When you are applying for an entry-level position, a typical job interview question is, "How has your college experience prepared you for a career?" In your response, you have an opportunity to provide a solid foundation for your candidacy.
What the Interviewer Wants to Know
Interviewers are looking for the real-world applications of your college experience. There's no need to discuss completed classes or degrees earned, unless they are relevant to the position.
Instead, focus on how college prepared you to do the job. You can do so by connecting the dots between your college experience (and courses) and employment.
Bonus points if you can make the connection to the specific role, or to responsibilities required by the role you're interviewing for.
How to Answer "How Has Your College Experience Prepared You for a Career?"
Your college experience — from completing the courses required for your major to extracurriculars to internships to socializing — may feel far afield from employment. But you've likely learned a great deal from your higher education that's applicable here. For instance, you may have mastered time management, and developed other essential on-the-job abilities, such as leadership and communication skills.
Here's how to approach responding to this question:
Be aware of what employers want in a candidate. As with all open-ended interview questions, start your preparation by examining the key qualifications for the job. Does the employer want a self-starter, dynamic presenter, team player, storyteller, or number cruncher?
TIP: Employers aren't shy about sharing what they want in a candidate. Take a look at the job description to see details on the employer's priorities.
Come up with examples that reflect those in-demand qualities. Now that you've identified what the employer wants, reflect on your full college experience, including class projects, interactions with professors, challenging semesters, volunteer work, internships, campus activities, independent studies, and any other activities done in college.
Look for examples of how you developed or enhanced the qualities the employer seeks. For instance, if the job calls for a self-starter, and you organized the campus' first Gay-Straight Alliance fundraising dance, that's something to mention in your response.
Know key strengths to call out in your response. Have a few strengths in mind that you developed during your college experience. Be ready to describe a role or situation where you developed the asset and the impact you made. Focus on how these strengths make you a strong candidate.
Think comparatively. It can be helpful to think about the person you were during high school in comparison to who you are now—that will help you mention ways you developed and grew during your four years of college.
Examples of the Best Answers
Here are sample interview answers that you can edit to fit your personal experiences and background:
I never thought of myself as a leader before college, but during my sophomore year I blossomed in that area. I learned about the earthquake in Guatemala and was amazed and dismayed by all the devastation. I decided to initiate a campus fund drive to raise contributions for the Red Cross. I recruited volunteers, wrote articles for the campus paper, and organized a benefit concert. We generated over $10,000 in donations. I went on to lead the other student groups you can see from my resume.
Why It Works: The response highlights an important skill learned during school (leadership) that is also essential in most workplaces. And, the answer shows that the candidate has follow-through and can engage with a long-term project.
I was somewhat shy during high school, but college helped me to come out of my shell. I joined the debate team in my freshman year and developed confidence in presenting my views. Since then, I have excelled at class projects where we have done team presentations. Now, I feel comfortable presenting and speaking in front of large groups—and I can create some mean PowerPoint slides!
Why It Works: This answer shows how the candidate worked to gain an important on-the-job skill.
My high school didn't emphasize writing, so I came to college without a great deal of experience. My sociology professors quickly changed that since they required so much writing in their courses. It took me two semesters to hit my stride, but I began to really excel in my papers. I did an independent study in my junior year when I wrote a 50 page paper on the financial impact of decriminalizing marijuana. I also took on a position as assistant editor of the school paper and received very positive feedback from our adviser regarding the quality of my articles.
Why It Works: Note the impressive examples in this answer. This would be a strong answer for any job that requires extensive writing or analytical skills. However, if the job only calls for sending emails, and the core responsibilities involve non-writing tasks, this answer might not help further the respondent's candidacy.
When I first arrived at college, I was frankly overwhelmed by the number of assignments and work, especially since I played a Division II sport as well. Over the four years, though, I learned to manage my time. On the first day of every semester, I'd add all away games to my calendar. Then, I'd meet with professors to let them know which days I'd be away and, together, we’d come up with a plan so I wouldn't miss out on coursework or information. I'd also add blocks of study time and gym time, along with team practice, to my calendar, too. Plus, I learned to break down overwhelming projects (like a 20-page page or a giant group presentation) into smaller, more manageabletasks. I think these lessons in time management will serve me well for a lifetime.
Why It Works: Nearly any job requires some level of time management skills—this answer capably shows how the candidate came up with smart solutions to balance two equally important responsibilities.
Tips for Giving the Best Answer
- Showcase your skills: This question gives you an opportunity to mention skills you developed in college that'll be advantageous in your career. The best responses will highlight skills that are relevant to the job at hand.
- Share examples: Your response will be more compelling if you give specific examples of how you gained skills and experience.
- Highlight your experience: If you've participated in extracurriculars or internships or volunteered or worked during college, feel free to mention the experience you gained through those activities.
What Not to Say
- Don't describe your transcript: Interviewers aren't looking for you to detail your entire transcript. You can mention a specific course (or several) if they are relevant.
- Don't ramble: While it's good to give examples in your response, make sure your answer is straightforward and coherent. No need to cover every single way your college experience prepared you for a career. Instead, pick out a few meaningful highlights.
- Don't be unprofessional: Maybe your college experience prepared you for a "work hard, play hard" lifestyle. That's likely not what you want to emphasize in a professional environment. Keep the focus on skills that are relevant to the job or industry, and not your social life.
Possible Follow-Up Questions
- Why did you choose your major? - Best Answers?
- How would your professors describe you? - Best Answers
How to Make the Best Impression
Match Your Credentials to the Job Learn what the employer is seeking, and match your qualifications to the job description.
SHARE REAL-WORLD EXPERIENCE AND SKILLS GAINED IN COLLEGE Show interviewers how your time at college has helped prepare you to do excellent work in the role at hand. Ideally, your answer to this question will show how college helped prepare you for the job.
PROVIDE EXAMPLES Don't just say you gained leadership skills (or any other ability)—give an example that shows how you developed this strength.