The Best Career Advice in College: Ask a Career Counselor
Published on December 20, 2019
Interview With a Career Counselor: Job Search and Application Tips
What are the first steps a student or recent graduate should take in identifying their career goals, and when should they start this process?
One first step you can take is brainstorming potential work roles and jobs you would like to pursue. If jobs or roles are too specific and this task seems too difficult, then write down themes of the kind of jobs you would like to pursue. Keep this running list documented and refer back to it. Narrow down the list to 3-5 high-interest jobs or career paths and begin investigating them deeply through resources and informational interviews.
Additionally, it is helpful if you speak with someone else and get the mentorship or advice of another person. Whether it is an advisor, mentor, or career counselor, this person can provide you with support and accountability as you take concrete steps in this career exploration process.
Students can access their university/school career center, counseling services, or academic advisors. Often, recent graduates can still get short-term support as alumni from these departments, or at the very least get referrals for resources they can access outside the university.
If a student still is not exactly sure of what kind of job they want, where should they start?
Take some time to explore what sort of academic subjects and work roles were of interest to you in the past up until now. Write a timeline of your schooling and work experiences from as early as you can remember to the present day. What sorts of subjects were most interesting to you and why? What ideas have you had in the past of what you wanted to do or be when you got older?
Equally important is to take stock of the subjects or careers you know you are not interested in. What about these areas are not appealing to you? Do you notice a theme in the types of jobs you are attracted to and not attracted to?
An important step is to take what you think about and document it somewhere (e.g., voice recordings, handwritten notes, digital notes). This process of reflecting and documenting reflections can help you clarify what you want and don't want. Take this even further and talk out your thoughts with another person. Friends, family, and advisors may be able to offer you some additional insights about your strengths and potential career options.
Even if a career that piques your interest is not directly related to your major, don't be afraid to document this as a potential area to explore. The exploratory phase is just that &emdash; exploratory &emdash; so it doesn't need to be perfect. The information gathering phase is often overlooked but is so essential.
Is it common for colleges to offer career planning advice and services to students?
Yes, it is common for colleges and universities to offer some sort of career-specific counseling or advisement service for their students. The career services may be housed under student services, counseling services, or within academic departments.
For example, some academic majors might have their own career advising services (e.g., business majors are advised specifically by their business school advisors). Most commonly, there are general career development centers at colleges and universities who offer a wealth of resources such as workshops on resume writing, mock interviews, 1-1 advising, and online/digital tools and testing.
How can students best take advantage of these services?
The biggest mistake I have found is that students wait too long to take advantage of these great services at their colleges. So please start early! Don't wait until your final year or final semester to visit your career center.
Once you are enrolled at your college, find out where your career services are offered and how to access them. Just like you know where the financial aid office is and who your academic advisor is, it is important to know what career services are available (and at no additional cost).
Visit the office in person or on their website and read how their office instructs you to access their services. Sometimes students need to make an appointment ahead of time or register in advance for a workshop. At other times, you can walk in and speak to someone during open office hours.
Regardless of how to access the services, the most important thing is to access it sooner than you think you need it. For example, if you want to apply for summer internships, go at the start of the spring semester, not the month before the semester ends.
When should a college student start applying for jobs if they haven't received their degree yet?
The timeline for job applications is career-dependent, and it is important to get a sense of your specific career field's recruitment process and deadlines. Generally, however, a college student can start applying to jobs as early as 4-5 months before their graduation date.
For example, if your anticipated graduation date is in May, you can begin looking for jobs in December or early January. It's never too late to begin engaging in the career exploration process. It's better to err on the side of looking earlier than to wait too long.
What are some common mistakes you see students making on their resumes and job applications?
Common mistakes can be categorized into two general themes. One is the way the resume and application material is written. Students often make the mistake of not writing enough specifics about their experiences and not demonstrating through writing the skills and experiences they have. Students should also use action verbs that demonstrate more concretely what students can do rather than just what they have done.
It is common that students try to use the same application material and resumes for every single job they are applying to without adapting them and crafting them specifically to the job. This one-size-fits-all approach is a turn off for readers of your application and can also result in a lack of fit altogether. Include the most relevant and updated information in your resume and job application.
