Thursday, February 19, 2009

Preparing for the Real World?

Let's put aside the academic and intellectual side of education for the moment, and focus on something more basic: basic communications skills. No matter how good a thinker you are, if you can't communicate those thoughts you will have a hard time, both in academia and the professional world. Wherever you end up, you need to know how to read and write, listen and speak. And I think it's almost indisputable that Malaysian schools are doing a pretty bad job when it comes to these skills.

Back when I was still in school, my father's company was looking to expand its operations, but to my father's chagrin, most of the candidates he encountered were simply incoherent. Their CVs were poorly-formatted and their personal statements virtually unreadable. Most of those he shortlisted for interviews were clearly unconfident and unable to speak coherently. My father was terribly put off by the experience, and he himself has always been bemoaning his own difficulties in communication.

At my job in a local research institute this summer, I got the chance to look through a number of CVs and job applications because the institute was hiring, and they were honestly not much to look at. Most of the CVs were so poorly formatted it was hard to even look at them, and the personal statements/cover letters were not much better. Many applicants didn't even bother writing anything in their emails or writing a cover letter, just sending us their CV as an attachment; a few didn't even state which position they were applying for!

I suppose I am not one to be too critical, since I am not yet in the job market (although I am actually looking for a job or internship in KL again this summer), but I do think this speaks to a problem with our education system. If we can teach students standard formats for letters, journals, diaries and reports in school, why can't we teach them standard formats for CVs or cover letters? What is the use of learning Bahasa Malaysia or English in school if you can't even muster the confidence to write a few sentences explaining which position you're applying for? Ultimately we learn languages for a reason — to communicate — and it does us no good if we can score A's but can't use these languages.

Then again, education systems around the world are generally doing a shoddy job of preparing high school graduates for the job market — I'm sure not many American high school diploma holders can actually write a resume much better than the CVs I've seen. But these positions were specifically meant for university degree-holders, and all the applicants were university graduates. Shamefully for our local universities, the vast majority of the properly formatted CVs with well-written cover letters were from foreign graduates.

Ultimately, most people graduating from university will not be going into academia; they will need to know how to write a CV and write a cover letter, and almost certainly how to handle an interview. For whatever reason, it seems like our local universities are not preparing their graduates to do these things, and that is inexcusable.

My university for example has an active Career Services department. The department regularly holds workshops on CV-writing, cover letter-writing, and how to handle interviews. You can even walk in to their office and have your CV and cover letter reviewed by them on a one-on-one basis. You can likewise practice interviews at their office, again in a one-on-one setting. While obviously Dartmouth has a lot of resources to spare, almost any American university has a similar department, and a big selling point for any institution here is how well the university can place its graduates into the job market.

At the moment, we are graduating people from secondary school and university who cannot communicate coherently with prospective employers. Is it any wonder why we have so many problems with unemployable graduates? As it stands, even university-calibre students lack basic skills — I know an alumni interviewer for Cornell University who has had to deal with applicants who refuse to show up on time for interviews, or lack the basic initiative to find out details like how to get to the interview venue (he actually had someone ask him where the KLCC is). In this time of economic recession, we need to take a long hard look at how our schools and universities are preparing students for the job market — if a graduate can't speak or write properly, all those straight A's will be for naught.


Anonymous said...

As the famous saying goes: you pay peanuts, you get monkeys!

I've been working overseas for a couple of years & recently came back for a short assignment with the company and I can say, I'm impressed with the quality of the Malaysian graduates we have recruited!

Also, once again, we have the Malaysian mentality of being spoonfed. If everyone's taught the same way, you'll probably have a higher standard of CVs and cover letters but it'll make searching the candidates you really want harder!

What happened to initiative and continuous self-learning?

Shawn Tan said...

You pay peanuts, you get monkeys is right!

1) Most of the local grads with good communication skills, end up seeking work with MNCs or even taking foreign jobs.

2) You cannot teach a standard format for CVs and cover letters because a CV is a document summarising a person's skills and experiences. Everyone has different skills and experiences. Plus it would be supremely boring to read.

3) However, I agree with you that the careers counsellor/services at high schools and local unis are a little wanting. Most do not train or prepare their grads for the basics. That is just inexcusable and should be fixed.


