We recently wrote a blog about a controversial study that concluded where you go to college may not be nearly as important to career success as once thought.  It begs the question – if employers don’t put high regard into which institution of higher learning you graduated from, then what do they look for?  We hit the books once again to find the answer.

Our syllabus in this class comes from a recent Gallup poll that ranked how much weight business leaders put into certain factors when looking at potential employees.

It found that 84% of business leaders polled said the amount of knowledge the candidate has in a field was very important.  Another 14% said it was somewhat important, leaving only 2% of business leaders who though it was not very important or not important at all.  That’s an overwhelming revelation.  Furthermore, 79% of potential employers ranked a candidate’s applied skills in the field as very important, and 16% somewhat important.

And what of their major and where they went to college?  The majority of business leaders said it was not very important or not at all important where the candidate went to college.  Only 9% said their alma mater was very important!  Of those same business leaders, only 28% thought a candidate’s college major was very important!  22% said it was not very important and 8% said it wasn’t important at all!

What they’re telling us comes through loud and clear – when judging potential new employees, businesses don’t give much credence at all into where someone went to school, or even what they majored in.  Instead, the amount of expertise and the skills necessary to perform the job at hand dominated their hiring decisions by a wide margin.  Yet, we see millions of young people every year still focused on getting into the “best” college possible, stressing over what academic major to declare, and amassing student loans at an alarming rate just to pay for it all.  Yet that has very little bearing on what job they get and future career success (though they’ll be paying off their student loans forever.)

Something interesting emerges when we poll the American public, not business leaders, the same questions.  47% of those polled thought that a college major was very important and 43% somewhat important.  An alarming 80% thought where a candidate went to school was very or somewhat important!  Compare that to only 46% of business leaders, and we can see the public’s perception what employers are looking for is incredibly skewed.

What can we learn from these polls?  Employers are less focused on what school is written on a candidates degree and much more concerned with what skills, experience, and knowledge that candidate that will help them succeed at the job.  Internships, real world job experience, attitude, and networking are far more important than what major a candidate has.  Since their major or the school you attend won’t make a significant difference when it’s interview time, they probably shouldn’t overemphasize going to the biggest name school, and definitely avoid taking on student loans just for the sake of false prestige.

A study by the NOVA Workforce Investment Board in Silicon Valley confirms these findings.  They discovered that mastery of current technologies is the most critical factor in hiring decisions for many employers, while few even mentioned college degrees. ”Especially in the tech industry, employers want to see skills applications rather than traditional resumes. Show, don’t tell,” says Kris Stadelman, director of NOVA. “Employers are interested in what skills you bring and how these skills can be used in their business.”  It seems that if you know programming languages like C++ is more important than if you got C+’s in school.

However, there is one caveat to this – Ivy League schools.  Specifically, you have a chance to go to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, or MIT, you should take it because those graduates do markedly better in their careers.  However, we might similarly attribute this to networking among smart (and wealthy) students – the future business leaders who own the companies that do the hiring.