Skills for life - and the office

Mike Barnard explains why university life is about more than just the academics

The challenges for freshers starting university life were laid bare by a survey last month, which revealed that a fifth of new students have never washed their own clothes, and one in seven doesn't know how to boil an egg. A further 13 per cent had never done their own ironing, and one in ten claimed they don't know how to cook. These figures suggest it'll be a rough ride for freshers adjusting to looking after themselves, but it won't be the only time they'll need to use their initiative without having a watchful eye over their shoulder.

While many might scoff at students who lack basic life skills, graduates old and new know that a university education is about more than academics. Getting to grips with life in the kitchen, paying bills, and ensuring clothes are clean and ironed are all part of the experience. The vast majority of 18-year-olds starting university are likely to be unable to do at least a few of these if they've never lived away from home, but most will be prepared to do what's needed to pick them up. This need to learn common skills quickly continues well into life in the workplace.

When graduates arrive for their first day in a new job, there will be some who aren't familiar with computer programmes considered vital for day-to-day activities, others who have never followed an agenda for a meeting, and those who think making personal calls is just as important as making work ones. These graduates are like freshers who need to adapt to living away from home: it's the first time they've been exposed to a new environment and they need to acquire some necessary skills. But while lacking a few basic life abilities when arriving at university won't affect getting onto a degree course, not knowing your office etiquette or lacking workplace know-how might cost you dearly at an interview.

When recruiters are selecting their graduate intake, they look only for the most suitable candidates. The difference between being taken onto a graduate scheme and going back to writing applications could be as small as a little bit of practical experience. The competitive nature of finding a job means that gaining an advantage by completing internships, placements, and work experience closely related to the job you want can help you pick up the vital attributes that can be far more important than you imagine.

You don't need to be able to boil an egg to get a job, but being able to cook up a fully-functional spreadsheet, and knowing the recipe for an engaging presentation can be prized assets when it comes to looking for that first role.