Communications class gives Hajim School students an 'unfair advantage'

An instructor working with students.
Instructor Catherine Towsley works with Chelsea Vargas '15 and Connor Bohan '15 during a session of WRT 273.

For the next few minutes, a class of Hajim School students—who hope their résumés will eventually land them interviews with top engineering or software firms— is going to sit on the other side of the table.

They're going to play the role of Human Resource (HR) evaluators—reading and then ranking the résumés of three fictitious applicants to determine which one will be interviewed.

"This is very similar to what HR professionals do," explains instructor Catherine Towsley, as she passes around the résumés of "Ima Student," "Wanda Jobs," and "Hi R. Menow."

"I've been telling you to think of your audience when you write your résumés and to think of the reader. So today, you are going to be the readers."

By the way, she adds: "You've got about 30 seconds to read each one."

Texting isn't enough

This is one of many exercises students engage in when they take WRT 273, Communicating Your Professional Identity. It is the centerpiece of Dean Robert Clark's campaign to give Hajim School students an "unfair" advantage when it comes to applying for—and securing—the best internships while they're in college and the top jobs in their field after they graduate.

Clark became convinced a class like this was needed after hearing company executives and well-placed alumni complain about the poor communication skills of modern college graduates, who can't seem to craft a proper introductory email, much less a compelling résumé.

"Our students are masters at texting with only 16 characters," Clark notes, "but they're not so good at representing themselves professionally. Granted, we're not a trade school, but I also think parents want their kids to have good career options when they get a degree."

"And it's hard to take advantage of that if you can't communicate to anyone what you want to do and why they should be interested in hiring you."

When the two-credit course was first offered as an elective in spring 2013, it attracted a handful of motivated, well-organized students who, although they benefited from the class, didn't need it nearly as much as most of their classmates. As a result, starting with this year's incoming class of freshmen, WRT 273 will henceforth be required of all engineering majors.

'Real-life' communications skills

WRT 273, the course description states, "teaches 'real life' communications skills and strategies that help students present their best professional selves. Students "explore and articulate their internship and career goals for distinct audiences and purposes as they develop a professional communication portfolio." That portfolio includes résumés, cover letters, electronic communications, technical project abstracts, online profiles (at LinkedIn, for example), and TED Talks.

Throughout the semester-long course, students refine and revise their written and spoken work based on critical feedback from peers, instructors, alumni, and potential employers.

"Our alumni are probably the most passionate about this," Clark notes. "They want our students to be more competitive than the students coming out from other universities."

For example, Lisa Bobich '04, a biomedical engineering graduate and senior product engineer at Medtronic in Phoenix, Ariz., volunteers as a "real reader" for WRT273 students. Real readers are available to be interviewed by students (often via Skype) to help them build their networking skills; real readers also provide tips, career guidance, and feedback on the materials the students develop for their portfolios.

Alumnus is happy to help

"I cannot emphasize enough how important I think this program is," says Bobich, who was paired with a biomedical engineering student last spring. "I wish it had been around when I was a student."

"It really is a small commitment of time for the alumnus or industry participant, but it can have such a great impact on the student. . . . I think it is a logical and simple step to help students gain the background and advice to properly target their résumés, presentations, and emails, as well as keep alumni involved and giving back."

Ryan Puffer '15, a computer science major in Towsley's class, said he enrolled because he wanted to develop a professional set of material before he started applying for internships. "I've gotten a lot out of it so far," he adds. "I probably wouldn't be motivated to write all this on my own if it wasn't part of the class."