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Building life beyond mere academics

Jun 20, 2013 :

Given the low signaling value of colleges in India today, students should plan early on, to excel in the job market, writes Shajan Samuel.


This is that time of the year when parents make a mad scramble with their children trudging along to win a seat in to one of India’s respected colleges or universities.  Amidst this pandemonium, there is a large section of students who are unsure of what the future holds for them.   But there is hope for them. In a decade of a life time, India offers an opportunity which cuts across marks, grades and intellect.

"Institutions are rarely murdered; they meet their end by suicide ... they die because they have outlived their usefulness, or fail to do the work that the world wants done," said Lawrence Lowell, one of the former presidents of Harvard. Many Indian universities are not doing the work that their world — policymakers, students and employers — wants.


Colleges, unfortunately, do not teach the students to be confident, curious and creative, but are rather dovetailing them in to the corporate world by academically orienting them. Seventy percentage of what one learns at the college is redundant in the real world.  Younger people have more in front of them than behind.

They are not focused on preservation but creation, because their dreams are more powerful than their memory. 

But stepping back from college admissions, what does a college education, besides signalling value, mean to employers? Most employers would agree with Albert Einstein, “An education is what is left behind after you have forgotten what you learnt in the classroom.”

The most important things employers look for in potential employees are not exam results; in fact, exam results may be a poor indicator of workplace success. This hardly implies that good results are a guarantee for workplace failure. But as Howard Gardner elegantly catalogues in his theory of Multiple Intelligences, pure academic success measures just one kind of intelligence.  
Ways to stand out

Given the low signalling value of colleges in India today, children can and should plan early in five ways, to stand out in the job market.

* Workplace exposure: one or more summer internships make a graduate resume stand out from the herd. Being in an office or factory, even if you spend the time photocopying, shifting inventory or juggling spreadsheets, is a useful resume advantage. You will learn more on the Job than you will learn through the books.

* English fluency and digital literacy: English is not a language, but like windows, an operating system. Employment and interview outcomes - both in manufacturing and services - are 300 percent more favourable for candidates fluent in English and computers because of labour mobility and changes in the world of work. Many students think joining an English training institute can help them improve their English, which is a myth. One needs to read newspapers and books, watch TV and start speaking in English to improve upon the language.

* Vocational courses: Vocational courses, when carefully chosen, create specific skills that open doors and often change interview conversations.

* Soft skills: Communication, teamwork, problem-solving, planning, organising, and grooming will have an advantage while pursuing a job. Employers have also begun to expect a willingness and an ability to learn, a positive attitude and a sense of responsibility. Learning to work in teams counts a lot in attaining an employment. In an organization, collective intelligence is more potent than individual brilliance.

* Life outside academics: Employers look for individual achievement, community involvement and organisational ability, but these are hard to measure without a professional track record. But they can be signalled by interest in extra-curricular activities like, music, drama, sports, writing, and reading.

Always remember that what matters for college admissions is often irrelevant in life and the world of work. College teaches make you to jump through a thousand scholastic hoops, yet the most important decisions you will make are whom to be friends with, what to love, what to despise, whom to marry, and how to circumnavigate your temptation . What employers care about in the long run is whether you are persistent, bold and useful? So plan ahead.

I agree with Spanish philosopher Jose Ortegay Gasset (1883-1955), “A university should be about education — teaching students, making them cultured individuals, and equal to ‘the height of their time’. They will have an understanding, not technical or economic, but spiritual, of the particular qualities and challenges of the age and what it calls for from its most enlightened souls.” I am blessed having been born to parents, who send me to school and college. I am blessed that I was born in the right city with the right pin code.

 But that’s all about it, how far one will go in life will depend on the effort one puts in. There is, in short no end to the story of life. There are merely pauses. The end is the arbitrary intervention of the teller, but there can be no finality about the choice. Today’s end is, after all, tomorrow’s beginning. So there is no need to get disheartened if you don’t score well in your exams. A country where three million students disappear before the completion of their Plus 2, there is enough hope.

 A country which has produced enterprising entrepreneurs, who necessarily didn’t have the best of education, but lived their dreams only reiterates that all is not lost when you don’t make the cut in your grades.  You’ll still need to have faith in your own skills, but it will be more the skills of navigation, not creation.
 (The writer is the senior vice president of MAAC, India)

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