The second theme of common mistakes is the presentational aspect of resumes and job application materials. Too many students do not have another set of eyes on their resume and miss typos, grammatical errors, and formatting mishaps. These are easily avoidable and can be taken care of easily by sharing your resume and job applications with other readers.
Don't forget to include professional contact information (and please don't have your potential employer have to email you at FruityPebbles4Life@gmail.com). Also, while it is tempting to use digital tools to make your resume look super modern, it is better to be conservative and professional and keep it simple. Unless your industry has some well-known and accepted trend of creating resumes a certain unconventional way, stay safe and use a 1-2 page format.
What are some of the best ways students can make themselves stand out in their job applications?
Be specific in the way you describe the job experiences you have had and how these experiences and roles demonstrate a quality you can bring to the table to your next role. Use action verbs to help you speak directly to the skills you possess. Make it clear that you have done your research about the job you're applying to and the organization. Connect the dots between your past experiences, current skills, and the job to which you are applying.
For example, how is your last successful project you completed translatable to the prospective project you would be expected to complete at this prospective job? The clearer you can bridge what you have done to the specific qualities and job functions listed for the job, the greater chance you will have of standing out.
A common complaint is that entry-level jobs may ask for several years of experience. How can college graduates overcome this barrier?
If the entry-level job requires several years of experience, then college graduates can accumulate these experiences in the form of unpaid or paid internships and volunteer experiences.
Also, it is important to be flexible as to what sorts of jobs you realistically are able to acquire in order to get this relevant experience. It is often the case that a series of entry-level jobs need to be bridged together sequentially so that you can accumulate experiences and learning over time. This path requires patience but can be a win-win for both your next employer as well as for yourself.
Even if you have not had direct experience to the entry-level job, but you do have several years of experience in other job sectors, don't be afraid to build the argument that what you have done can be impactful and valuable to the entry-level job. Speak to the translatable skills and accomplishments you have based on the experiences you have had.
What are other resources students can use when seeking employment?
Fortunately, the internet provides a plethora of additional resources you can access to help with their employment process. Blogs such as this one (BestColleges.com), professional communities such as LinkedIn, and job search engine sites (such as Monster.com and Indeed.com) provide a lot of resources for students.
There are podcasts for people who might be auditory learners, and local meet-up groups and events. Additionally, for more 1-1 personalized support, you can work with a career counselor/coach to walk you through the steps of the job search process. Some career counselors offer career assessments that provides valuable information about your interests, motivators, and skills and potential career matches. This is a good starting place for those who may feel at a loss about where to start.
How can students and recent graduates stay motivated in their career search if they are not finding a job as quickly as they had hoped?
I am glad this topic of support and motivation is coming up because this is a large part of the challenge that individuals face but not enough people talk about it. While I can list all of the to-do's for your job search, if you are feeling demotivated and discouraged, your efforts will only go so far.
The job search is an exhausting one because it takes time, it requires you to use your networking and extroversion muscles you might not be used to exercising. Because of this, it's important you take this process at a pace that feels manageable and realistic for you. Starting early is the proactive step to take so you are not rushing into this and feeling the time pressure to get a job ASAP.
But for those who cannot avoid this, it can be helpful to talk about the challenges that come up with others. Emotional difficulties are common, such as anxiety, fear, doubt, and insecurities. Talk this out with someone else who can offer an outside perspective and strategies for working through these difficult emotions as well as strategies for how to structure your time, accomplish tasks, and persist through this process.
Should students accept a job offer even if they are unsure it is something they would want to do long term?
There is no definitive yes or no here. Before accepting a job offer, ask for time. During whatever time you have before needing to provide an answer, think through your uncertainty. What is the uncertainty about? Sometimes students are seeking the "dream/perfect" job but this can be an unrealistic expectation.
On the other hand, you also don't want to take something that is completely unrelated and only meets lower-priority needs (e.g., just taking a job to feel like you have something to fill your time is not a good enough reason). What can you gain from this job Is this job in line with your values? Can you bridge the skills and learning you may acquire in this prospective job to your long-term career goal? If so, then it may be worthwhile seeing this next job as a valuable stepping stone.
However, if you are not interested in the job or cannot see relevance to your long-term goals, then it may not be a good fit.