You don’t learn soft skills (entirely) at the university

While modules & workshops at the university may be useful, it creates an illusion of readiness if taught without application.

What is the difference between a GPA of 3.2 or 3.8? Not much, especially to employers who consider ‘soft skills’ as the differentiator between the ‘good’ and the ‘average’ candidates.

With this increasing emphasis, it was recently reported that universities are upgrading their curriculum in response to market needs. From frequent reviews of curriculum to close collaboration with employers to maintain currency, these soft-skills trainings are in the right direction, but I think if these trainings are not offered in tandem with application in a real-world context, they potentially serve more harm than good because of the illusion of readiness — that through these trainings, students feel ready and equipped.

The Value of ‘Soft Skills’ Modules & Workshops

Teaching students soft skills such as communication, team work, personal image, etc. is commonplace, starting from the secondary school (and it won’t be long before our primary schools start offering these introductory classes). Yet the university plays the most important role, as the final hurdle for students to cross before entering the workplace, whether as an employee or self-employed.

These modules, seminars and workshops are useful. They provide the contextual background knowledge, coupled with tips and strategies on what to take note of especially. Simple, yet important truths such as reading up on a company before an interview and giving a firm handshake at introductions are important, because we would otherwise be plainly unaware. Sure, the Internet has it all, but nothing trumps a well thought out, structured curriculum.

The Illusion of Readiness

Yet what I find worrisome is the illusion of readiness, or contentment with what has been taught as sufficient, if these trainings aren’t coupled together with real world experiences. No, not role-playing scenarios or mock situations, but real experiences where students are no longer treated as students but as functioning members of an organization, either as a volunteer, intern or staff.

Skills (the second word in the phrase ‘soft skills’) implies a necessity for practice in order to gain proficiency. One does not learn how to play the piano by learning the theory and the keys; yes, the theoretical learning is necessary, and perhaps even playing on an imaginary keyboard is somewhat useful, but to grasp the fundamentals of playing a piano (or shake a hand or answer an interview), one simply has to just do it in an organic situation, not staged during curriculum.

The increased intensity of these trainings at universities in response to employers’ demands is laudable, but they only serve to reinforce the illusion of false readiness if students are not offered the opportunity to apply them in practice. The more of these trainings (as if we are learning the instructions on how to play different musical instruments on paper, but not actually having the chance to practise on each instrument), the more ready and prepared students feel, and the greater the disillusionment.

Don’t Forget Those Who Need It The Most

Of course, universities have plenty of opportunities for students to apply the soft skills — internships, attachments, overseas exchanges, volunteer opportunities, the list goes on. Yet what is concerning also is how these opportunities, almost without fail, require an application. A guess at why the application and filtering process is because the demand exceeds the supply, or for quality-control purposes, so that each student selected represents the best the university has to offer.

It is this application process then, that tends to filter out students who need the opportunities the most — those who have had no prior experiences, or are less proficient in the very soft skills that they want to acquire but are turned away from because they are not deemed to be ready.

Let’s face it. Opportunities stack. Applications are mostly evaluated on what the applicant has done, or how persuasive the prose written can be. What about those who want a starting point? Those who yet have the opportunity to apply what was taught in the many soft skills trainings, and are constantly denied the opportunity to do so because they simply hadn’t have the chance yet?

Offer Alternatives

The need to offer opportunities to everyone (literally, everyone at different levels of soft skills proficiency) is easier said then done. There aren’t many alternative ways to evaluate students or match them to relevant opportunities to apply the skills in a real world context, which is one of the challenges I am working on, but until then, it is necessary for us to be aware that universities do a great job of providing the foundation to the acquisition of soft skills, but it is by no means complete without applying into the real world.

The key question to ask is: Are you justifiably confident of the soft skills you learnt?

This post is the start of a series of writings on the intersection between education, career readiness and entrepreneurship.

There are plenty of articles covering all three topics. By mashing together some of what I find to be the most salient and juicy bits, I hope to bring to attention topics for discussion and for thought.

If you like this article or would like to read subsequent articles, please hit the Follow button on Medium. You can reach out to me at where I am working on a platform to build up the career readiness for youths.

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