Developing Skills Is Key to Thriving In High School And Beyond

There’s an adage in education: Sitting through 3 years of lectures in med school no more makes you a doctor than 30 hours in a garage makes you a Ferrari. For high schoolers as for everyone else, success requires far more than knowledge, grades, or test scores.

It’s fair to assume the majority of students who are 15, 16, or even 17 aren’t absolutely certain about what they want to study in college. Some may be considering multiple majors in similar fields of study; others may be entirely unsure. At the same time, though, most high schoolers have no problem identifying skills they’re proud of—things they’ve learned to do that connect with their innate talents and that they enjoy even if they don’t get “official credit.” 

Hard skills are teachable, quantifiable abilities learned in the classroom, on the job, by reading books, or via online resources like YouTube or Wikipedia. Soft skills, on the other hand, are harder-to-quantify "people skills" or "interpersonal skills" having to do with the way you relate to and interact with other people. 

At College MatchPoint, we’ve found that focusing on developing skills is the one of the keys to effective student engagement in high school. In our experience, a focus on skills is sustainable, while a focus on outcomes can end up discouraging students. When it comes time to choose a major or build a college list, having a strong sense of one’s skills can make the job easy. And when it comes time to write college application essays, making skills a focal point can be critical to telling a story that sets a student apart.

Whether you're a freshman or a senior, developing the following soft skills will help you achieve success in high school, in college, and in life:

1. Collaboration. As projects grow increasingly more complex and global in the age of AI and the internet of things, effective collaboration is only growing more important. Students who succeed only when working alone can struggle in college and beyond. Fortunately, there are numerous ways to develop the skills necessary to work effectively with others, including participation in athletics, extracurricular activities, or community groups. Students can also contribute to team-based projects such as service activities during their later years in high school.

2. Communication and interpersonal skills. A common complaint among employers is that young people do not know how to carry on a conversation, failing to do things like ask questions, listen actively, and maintain eye contact. High school students can improve these skills by talking with their teachers in one-to-one settings. This is also excellent training for speaking with college professors. Interning in a professional setting can be another wonderful way to build communication and interpersonal skills.

3. Problem solving. Students will be faced with a number of unexpected challenges in life—sometimes without any help to get through them. To succeed, they need to be able to solve problems in creative ways and figure out solutions when there’s no prescribed formula for doing so. Students who are accustomed to following rigid rules and processes, and are unable or unwilling to color outside the lines occasionally, will struggle to handle unanticipated setbacks. To improve their problem-solving abilities, students can enroll in classes that use experiential learning rather than rote memorization—and try new pursuits that place them in unfamiliar and even uncomfortable situations, such as debate, learning a new instrument, or Science Olympiad.

4. Time management: Whatever structure students may have had in high school will largely be absent in college. To be able to organize their work and complete assignments in a timely manner, they need to be self sufficient in managing their time and prioritizing actions. It’s also important to be able to track multiple projects and intelligently prioritize tasks—in college and beyond. Students can improve their time management by taking responsibility in multiple areas during high school. To develop the ability to prioritize, students should look to gain professional employment experience through internships, volunteer work, or other opportunities.

When it comes to hard skills, meanwhile, you may want to start with the areas of study that most engages you, whether it’s creative writing in English class or robotics projects in engineering club. High school is the perfect laboratory to experiment with developing different hard skills. Students have teachers and mentors available to ask for help, opportunities for projects and self study, and the ability to change course if one path doesn’t work out.

In The Hard Skills Companies Need Most in 2019, LinkedIn Learning reviews hard skills students are working to develop to meet growing demand, including artificial intelligence, analytical reasoning, people management, and video production. Of particular note is data science, an in-demand skill that can be a natural for students who can make sense of a magnitude of data. It’s also fun to see students put their Instagram and Snapchat accounts to use in developing social media management skills.

The skills that students develop in high school are the foundation that can help them thrive in school and beyond. The line between the first day of high school and college graduation is never a straight one. Some students find one or two areas to go deep in right away. Others start developing skills in a variety of areas before settling on what they find most rewarding. No matter what path students take, though, it’s our experience that hard and soft skills can set them apart when it comes time to apply to college.