5 strategies to get students to the career office within their first year

Kathleen Escarcha, staff writerKathleen Escarcha, senior staff writer

Students are pursuing higher education with career outcomes in mind, and many begin their college journey with the goal of landing a job by graduation.

But students often overlook a major professional development resource on campus: the career center. More than a third of students (39%) have never once visited a career center during their tenure.

Waiting to visit the career center (or not visiting it at all) is one of the most common blunders students make, Jeffrey Selingo wrote in a 2016 article. Too many students think of it as "just an office you visit the second semester of your senior year," he wrote. He argued that it's critical to emphasize that professional development is actually "a four-year journey."

We pulled together several strategies colleges are using to get incoming students to the career center from Day One.

Strategy 1: Make your career center visible

It doesn't matter how robust an institution's career services are if students don't know they exist. A first-generation student struggling to find an internship may not realize that advisors are available to help.

"Experts on first-generation students sometimes refer to the often confusing array of student support services as 'the hidden curriculum,' something that has to be learned on the fly by students who don't always grow up knowing about things like college advising," says Ed Venit, a managing director of student success research at EAB.

That's why making career advising more visible is crucial to bringing in first-generation students unfamiliar with the service, says Stephanie Kinkaid, assistant director of the Wackerle Career Center at Monmouth College. She recommends that university leaders identify which social media channels get the best response from students and design advising awareness campaigns in those channels.

Strategy 2: Discuss career prep during early and often

Students tend to wait until their senior year to seek out career help. To get students to the career center faster, some colleges fold professional development into students' first-year experience.

Grinnell College, for example, assigns every new student a dedicated career center advisor. The institution also schedules a mandatory meeting between first-year students and a career advisor before classes start.

And Emerson College teaches new students about the purpose and utility of a career center through a checklist. The college outlines the activities students should complete during their first year, like meet with career counselors, research study away opportunities, and conduct an informational interview.

Transform student employment (and other experiential learning) into meaningful career development

Strategy 3: Align professional and academic ambitions from Day One

Bentley University's career development course teaches students how to plan their academic experience to reach their career goals. The course is taken by 99% of first-year and transfer students, according to Alyssa Hammond, director of undergraduate career education and outcomes at the university.

"The reason it's important to do that early is that the student needs to develop these experiences—not just internships but all of these other experiences that you're going to get during your college life," Hammond told the Hechinger Report. "How are they making you marketable? How are they driving you to a career you'll really like?"

Co-curricular major maps also help students align their professional and academic ambitions. Queen's University offers co-curricular maps that outline the career-related experiences students should complete during each year of study, including the first year. Each map also offers a list of 30 or more potential careers for each major and a list of technical and soft skills that students can expect to acquire by studying that major.

Keep reading: 5 steps to build a co-curricular major map

Strategy 4: Restructure career center services

Several colleges reorganize their reporting lines or physically move the location of the career office to encourage collaboration and drive student traffic. James Madison University (JMU), for example, has completely merged academic advising and career services into a single office. JMU advising staff receive cross-training in both academic and career support. Advisors discuss academic and career planning with students simultaneously, encouraging students to see them as two sides of the same coin.

Other colleges combine counseling services and career services to address the anxiety students can feel during the job search process. Co-locating the two kinds of support can reduce stigma and make it easier for students to seek help.

At the Howard Community College in Maryland, the same staff members at the Counseling and Career Services provide both services. By helping students through personal crises, the department's counselors build relationships with the students that can help during discussions about majors and careers.

Strategy 5: Go virtual

For career services to become more central to their schools' missions, they must successfully reach their target audience: the students. According to Robert Angulo, CEO of AfterCollege, this means going mobile.

"New technology needs to be mobile-enabled... Students don't always put in the effort when it comes to starting their career. Technology that serves them where they are is better than technology that forces them to go somewhere," says Angulo. "Virtual is the way to go"

Some institutions already use virtual reality to help students explore career options.

At Fox Valley Technical College, one faculty member uses virtual reality to expose students to the day-to-day work of electricians and HVAC technicians. And at the University of Florida, a newly renovated career center allows students to access events online, attend virtual workshops, and have virtual interviews (Marcus, Hechinger Report, 9/6; Kinder, University of Florida News, 8/16).

Learn more: Post-graduate outcomes—and 3 other student success metrics progressive schools are tracking


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