Essential Skills for Criminal Justice Students

Discover the hard and soft skills you need to excel both in your criminal justice program and in the real world as a criminal justice professional.

Last Updated: 03/23/2021

Meet the Expert
April Preyar
April Preyar

Criminal Defense and Civil Rights Attorney

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April Preyar is a criminal defense and civil rights attorney. A graduate of Duke University and George Washington Law School, she has practiced for 21 years. She is a partner in her own boutique firm. She created JustUs Junkie, an educational platform that uses videos, workshops, and her original board game, Trials & Triumph, to teach law in simple terms. Preyar’s most popular video garnered 1.2 million views in 24 hours! She has appeared on ABC News Chicago, NBC News Chicago, CBS News, Daily Mail TV, and the Oxygen Channel and in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, AfroTech, the ABA Journal, Essence magazine, and many other outlets.

Do you feel a calling to criminal justice? If so, it’s easy to see why. Who wouldn’t be drawn to such a highly respected, interesting, and rewarding field?  With so many different avenues to pursue within criminal justice, you can find the profession that fits your personality and suits your interests while still falling under the umbrella of helping others. But before you can start making a difference in your dream job, you need to succeed as a student first.

Criminal justice students need to possess a skillset just as diverse as the field itself. From an understanding of our legal and corrections systems to being able to think critically and listen actively, the skills you need as a criminal justice student will grow into the attributes you want as a criminal justice professional. Whether you’re in an online criminal justice program and you want to hone your skills as a virtual student or you’re wrapping up a master’s in criminal justice and you need to sharpen your leadership skills, it’s never a bad time to get to work. Keep reading to learn which skills will help you the most as a criminal justice student and get expert insight on building a repertoire of skills that will serve you well now and in the future.

Hard Skills for Criminal Justice Students

Hard skills are the teachable abilities that professors and employers can easily measure. They are the sort of skills you’ll learn within the classroom and will often be tested on. As a criminal justice student, you’ll spend a lot of your school time honing these hard skills with fellow students and teachers. Depending on your specific field, the hard skills you’ll come to rely on will differ, but the five outlined below will likely be important to you as a student and a professional in criminal justice.

1

Physical Fitness

Many criminal justice roles require you to maintain a high level of physical fitness to do your job effectively. If you plan to work as a police officer, federal agent, or security officer, you’ll need to be quick on your feet, able to endure physical activities for extended amounts of time, and strong enough to apprehend those breaking the law. Improving your physical fitness requires a consistent commitment to cardiac and strength-training workouts. Many criminal justice jobs also require you to pass regular physical fitness tests to demonstrate your preparedness.

2

Weapons Proficiency

If you’re working in a role focused on community safety and defense, you’ll need to know how to deploy a wide range of weapons safely. Learning to use job-issued firearms, tasers, batons, and other weapons takes time and effort, with many employers requiring you to pass proficiency exams. In addition to on-the-job training, you can also visit a licensed firing range to practice or seek training and advice from more seasoned professionals.

3

Legal Knowledge

Many criminal justice careers require you to possess legal knowledge to do your job effectively. For example, drug enforcement administration agents must understand current laws around illegal and/or controlled substances, and lawyers must understand local, state, and national laws to know how to best serve their clients. While some jobs require a law degree, others simply require you to take coursework focused on the relevant legal frameworks of your chosen area. Make sure you understand what you’ll need to know and find a program that covers those topics.

4

Computer Proficiency

As the world relies more heavily on digital technologies, criminal justice roles are no exception. If you’re working as a police officer or agent, you’ll need to upload your reports to secure internal servers. If you’re working as a fingerprint technician, you’ll need to know how to use the technologies associated with scanning and analyzing samples. Other common tools include criminal databases, crime mapping software, forensics visualization, and any job or company-specific computer tools or equipment.

