Elon University Poll focuses on high-impact experiences in college, writing skills

The survey, conducted with the Center for Engaged Learning at Elon, gathered input from close to 1,600 recent U.S. college graduates about meaningful experiences during college, and skills they acquired while seeking a degree. ​


A recent survey by the Elon University Poll explored the types of high-impact experiences college graduates had while in school and how they are applying skills acquired during college in their professional careers. The survey of nearly 1,600 U.S. college graduates under the age of 35 also delved into the types of writing they use for their jobs and in their personal lives, and writing-related challenges they have experienced since graduation.

Among the key findings:

  • Internships or work placements emerged as the most common high-impact experience students participate in during college
  • The most commonly reported undergraduate experience was receiving feedback from faculty or staff on a submitted final project, with 72 percent of those responding saying this occurred multiple times.
  • Time management and meeting deadlines were identified most frequently as important skills for day-to-day life that graduates learned during college.
  • Emails are far and away the most common writing exercise after graduation, with respondents most likely to say that writing a type of document they haven’t encountered before is a top writing challenge.

“As a new academic year approaches, one key piece of advice from our survey stands out: take advantage of experience-based learning opportunities like internships and undergraduate research,” said Jason Husser, director of the Elon University Poll. “These experiences don’t happen universally on their own. They require effort from both students and higher education institutions.”

The survey was conducted in partnership with the Center for Engaged Learning at Elon, which brings together leaders in higher education to develop research around questions about student learning. Among the topics the Center has recently explored are aspects of the student experience, including high-impact practices like undergraduate research and study abroad, as well as “writing beyond the university,” which focuses on how students use the writing skills learned during college outside their coursework and after graduation.

The survey of 1,575 college graduates from across the country was conducted June 7-12 through an online opt-in sample marketplace. The survey had a credibility interval of +/- 2.53 percent. Different from a margin of error, the credibility interval is used to measure the accuracy of nonprobability surveys such as opt-in online surveys. A fuller explanation of the credibility interval and the survey methodology are available in the full report.

High-impact and common experiences

More than half of recent college graduates — 52 percent — said they participated in an internship or work placement during their time in school, making it the most popular of six high-impact experiences asked about during the survey. Less than a third of college graduates said they had five other high-impact experiences during their time in school, such as service-learning, a capstone project, conducting undergraduate research and studying abroad. Creating an ePortfolio ranked last among the experiences with only 17.5 percent saying they created the digital repository for their work during college.

Graduates who lived on or near campus during their college years were more likely on average to have had these six high-impact experiences during college than those who commuted to campus. Additionally, first-generation college students were less likely to have had these high-impact experiences.

The graduates were asked about a range of common experiences they may have had during college, and to what extent they encountered them. Leading the list of the most common was receiving feedback from faculty or staff on a final project, an experience that 72 percent said occurred multiple times. Only 7 percent said they never encountered such an experience. Other common experiences encountered multiple times were developing meaningful relationships with other students (67 percent), having opportunities to reflect on how what they were learning would apply to their future (66 percent) and receiving feedback from faculty or staff before submitting a final version of a project (also 66 percent).

The two least common among the listed experiences were developing meaningful relationships with faculty or staff, with 17 percent saying that never occurred, and having opportunities to reflect on how the different parts of the college experience fit together, with 17 percent also saying that never occurred.

“High-impact practices during college like undergraduate research, global study and internships are associated with many positive career and life outcomes,” Husser said. “Our survey of recent graduates found these valuable opportunities vary widely across the United States. Knowing what goes into a degree for students is important as society juxtaposes the value of higher education with its costs. Our findings suggest that many graduates are not getting the full benefit of their degrees because they are missing out on high-impact experiences.”

Using skills now

The poll explored the skills that college graduates are using during their day-to-day lives and whether those skills were developed while they were in college. The survey didn’t look at skills directly stemming from what they studied in college, but instead focused on broader skills associated with career readiness and 21st-century challenges. These skills, take from the AAC&U LEAP Essential Learning Competencies and the National Association of Colleges and Employers Competencies, include how graduates relate to others and society, how they approach problem-solving or how they speak or write.

Time management, meeting deadlines and applying existing skills to a new problem all ranked high as skills that were both very important to college graduates in their day-to-day lives, and skills that were developed while in college.

For instance, 79 percent said managing time was “very important” in their day-to-day lives, the highest among 16 general skills respondents were asked about. Seventy-six percent said they developed time management skills during college. Seventy-three percent said meeting deadlines is very important to their lives each day, with 78 percent saying they learned how to accomplish that in college. Seventy percent said applying existing skills to a new problem was “very important,” with 77 percent saying they developed that overall skill while in college.

The most common skill to be developed during college was researching and understanding the answers to complex questions, with 83 percent saying they learned to do so during college. However, only 60 percent said that’s something that is important to their day-to-day life.

Engaging with local government and volunteering in the local community were the skills least likely to be considered by respondents as very important to their daily lives, with respondents also less likely to say they developed the skills to engage with government or volunteer in the community during college.

Writing after college

The survey was designed to see how college graduates are applying their writing skills now that they have left college to better understand how those skills apply to their personal and professional lives.

Asked about a variety of types of writing they may do for their jobs or for personal reasons, respondents most commonly said they write emails, with 70 percent saying that happens at least on a weekly basis (the most frequent option asked about in the survey). The next most common type was reports, such as expense reports, progress reports or white papers, with 32 percent saying that happens at least weekly, and 31 percent saying they write for social media at least weekly.

Among the least common types of writing that respondents said they engaged in were writing advertising or promotional materials (15 percent), articles for news or trade publications (15 percent) and business or grant proposals (14 percent).

The graduates were also asked about writing challenges they have encountered since leaving college. Twenty percent of respondents said “writing a type of document I had not encountered before” was the biggest challenge, the most common among those asked about in the survey. Sixteen percent said “adapting to my readers’ expectations and needs” was the biggest writing challenge while 13 percent said “writing in a concise and direct manner” was their biggest challenge.

“Writing with technologies I’m not familiar with” was cited the least as the biggest writing challenge, with 9 percent of respondents pointing to that challenge as their biggest hurdle.

The survey was conducted as Elon’s Center for Engaged Learning launched the new research seminar titled “Writing Beyond the University: Fostering Writers’ Lifelong Learning and Agency.” This summer, seminar participants from 30 universities across nine countries met for the first time at Elon to plan multi-institutional research projects to be undertaken during the next two years.

“We realize that there is a lot more we need to know about preparing students — soon to be alumni — for writing beyond the university,” Moore said.

The survey results will be used by the seminar, which will culminate in July 2021 with a conference focused on the theme that will include presentations about the work of the seminar research teams.