Anonymous said...

who say you need good english to get good job at good company? as long as you have the skills and fit what the company wants and can produce the end result it should be ok what.

for example:

Anonymous said...

Agreed granted there are probably quite a few out there who can't write decent resumes or cover letters. But is that really the reason why they are unemployed or there's just not enough jobs to go around these days?

Anonymous said...

about the straight A's in the last sentence that u posted, most people want to get good result because they want to get scholarship. not everyone can afford college education.

Anonymous said...

This topic is really make me puzzle. I still remember in my university (local private uni) had taught us 2 english courses include writing (all kinds of letters and CV) and speaking (all kinds of speech). Further more, technical communication had repeated the writing and speaking specifically for office use and applying for job. (reports, memo, application letter, CV etc). Not just that, everything is repeated again by Bahasa Melayu in Bahasa Melayu Komunikasi. I don't understand why so difficult for them to copy all their old assignments and pass to prospect bos.

Anonymous said...

I've got some comments and would like to shed some lights for John (I understand that John hasn't been exactly a product of local education system).

First of all, while a blame is put onto the local colleges and university for not teaching on CV writing, I'd like to emphasize that it is indeed taught during high school (used to be part of program maju diri but not too sure if it got discontinued later) and covered in most colleges.

Secondly, we can teach fundamentals of CV writing. But how to catch the attention and creativity should be a result of individual's creativity. Just like any university offering Marketing courses, they don't exactly tell you what you need to put into every poster or advert that you design.

Thirdly, while there are so much complains from the intellectuals on how horrible our education system is; may I challenge John to recommend a solution on how communication skills need to be taught in schools? Bear in mind soft skills are not as easy to teach as technical skills, thus most of these soft skills will only grow with time. Based on my experience, majority of those who communicate and presents themselves well also come from quite well to do family, thus demanding more too. There has to be a trade-off.

Finally, there are some comments about "You pay peanuts, you get monkeys". While I agree that this is true, I guess we need to look at the domino effect that caused this too. If we feel that the Malaysian colleges or universities do not have competent enough lecturers to guide our students, do not forget you're paying peanuts here too.

Anonymous said...

I can't say for the lecturers in colleges and universities but take a look at the teachers in secondary schools.Their salaries have been revised so many times but we still have HMs who doesn't have basics of management, counsellors who can't advise students on applications to varsities and maths and science teachers who can't handle the english language (but paid incentives to teach the subject)
I know because I am working along side all these people.

Anonymous said...

Some people here must be on the pisstake given the topic of this blog post. ;)

shinliang said...

My England veli powderful, but ppl no take me for job oso. I nono y.

Anyway, about CV writing...

I personally think that grads these days just would not take that extra step to get a job.


1. asking peers to proof-read CV (no excuse for ppl with poor English)

2. rejecting interviews using SMS

3. going to the interview without proper attire.

4. going to the interview without preparing anything other than what you've learn over the 3-4 years in your undergraduate degree

Many grads make these mistakes but really all it takes to avoid them is a little extra effort.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I think one of the most effective and cheap way for adult to acquire communication skill would be to join a local Toastmasters club. They are in every major town. And if I have my way, I will insist all university graduate complete it's basic communication program.

Anonymous said...

This comment has nothing to do with the post. But before I proceed, let me commend on the many quality articles here.

Despite all the good thinking here, I still feel that this blog is very american-centric and english-centric. Three writers are brought up under the kebangassn system, which means they speak primarily english. I know Kian Ming, or the other blogger attended chinese primary school or something like that, but most readers will not disagree that your line of thoughts are still primaryly Malaysian Chinese kebangsaan line.Despite the fact that we see some fervent defence for teaching science in the mother tongue(I think it is, but I don't remember exactly)

And then three of you go to prestigious american university. Not being cynical, I dream of attending MIT. But this means that many observation are looking over the fence. I challenge you to invite a blogger with real local tertiary experience. Looking over the fence and commenting is always easier, despite good intentions.

I also wana say that the readers here are 90% converted lot, let's spread the net larger if we really want a broader representation of EDUCATION IN MALAYSIA. I am sure malays or indians have alot to say about the system.
Also, a REAL Chinese-educated blogger might really pen down thoughts that some of you might oversight.