5

Forensics

If you plan to work as a forensic science technician, detective, or crime scene investigator, you’ll need to know how to deploy the ever-growing array of forensics tools. Whether you’re running ballistics tests, hair analysis, facial reconstruction software, or DNA sequencers, each of these technologies allows professionals to better understand the crime involved, how it was carried out, and who might have committed it. As technology in this area continues to become more sophisticated, you must commit to staying informed on new tools and new ways of using existing tools.

Soft Skills for Criminal Justice Students

Soft skills are less easily defined and measured but are just as important as the hard skills highlighted above. Soft skills include remaining calm in tense situations, managing your time well, participating as an active listener, and using critical thinking to make informed decisions. While these skills are subjective, they will come to be absolutely essential to you as a criminal justice student and professional. Keep reading for a deeper dive into how these skills will impact your criminal justice career.

1

Written & Oral Communication

Whether writing a report on a recent vandalism incident or testifying before a courtroom as a forensics expert, knowing how to communicate effectively is one of the most important soft skills you can possess as a criminal justice professional. Writing and speaking clearly, succinctly, and accurately can help uncover important information to solve cases, put community members at ease, and bring perpetrators to justice. Taking writing and public speaking classes can help you build these important skills and continuing to practice after you’re in the workforce will keep these skills sharp.

2

Active Listening

Taking reports, listening to testimonies, and collecting statements are common responsibilities in criminal justice roles. Each requires active listening. You will frequently come in contact with agitated, scared, and/or stressed-out community members who are seeking your help. Knowing that you are actively listening and showing compassion during a potentially difficult situation can help calm their nerves and allow them to communicate more clearly. Active listening also plays an important role when interacting with your colleagues and other criminal justice professionals.

3

Critical Thinking & Decision Making

Working as a criminal justice professional often means you’ll encounter tense, stressful, and sometimes even life-or-death situations. Being able to remain calm, think critically, and make smart decisions will serve you well throughout your career. Critical thinking involves using inductive and deductive reasoning, perception, and awareness to take in all the information available to you and use that information to make a thoughtful, wise decision about how to proceed. Mastering this soft skill will also serve you in your day-to-day life.

4

Ethics

Understanding the difference between right and wrong and protecting others from those who would cause them harm are two of the most important aspects of criminal justice. Whether you work as a police officer, private investigator, or parole officer, it’s up to you to understand and uphold the principles of an ethical society. Ethics can also help you navigate cultural sensitivity, correctional facility management and upkeep, safety standards, and understanding how factors such as societal norms and economic hardship contribute to upticks in crime.

5

Leadership

As you progress in your criminal justice career, there’s a good chance you’ll take on a leadership position. But seniority and experience don’t always make for the best leaders. The most effective leaders bring together a mix of constructive feedback and positive communication, timely motivation, creative problem-solving, and fair delegation. Understanding the personalities, strengths, weaknesses, and motivating forces of each individual you supervise can help you become a more effective leader, as can developing or adopting your own leadership philosophy that matches your personality.

6

Other Important Skills

Many other soft skills go into creating a well-rounded, competent criminal justice professional. Knowing how to accept and give feedback, assess the strengths and weaknesses of those you supervise, prioritize work by level of importance, and create independent and resilient teams are important soft skills. Others to consider include setting effective and reasonable goals, recognizing when staff feels underappreciated, providing mentorship, and reading body language.

Online Skills for Criminal Justice Students

If you plan to complete your criminal justice degree online, you’ll need to develop several skills unique especially for distance learning. Whether you’re a computer novice or already spend hours per day online, mastering these skills early in your college journey can go a long way in helping you find success.

1

Time Management

Pursuing an online criminal justice degree makes sense for many busy students, as these programs provide maximum flexibility. The flip side of flexible learning, however, is that it requires excellent time management skills. When you don’t have to show up to class at a specific time, it becomes your responsibility to ensure you watch prerecorded lectures, engage with peers and professors on message boards, and set aside ample time to complete readings, conduct research, and prepare thoughtful and thorough assignments. Learning how to create structure for yourself will serve you as a criminal justice student and beyond, into your career.

