topic. So perhaps it isn’t that schools aren’t teaching these skills, per se.

  17. Brittany says:

    Yeah, I feel like I learned every single one of these skills in college, including the ones listed from the article. Maybe my college was just that awesome?

  18. Laundry Lady says:

    I actually took a class in college called Personal Stewardship which covered personal finance related subjects such as how mortgages and credit cards work, creating a budget and time management. We even had a units on marketing and nutrition. I still make reference to the information 5 years later. As an English writing major, I learned how to organize my ideas as well as persuasion and public discourse. Impulse control and goal setting I learned from my parents, but I had professors who tried to teach us that as well. It don’t know if it’s fair to say that college won’t try teach you these things. But I don’t think most people learn these things in college.

  19. Even though I knew some of the subjects you mentioned, I would have had a successful financial education in college instead of the school of hard knocks. Thanks for the post

  20. bethany says:

    I don’t mean to pile on, but I teach college communication courses, and I spend weeks on idea organization, persuasion, and public discourse. I don’t know if all my students learn it in a way they can retain it and transfer, but I try…

  21. Laura says:

    Trent, I thought your ideas about what things you don’t learn in college were much more insightful than the Wired article’s. Thanks for sharing!

  22. borealis says:

    I may or may not be disagreeing with Trent. Those are important skills to be learned. But college is also not about teaching skills in classes with those names.

    Students should take lots of other courses with different names, perhaps even studying ancient Greek or Quantum Physics. You learn most by studying a discipline in depth — skills grow out of the in-depth studies.

    But through those classes you should learn a number of skills, and Trent listed some that you should learn “for sure.”

  23. All should be included in the core curriculum of all universities.

    Plain and simple.

  24. A.H. says:

    Thanks Trent, these are all great skills we should focus on more. That said, I did learn several of them very well in college, especially Public Discourse (how to hold a civil discussion in class), Focus, Goal Setting, and Time Management (how to get all my homework done and still have time for a social life), and Persuasion and Idea Organization (how to write a paper). It would have been nice to get some Money Management in my education though, preferably in high school before I took out those student loans. These are all skills that we should focus on improving throughout our lives, in high school, college (if you go), and beyond. But it seems like listing them under “Essential Skills you Didn’t Learn in College” just helps perpetuate the idea that most of what colleges teach (especially in the liberal arts) is out of touch with the real world and not really “essential.”

  25. GayleRN says:

    Why would people be statistically literate when they are taught things like finding an average by throwing out alternate high and low values until you are left with one value. When the autistic 6th grader challenged the teacher on this he was disciplined.

    At work I noticed a very impressive graph that announced that a certain performance measurement was up 100%. On closer inspection last month was 0 and this month was 1 event. Statistically irrelevant but used by management to praise or punish.

    If you don’t know what is wrong with these 2 scenarios those who do will use you and abuse you.

  26. GayleRN says:

    I like your list of 10, they would be worth making a series of posts. Interestingly, these are all things that could and should be taught at home. If you raised children with these teaching goals in mind you would have well rounded and functioning adults by the end of high school. By the way Trent, I think you have just outlined a potential book.

  27. Johanna says:

    As other people have pointed out, college students do learn how to organize ideas well. But they also often learn that organizing ideas poorly has its advantages.

    Once you get to a high enough level in your major, the default assumption is that you know what you’re talking about, and the default grade is A. (At least, this was true for me in physics, which is notorious for being one of the fields least prone to grade inflation.) You’ll only be singled out for criticism or have your papers marked down if the professor catches you saying something blatantly wrong. But if you present your ideas in a big wordy jumble that makes the reader’s eyes glaze over, nobody will notice if you say something that’s not quite right.

    This is my theory of why so many otherwise very smart people are so terrible at organizing ideas. Not that I mind so much – if they were better at it, I wouldn’t have a job.

  28. Brittany says:

    I’d also like to challenge Trent’s Focus 101 as a necessary skill. Focus is useful; only being able to do one task at a time (being unable to focus on and balance multiple things going on at once) is not.

    In the mornings, I work in non-profit civic engagement. In the afternoon, I teach middle school. The ability to multitask, to keep 5 or 6 things balanced in my head at once, doing 1-3 at a time, is essential to success in both parts of my job. In fact, every job I’ve had by copying editing has required a deep level of multitasking.

    I’ve known far too many people who can’t multitask. Just can’t. At all. That’s a skill that needs more practice than closing other web browsers so we can exclusively focus on this blog.

  29. A.H. says:

    I second GayleRN – I would really like to see a serious of posts or even a book about these important topics.

  30. A.H. says:

    I second GayleRN – I would really like to see a series of posts or even a book about these important topics.

  31. Marsha says:


    What you are describing is the median, which is one type of average. There are really three types of “averages”: the mean, the median, and the mode. The mean is what you obtain by summing the values and dividing by the number of values; it’s what most people think the definition of average is. The mode is the most frequently occurring number in the set of data. The median is the number in the middle of the set of data.

    This is why you need to be careful when statistics list an “average” value. Is it the mean, the median, or the mode? Each has their advantages, and they can be wildly different.

