(Illustration by Dan Page)

If you’re heading off to college this fall, all sorts of people have the same advice for you. Your former teachers, your parents’ friends, the Wall Street Journal: They all want to help you get a job when you graduate, and they want you to earn enough out of the gate to make a big dent in your student loans, which means they’re all nudging you to study engineering, math or computer science.

By many measures this is wise. American business leaders and federal lawmakers are always talking about how the economy needs more hard-science majors. The job market reflects this. Let’s use statistics compiled by the Labor Department, because they’re probably more comprehensive than whatever numbers your folks’ old college roommates have on hand:

The average starting salary for an engineering major last year was $62,655, tops among the eight categories of majors tracked in the study. In 2009, at the end of the Great Recession, the unemployment rate for math and computer science grads a year removed from earning their degrees was 6 percent — half the rate for humanities or social science majors.

So that’s the secret? Simple as that? Major in math or science, graduate, walk right into a good gig?

For most of you, no.

Crowds of students start their college careers with the intent to earn a so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) degree. A lot of them never make it. New research from a pair of economists from Berea College in Kentucky and the University of Western Ontario suggests that fewer than half of the students who start out as science majors end up earning a science degree.

The economists chalk this up to students’ “misperceptions about their ability to perform well academically in science.” Translation: STEM classes are challenging, perhaps especially so for students less interested in the subject matter than in chasing a lucrative degree.

As an economics reporter, I feel compelled to say that if you’re interested in math or science or engineering or computers, and you have the aptitude for the coursework, then, please, for the love of GDP, give a STEM major a shot. The economy needs more math and science grads to drive the big innovations that will help America prosper.

As a former political-science major, I’m happy to tell everyone who doesn’t fall into that camp that there’s hope for you in the job market, too. But you’ll have a much better chance if you start thinking now about how to use your time in school to hone skills that will improve your employability — no matter what your major.

Consider this your step-by-step guide to making your college career work for getting you work, with the help of career counselors, academic research and a trove of economic data.

Step 1: Start thinking during
orientation about
finding a job.

Your first days on campus are a great time to find your way around, buy your books and meet people who may well become your best friends for life. They’re not a time most students start thinking about graduation and the job hunt waiting on the other side. But several college career counselors say the sooner you turn your mind toward the work world, and what you’ll need to do to succeed in it, the better.

The first step is something you’ll probably do a lot of your freshman year, anyway: introspection. Spend some serious time thinking about how you’re wired, what you enjoy and what sorts of jobs might allow you to follow your interests and get paid in the process.

“The general advice we give students is, first and foremost, look at themselves,” says Lorie Logan-Bennett, director of the career center at Towson University in Maryland. Her team asks students: What are you good at? What are your values? “The earlier they can start thinking about it and start taking some action that would be targeted and focused, the better,” she says.

Step 2: Don’t pick a job yet.

That seems contradictory, but it’s not. With rare exceptions, such as aspiring doctors, you probably shouldn’t lock yourself into a narrow career path early on at a four-year school.

(Note to community college enrollees: The reverse might be true for you. You could save yourself money and maximize your future earnings by asking pointed questions very early about what degree or certificate you plan to pursue; how likely it is that you’ll complete that degree, given your academic record; and what sort of job prospects await grads in that field.)

For four-year students, your self-exploration is likely to take a while and could include changing your major at least once. Also, your future job market is bound to change while you’re in college.

Washington and Lee University in Virginia keeps detailed records on what jobs its graduates end up in six months after they leave school. Those records show volatility in opportunities for recent graduates. In 2003, nearly 10 percent took a job in consulting. About 16 percent went into education. In 2007 the share of consultants fell to half the 2003 level; educators fell, too. Finance jobs were the big gains. By 2011, finance had retreated, and education fell again, but consultants were making a modest comeback.

“The jobs that are there today may not even be around in four years or six years when the next group of college students come around,” says Beverly Lorig, Washington and Lee’s director of career services. “I would be very careful against advising students to make a major choice or a career choice when they start their college career.”

