It’s Never Too Early — or Too Late — to Visit Your College Career Office

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by Mary Keen Krikorian

Deciding on a major… Locating an internship… Writing resumes and cover letters… Preparing for interviews. . . Applying to graduate schools… Researching companies and employers… Networking with professionals… Planning your future…

Is it possible that you could find just one place where trained professionals would assist you with all of the above-for free?? The answer is yes. These are all services offered by the career office at your college or university. Often called the career development office, career planning services, or a similar title, your college’s career center is a place you will want to locate within your first semester on campus.

One of the most frequent comments from seniors acquainting themselves with their college’s career services for the first time is, “I had no idea there was a place like this on campus! I wish I’d come here sooner!”

Let’s explore, then, some reasons a first- or second-year student would venture into an office called “Career Services,” which certainly sounds like a place seniors would go to find out about opportunities available after graduation. First of all, many students come to campus undecided about what subject to choose as a major; even if they have declared something on paper, some room for doubt still exists in their minds as to whether the subject they have chosen is truly the “right” one for them. Other students may enter college thinking they are sure about the major and career path they will follow, only to change their minds when they delve more in depth into the subject area or when they are exposed to options they never knew existed. For example, few students come to college with the intention of becoming a forensic psychologist, a cultural anthropologist, or a technical illustrator. It is often after learning about the wide variety of career fields available that students are ready to make a more informed decision about the career path they will take.

However, increased information about options can lead to confusion and indecision. More choices?? Yikes! How is a student to choose the right path? This situation presents a great opportunity to make an appointment to discuss options with a career counselor, a professional who is trained to guide you in exploring your interests, strengths, likes and dislikes, as well as your values related to the world of work. There are even career inventories that will enable you to look at these areas in greater depth, including some wonderful computer assessment tools. But beware of taking these inventories to find “the answer” to your questions about careers and majors. Self-assessment is meant to be just that-a look inside yourself, and an opportunity to take stock of your interests and values in a new way. A career counselor will not give you a “test” that will tell you what to major in or what your future job should be. But the counselor can ask some pointed questions and lead you to valuable information that will assist you in finding your own answers to important career questions. Many colleges also offer classes or workshops to investigate career and major decisions; check with your career center to see what is available in this area.

Other opportunities that may be available to first- and second-year students through the career center include informational interviewing, job shadowing, or other experience-based programs. Informational interviewing involves locating professionals in an area of career interest and asking questions related to various aspects of their jobs. In a job shadow experience, you make arrangements to observe and interact with a professional in a field of interest for a specified amount of time. Your career center can provide you with a list of potential questions to ask, as well as help connect you with alumni, local professionals, or others who have volunteered for these excellent networking opportunities.

During sophomore or junior year, when you have decided on a major and have taken some of the fundamental courses in that area, you may want to take advantage of another excellent experiential opportunity available through many college career centers: an internship. During internships, students work for a specified period of time (usually a summer or an academic semester) at a site in which they have a strong career interest. Internships provide a wonderful way to explore a career field, apply classroom knowledge, and start to network within a chosen profession. Your career office may have an established internship program, or can at least lead you to some of the excellent resources available for locating these opportunities. Similarly, some colleges and universities offer co-op programs, which provide an in-depth look into a business or industry within in a chosen field.

Before applying for most jobs or internships, students generally need to create a resume, which reflects your academic, work, and co-curricular experiences to-date. “An awesome resume can play a very important part in your job search,” notes Kristine Vidic, director of internships at Bentley College. “It can make the difference in getting a competitive internship when you are a sophomore or junior or a job after graduation. Your resume represents you when you can’t be there; it helps employers know what to talk about with you during interviews.” Your career office can provide you with much needed resume advice including formatting tips, assistance with proofreading, sample resumes, and insight into what employers look for when reviewing resumes. The same assistance is available for writing cover letters, or letters of application, which often accompany your resume.

Once you have made some progress in terms of career decision-making and have gained some experience and insight into potential career fields, services pertaining to life after college become important. One such service commonly available through most college career centers is on-campus recruiting, in which recruiters from various companies come to campus looking to interview and possibly hire new grads. This process can take place either through individually scheduled interviews or through career fairs, in which a number of employers send representatives to a college. Speaking with someone at your career office before attending one of these events can be extremely beneficial — and may be required in the case of scheduling individual interviews.

Other career services commonly offered to seniors include assistance with job searching, mock interviews, graduate school information sessions or individual assistance, and establishing and maintaining credential files. With the increased use of technology by many recruiters, it is a tremendous asset to have someone who can help you navigate the various websites and databases designed for job seekers. Mock interviews are a wonderful way to strengthen your skills (and improve upon your weaknesses) before you experience the “real thing,” you will receive some suggestions regarding your interviewing style and, since many career offices videotape mock interviews, you may even get the chance to critique your own performance. As many students will go on to further their education before entering the world of work, learning more about the process of searching and applying to graduate and professional schools is another valuable service provided by career offices.

Many college career offices continue to offer services to students even after graduation. Services to alumni may include access to job postings, resume assistance, and career counseling. Many schools also have “reciprocal agreements” with other colleges, so that if you relocate you are able to use the career services at a college in your area. The services provided by career offices are generally free to students because they are already covered by the fees students pay. Thus, the career office may charge a nominal fee to alumni or students from other universities, but the fee should be significantly less than a private career counselor would charge. Check with the career office at your institution for policies and any fees related to alumni services and reciprocal agreements.

As you can see from the broad range of services listed above, the earlier you establish a relationship with your career center and its staff, the better. There is a reason that the terms “career development” and “career planning” are so often used by career counselors; finding the major and career choices that are the best “fit” for you is not an overnight process, or a decision that can be arrived at after a half-hour appointment with a career counselor. The career decision-making process is just that; something that takes place over time, and often takes a great deal of thought and effort. The role of a career counselor is not to find the right job for you, make all of the necessary contacts, and place you in a position after graduation. An effective career counselor rather will guide you along the way, through self-assessment as well as some exploration into the world of work, and assist you in finding the appropriate tools, resources, and sets of experiences that will maximize your ability to find a meaningful and satisfying career. The skills you develop will also serve you well when you are ready to change positions or consider other career options.

With that said, career office staff members readily acknowledge that many students do not take advantage of their services until the 11th hour. Cathy Purcell, career counselor at the State University of New York at Oneonta, speaks for many career professionals when she says, “Although we encourage students to come in early in their college career, it is never too late to get some help. We have helped many students find some direction the week before graduation! We also can help alumni, both recent graduates and older alumni. It is very common for a student about to graduate to have no clear direction. That is something we can assist students with.”

The choices you make and experiences in which you take part now will have a great impact on the options open to you after graduation. It would be impossible to mention all of the services available through your career center in one article, so stop by today to see what your school has to offer. The staff at your career center will be more than happy to assist you in any way they can; once you become a “familiar face” at your career center, you may be the first person who comes to mind when a great opportunity comes along! Albert Schweitzer said, “Success is the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.” Let the staff at your college career center provide you with information and assistance to plan for a career at which you will be both happy and successful!

See also:

Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker’s Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.

Mary Keen Krikorian has held her current position as internship coordinator at Hartwick College since August of 1999. She has worked in the field of higher education for more than 12 years and has focused specifically on career development since 1996. Mary holds a master of arts degree in college student personnel from Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, OH. She lives in Oneonta, NY, with her husband, their four children, one dog, and three cats.

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