Academic results are just one piece of the puzzle

As another school year draws to a close, year 12 students wait nervously for their ATAR (Australian Tertiary Admission Rank). For some, it may seem as if their future rests on that single number.

However, it is worth remembering that academic results are only one piece of the puzzle of lifelong career success.  

Equally important – and, for many, harder to develop – are the attributes commonly referred to as “soft skills”. These skills are difficult to test in an exam or demonstrate in an essay. They are the skills that help us to communicate and influence others, navigate complex environments and deal with uncertainty. In our ever-changing workforce, it is these skills that will be crucial to success and save us from the robot apocalypse. For this reason I like to call them “critical skills”.

There is nothing “soft” about them – they are absolutely essential as we navigate the changing world of work.

These skills can be found in perhaps unexpected places. Australia’s chief scientist spoke last week about the perils of high school students who shun subjects like maths and instead “opt for easier courses with more soft skill components”.

I completely agree we should be encouraging students to study maths. However, I would argue that maths does develop a range of critical skills beyond the technical knowledge itself – such as problem solving, analytical thinking, reasoning and logic.

So, how else can students cultivate these critical skills? The short answer is by engaging with the world in which they live. Finding opportunities to challenge themselves to develop deep relationships and networks, and to explore their creativity.

University helps enormously with critical skill development. A good university will encourage its students to deeply understand their chosen discipline, collaborate with industry, engage with communities and solve pressing world problems. It will take students on a journey, not just to academic success, but to personal development and understanding.

At La Trobe, our career ready advantage program is helping thousands of students understand how they are developing critical skills for success – through studies, part-time jobs, community and sporting activities.

So, as secondary school graduates contemplate their future, perhaps they should consider the steps they could take to develop themselves as a whole person.

There’s no denying that academic results are important – but let’s make sure we see the other pieces of the puzzle, too.

Professor Jessica Vanderlelie is pro vice-chancellor at La Trobe University.