What you can’t learn in a classroom

Recently, I sat across from an interviewer for a summer program, speaking about my qualifications for one of the 20 available spots. All was going well, and I talked about the work I had done at my summer internships, as well as my work at The Flat Hat.

“Have you had any similar leadership experiences in your classes?” the interviewer asked.

It was this question that threw me.

Throughout the interview, I had barely mentioned my coursework. I saw no reason to. While the classes I’ve taken have been incredibly valuable — I’ve discovered some of my favorite authors, I’ve been introduced to some of the ideas of history’s greatest thinkers, and I’ve learned more about the world in general — I’ve learned equally valuable things outside of the classroom. And most of those things are skills that cannot be taught in a classroom setting.

Working on The Flat Hat, for instance, every editor learns how to manage a team, meet deadlines, coach inexperienced writers, and help construct content that’s relevant to our readership. Every editor is working toward the goal of producing a high-quality product that will present meaningful and engaging information to our community.

And countless other students in countless other organizations are working toward equally admirable goals — like promoting mental health initiatives or increasing environmental sustainability — that are impossible to work toward in a traditional classroom setting.

Often, these goals seem more meaningful, more tangible, than a grade on a paper.

Incidentally, they also seem more relevant to bring up in an interview setting. Because in any job or internship, it will be more important to know how to work as part of a team, to be able to throw oneself into a project, than to passively take in lecture material.

To the defenders of the humanities who say that a liberal arts education is necessary to challenge one’s beliefs and to deliberately craft one’s identity — don’t worry, I agree with that. All of that is incredibly, ridiculously important. It just isn’t enough.

Because while an education teaches you how to think, it doesn’t teach you how to act.

Email Ellen Wexler at eawexler@email.wm.edu.


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