2

Environment Management

Creating an environment conducive to learning and studying can make the difference in how effective, and ultimately successful, you are in an online criminal justice program. Outside the traditional academic setting of classrooms and libraries, you may find it difficult to create an atmosphere that helps you focus. Figuring out which type of environment you need to flourish as a student requires trial and error. Some distance learners need an uncluttered space with few distractions, while others prefer more of a coffee shop vibe. Understanding this while still in school will help you thrive, and after graduation you’ll know how to be your most productive self when work starts to stack up.

3

Digital Literacy

Understanding how to navigate the various platforms, learning management systems, and applications used to create an engaging and effective online criminal justice degree is key to making the most of your time in school. Do you know how to screen-share, conduct online presentations, or use project-management software? All of these skills and more will be expected of you in today’s online degree programs. If you aren’t already familiar with these tools, most schools provide tutorials and technical support to help you get up to speed.

Insight from a Criminal Justice Graduate

April Preyar

April Preyar

April Preyar is a criminal defense and civil rights attorney. A graduate of Duke University and George Washington Law School, she has practiced for 21 years. She is a partner in her own boutique firm. She created JustUs Junkie, an educational platform that uses videos, workshops, and her original board game, Trials & Triumph, to teach law in simple terms. Preyar’s most popular video garnered 1.2 million views in 24 hours! She has appeared on ABC News Chicago, NBC News Chicago, CBS News, DailyMail TV, and the Oxygen Channel and in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, AfroTech, the ABA Journal, Essence magazine, and many other outlets.

Q: What do you feel is the most undervalued and overlooked skill for criminal justice careers?

A: The most undervalued and overlooked skill is the ability to build rapport with anyone quickly. Being able to build a connection with anyone from any socio-economic background, age, gender and race is critical, no matter which job you seek in criminal justice, from law enforcement to paralegal to attorney to judge. Showing someone a little compassion in their darkest hour goes a long way. The best legal professionals adopt the motto, “There but for the grace of God go I,” meaning if any of us had made just one bad decision, we too could end up in the shoes of the criminal defendants and/or complainants we serve.

Q: What mistakes do students commonly make when choosing a criminal justice program?

A: The biggest mistake students make when evaluating criminal justice programs is basing their understanding of jobs in the field on TV dramas. The real world is nothing like CSI or Law & Order! Most students have no idea whether they will actually enjoy the work or even what duties the work actually entails. It’s hard to gauge how a school will prepare you for a job when your understanding of the field is based in large part on fiction.

Q: Outside of instructors, where can students turn for help building these skills?

A: I always suggest that students commit this acronym to memory: R.A.I.N.

R stands for read. Students should study books by experts in their field to learn about challenges they may experience. 

A stands for apprentice. It is imperative that anyone who is interested in criminal justice work with someone who actually works in the field, even if the internship is unpaid. Students will excel in the classroom setting since they have experienced many of the lessons first-hand.

I stands for interview. Every legal professional won’t be in the market for an intern, but almost all will make time for a short interview about their work. This is the opportunity for students to ask more-specific questions about challenges and pitfalls that professionals have had to overcome. Students can even reach out to experts via LinkedIn or meet professionals at seminars to interview.

N stands for notify. It is easier for a friend to introduce a student to a legal professional who they know than for a student to do cold calls for job openings. I suggest that students notify all friends and family via text message, email, social media, and phone that they have an interest in that field and that they wish to speak with various professionals. These will often prove to be their best connections.

Q: What’s the most surprising skill you use regularly as a criminal justice professional?

A: Sales is the most surprising skill that I employ on a daily basis. I opened my private practice after working as an attorney for the Public Defender’s office. I went from being a W-2 employee to being self-employed. I had to sell my services every day in order to survive. I soon realized that although the techniques differed, the principles I use in court when trying to convince a judge or jury to rule in my favour are the same ones that I use in a job interview. Sales is one of the most important skill sets I have developed.