Andy Chan is the vice president for personal and career development at Wake Forest University in North Carolina and a pioneer in a new wave of thinking about college career counseling. His approach focuses less on steering students to jobs and more for preparing them for what employers will need. “I teach students not to think about industries first,” Chan says. “I teach them to think about skills and functions.”

(Illustration by Dan Page)

Step 3: Sharpen those skills.

You might not know which jobs will be plentiful when you graduate, but economists have decent predictions for which types of jobs will be — and which skills you’ll need to land them. The sooner you start working to build those skills, in and out of the classroom, the better your odds of landing one of those jobs.

Broadly, you can think of those skills as “anything humans still do better than robots.” As economists Frank Levy of MIT and Richard Murnane of Harvard explain in a recent paper, that means solving unstructured problems and working with new information. This is a big shift from in previous generations, when you could make good money just by being good at following directions.

“Today, work that consists of following clearly specified directions is increasingly being carried out by computers and workers in lower-wage countries,” they write. “The remaining jobs that pay enough to support families require a deeper level of knowledge and the skills to apply it.”

That means you need to go beyond memorizing and regurgitating information. You need to read critically; to sort the important information from the junk quickly; to try new approaches until you find a solution. Murnane says students need to learn to work in teams and “to write very, very well.” Levy says students should select classes that build those skills, with strict evaluation: “Look for courses where there’s an emphasis on project work that is taken seriously and graded seriously. So it’s not just plugging in formulas.”

The career counselors say there are more granular skills all students should build, as well, such as mastering social media or computer coding. Lorig, from Washington and Lee, says you’ll need to learn to mine statistics for trends and analysis. “Data is the new need that every business and every industry has, being able to make sense out of data,” she says. “Whether you’re a history major or a finance major, you need to have experience reading complex data and understanding how to make good decisions.”

Chan teaches career-development courses at Wake Forest, and along with data analytics, he stresses skills in sales, account management and relationship building — social skills that cross industries. He also pushes students to work hard on research.

“Students need to understand that I can actually do a lot of research in a lot of kinds of jobs,” he says.

Step 4: Build yourrésumé and your brand.

Chan has a goal for Wake Forest’s students every year: He wants at least half of them to set up LinkedIn profiles. It’s partly to help them see the university’s connections in the work world, which he hopes they’ll draw on. And it’s partly to get them thinking about entering the workforce, well before they do it. “Make a brand for yourself” is one of his pieces of advice. “What would make you more marketable than the average person out there?”

If there is one thing every career development official in college stresses, again and again, it’s how much work outside the classroom, particularly an internship or eight, can help students find jobs after graduation. Many officials call this “applied experience,” and they say employers demand it more and more every year. “We have seen the conversation change from desirable to expected, almost,” says Logan-Bennett, of Towson. “If you’re graduating without applied experience in some way, shape or form, you really are at a disadvantage.”

Lorig says students shouldn’t expect to cruise through school, then pick up those skills in job training: Employers are spending less on training than they did a decade ago. They expect students to walk in ready to go.

Step 5: Prepare to begin humbly.

The upside of a constantly shifting job market is that graduates don’t need to worry as much about finding the perfect position, with the well-formed ladder of advancement attached. It’s actually the opposite: Industries and jobs and even individual job descriptions change overnight. Secretaries today have very different jobs than their counterparts did 20 or 40 years ago.

Chan reminds students they’re looking for a first job, not a life-long one. He points many of them toward consulting, banking, sales training, digital media, teaching or customer service, knowing they have plenty of time to advance. Too many students think they need to go into management or management training right away, he says — maybe because of high expectations from all those well-intentioned advice-givers we started off talking about.

“People are trying to measure the value of your education by how much money you make in your first job out of school,” Chan says. “I think that’s messed up.”

Chan is a good example of how you don’t have to be a STEM grad to go places. After college Chan worked for a big management consulting firm, for Clorox Co. and in several marketing roles. He led an educational software startup. He ran the career center at the Stanford business school.

His degree, I’m pleased to tell you, is in political science.

Jim Tankersley is a Washington Post staff writer. To comment on this story, e-mail wpmagazine@washpost.com or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.