Last words, Yes, many things in the system leaves us wanting, but we make up the system. We are the system.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more with what Zibin said above. I do really feel that most the thoughts here failed to represent the majority of what Malaysia students think, and to address what difficulties they are facing and most importantly, what they NEED desperately for the change in our existing education system.

no offence. Just some different views.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I think its just a matter of how badly they want the job. There are enough resources out there on the web and books on how to write a proper CV and cover letters, and it is not something that has to be taught in schools. If an applicant can't be bothered to go find out how to format his/her CV and write proper cover letters, it means the person can't be bothered or have no initiative. Either case, he or she doesn't deserve the job.

Anonymous said...

I'm a little annoyed by the condescending tone of many posters here, including the blogger.

Before I proceed, I was educated at local schools, then got all my higher education abroad. America, la. i've no attachments or loyalties to any institutions, local or foreign.

Of course the likes of Dartmouth have state-of-the-art career preparation centres. After all, graduates from there end up in Wall Street or Washington, DC, you think their rich, well-connected daddies would want anything less for their precious babies? (Yes, I have friends who teach there, I've visited the campus, and I know Dartmouth has "all kinds" but it's the wealth that drives the campus, and don't forget it.)

Just because someone doesn't know how to format his/her CV doesn't mean the person is poorly educated, or has been failed by the education system. I've seen some horrible CVs come out of full professors, including those who graduated from prestigious elite highly ranked universities around the world. Some people just don't have "it" -- and by "it" I mean the art of selling yourself that is ingrained in corporate culture. Everything is about "presentation" and "design" -- but not everyone buys into that culture or subscribe to its primary ethos.

Knowing how to format your CV and organise your personal information is a skill you acquire with experience. Part of that experience includes applying for jobs and getting nowhere because you've failed to impress. You try, and try, and fail, and try again: you learn how to present yourself after you've been on the job market for a while.

Give the kids a break: they need the experience of learning just what it takes to make it in this world. And offer a helpful word if you see someone who just doesn't know basic tricks.

The question remains whether schools and universities here do a good job of preparing graduates for the job market. I don't know about that, but we need to distinguished substance -- knowledge and skills -- from style -- how to impress future employers, how to present yourself, how to do up an attractive CV. On balance, I'd say the content is there, but there's a lot of scope for improving students' ability to communicate. A common lament among local lecturers is that the kids just won't talk, won't discuss, won't do the readings before class. But is it the fault of the system -- our rote-learning exam-obsessed system, the kids, or the teaching styles? Or some complex combination of all three?

Historically I don't think American institutions paid much attention to career preparation either. Education was supposed to be "for the mind", and teaching the nitty gritty of going out and finding a job was not considered part of the university's mandate. It's only been since the '80s, with the rise of corporatism, that institutions gave more attention to career studies.

There are many different issues being discussed here, and people seem intent on mixing them up.

chia said...

My colleges and universities (overseas) have always had CV writing/interview skills courses. But what proportion of the student population actually attend these? I never have! I wrote my CV by doing a bit of research on the internet, and seeing how to sell myself best. I don't know if a one-time course can really teach you that.

Also I have a feeling that there are CV writing courses in local universities (or part of a degree program). My mum once received 3 job applications from graduates of a particular university back in Malaysia and guess what, they were almost carbon copies of each other! The same terrible MS Word layout, the same university coursework grade description, the same university societies. Needless to say she didn't consider any of them for the job since it was obvious they were not willing to put in effort. Actually she wrote them back to advise them to rewrite their CVs since they were applying to the same companies.

I don't agree either that universities need to provide job-hunting courses, though I think a counselling centre would always be useful. Having a person on hand to ask for advice, and a place where you can sit and read relevant career developing, job hunting books...

How well a graduate differentiates himself from his peers is up to his own effort. No spoonfeeding will help.

John Lee said...


We're actively looking for new bloggers, which I think Kian Ming has written about elsewhere.


I agree completely that not bothering to learn how to format your CV or handle an interview is more a sign of your own lack of initiative than an actual failing with your schooling. But based purely on my experience of this, it seems as if many of those in our own local job market really don't have that initiative, since most of the CVs floating around out there are just terrible. While this is obviously a huge systemic issue, I do think that our education system ought to play a role in developing the kind of initiative necessary to fix this -- and having a more structured programme preparing students for the professional world wouldn't be a bad place to start.