  32. Johanna says:

    @Marsha: There are more types of averages than that, actually – there’s also the geometric mean, the harmonic mean, and the quadratic mean, for example. They all have their uses: The average return on an investment is related to the geometric mean, and the average speed or gas mileage of your car is a harmonic mean.

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen a median or mode called simply the “average” – usually, when somebody’s presenting statistics, they use “average” to mean the mean (or “arithmetic mean”), where you add up all the numbers and divide by the number of numbers. If they’re talking about the median or mode, they’ll call it the median or mode.

    But in colloquial speech, “average” means something more like “typical,” so the median and the mode are a lot closer to people’s intuitive idea of what an “average” should be. So you get people concluding that all statistics are nonsense when they hear things like how the average household has 2.5 people and owns 0.8 homes. The statistics are not nonsense, of course, but they might not mean what the average person thinks they mean.

  33. littlepitcher says:

    In a world where the corrupt increasingly gain power, the public discourse consists of flame wars, and statistics are the playthings of liars, I’d be willing to pay good money just for one course:

    Workarounds for dealing with the a**holes in your life and on your job.

    Argue with a liar, and you get more lies. Persuade the corrupt, and they merely tell you what they think you want to hear, then continue their corrupt ways. They will ignore honest figures, or fudge them.

    My tuition money’s here and waiting. Go for it.

  34. Debbie M says:

    I learned statistical literacy in school, starting from about the fourth grade through graduate school.

    “…most of the skills that a person uses in a financially, professionally, and personally successful life are developed outside of a classroom.” Maybe personally, but not financially or professionally. I think you’re taking your school learning for granted. If I could not read or do math, my financial life would be a joke. If I had not learned to follow a schedule, do what other people want, work for high quality, write well, and think critically, like I learned in in school, my professional life would be a joke.

    “The fundamental key to money management is to simply spend less than you earn every single month.” – Not for me, it’s not. For example, I plan to pay cash for my next car, and that month I will be spending far, far more than I earn. It’s better to spend less than you earn on average while maintaining good cash flow (with savings). (By “average” I mean the mean–all the spending and earnings matter.)

    Many of these categories boil down to seeing another person’s point of view. I’d break that down into two categories – a) understanding that other people are like us and doing the best they can and b) understanding that other people are different from us and so things that make sense or are obvious to us may not be so from their perspective.

  35. Steven says:

    @22 Johanna

    There are still only 3 types of “average”, or central tendency to be more proper: mean, mode, median.

    There are different types of means, like a few you mentioned, as well as different types of medians. So the geometric mean is really just a subset of mean.

    General info for all

    Statistics are very difficult to understand due to numerous interpretations possible from the data. Johanna’s post listed 5 different ways to obtain an average, and 90% of documents I read never state (neither explicit nor implicit) how that was obtained. Other times, arithmetic mean would be used instead of median because it looks better or vice-versa.

    I’m not going to even bother into whether an answer you get is statistically relevant, because I’m an engineer and I frequently get into heated arguments with my colleagues even we have issues with statistics.

  36. Kathleen says:

    “Idea Organization 101” is called any freshman writing seminar!

  37. Horatio says:

    Maybe they dont’ teach this in college is because more than half are common sense stuff, and most of this stuff should have already been taught by your parents, or incorporated in everyday life as you’re growing up.

  38. Marsha says:


    GayleRN had described a 6th grade teacher using a discrete set of data points. Therefore, I was limiting my explanation of average to discrete points. I wasn’t attempting to describe every thing called an “average.” Average velocity, for example, is really a rate of change in the distance (displacement) over time.

    And I see “average” used all the time for median; I don’t see mode used much at all. Sometimes the type of central tendency used will be noted in the footnotes, sometimes you have to delve into the details of the study to determine what method was used.

  39. Kate says:

    If you didn’t learn statistical literacy and applied cognition at your college, you went to the wrong college.

  40. These are essential skills, but I can’t imagine anyone getting through college without learning persuasion. Don’t you pick that up dealing with the monkeys at the bursars office?

  41. Kris says:

    Some of these skills you don’t learn by taking college courses, but by either going away to college and living on your own for the first time, or by paying your own way through college. Of course, not everyone fits these 2 cases, and others won’t learn these lessons until many years after leaving college, one way or another.

  42. Beth says:

    The point isn’t that these things aren’t baked into the courses many of us took, the point is that some people don’t respond well to subtlety. The not-actually-courses listed in the post take the subtle underlying things out of general education courses and ideally spell them out in crystal clear contexts instead of burying them inside of “write a paper”, etc.

    Lose the obscurity in the lessons and it’s easier to apply them without learning the hard way. However, we’re stubborn. Some things are never going to come through a lesson no matter how obvious or subtle, some things we just need to figure out the hard way.

  43. michael bash says:

    Re transferable skills – Trent, I can only wonder who your parents are/were and where you went to school. Given Mom and Dad, my high school Forensics Society and a good liberal arts college, I had a good foundation in all your skills. The Peace Corps and top grad schools consolidated these beginnings. One does remark that “Introduction to Judgment” is in no college catalog, yet it is the most essential skill a successful adult must possess.

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