College comes with a long list of responsibilities, and as a campus newbie, looking for that first job after graduation is pretty far down that list. But it doesn’t mean you can’t prepare yourself for that job, whatever it may be, throughout your college career. The job search can be overwhelming, but you don’t have to go it alone. Your college’s career services staff is there to arm you with resources and information that can make you stand out from the competition and rock those interviews, now and in the not-so-distant future. In fact, most schools encourage students to visit their career services office as early as possible to learn more about what’s available. So don’t wait until senior year to see how this campus resource can help you out!
What does the career services office do?
Offerings and programs will vary, but you’ll typically find career counselors who will meet with both past and present students one-on-one to assist with writing or editing a résumé and cover letter, interviewing tips, and making connections with alumni. The office will usually hold programs like business etiquette workshops, self-assessment questionnaires, networking events for specific majors, and job or career fairs with local employers as well. In a nutshell, the career services staff is there to help students take that education and subsequent degree they’re working so hard toward and use it to find a rewarding career.
“We’re not seen as the most ‘fun’ office, but we’re important,” says Tamara Gegg-LaPlume, Director of Career Services at Webster University in St. Louis, Missouri. “Students come to college to develop skills, but in the end, they come to get a job. Even those students going to grad school will have to enter the workforce at some point. We’re here to arm students with accurate information about the labor market and how to use those skills in the future.”
Career counselors are there for students every step of the way, but their real goal is to help students help themselves. “Career services is there to guide and lead students, but it’s really another branch of their education—to teach them how the process works and how to search for the job, so the student has those skills if they want to change careers or find another job later,” explains Patricia Simpson, Director of Academic Advising and Career Counseling & Placement for the School of Chemical Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Many students prefer to look for jobs on their own, but career services resources can give you an edge in a few important areas. “Most job-searching skills aren’t ever taught, so there’s not a place where you learn them,” Simpson says. “Our office is a place to learn job skills, and we can teach you the rules of the game.”
Another boost the career services staff can offer is their huge network of both alumni and employers. If the career counselor knows a little bit about you and your professional interests, they can connect you with alumni who can answer specific questions about a particular field or career path or, ideally, get you in front of an employer. Even if that employer isn’t hiring immediately, if you make a positive first impression, you’ll more likely be considered when there is an opening. “The career services office doesn’t have connections to every employer, but we do have a lot of connections, so these are resources students should leverage,” Simpson says. “Besides, as a student you’re paying for this service, so why not use it?”
What do you want to be when you grow up?
Career counselors do more than just work with students to “find a job.” They look at the big picture and move students toward a rewarding professional path. The first step in that process is asking students a few questions about their strengths, weaknesses, and areas of interest. Once a student better understands him or herself, it can actually make the college experience easier. It can also prevent the fifth (or sixth or more!) year of college many students are forced to complete due to switching majors one or more times.
Career counseling can calm general fears about the future by helping students narrow down or expand their choices and get a better handle on their next steps. “What we find is a person has a very narrow view of options,” Gegg-LaPlume says. “We can say, ‘Have you ever thought about . . . ?’ and that helps them to shift their thinking.”
Some colleges encourage or even require students to visit career services as early as their freshman year. “Students are asked, ‘What’s your occupation?’ and they pick their major based on their response,” explains Carol Watson Dillon, Director of Career Development at Fontbonne University in Clayton, Missouri. She meets with every freshman for a required one-hour appointment where the student completes a self-assessment. For many, this is their first time giving real thought to where they’re headed after college, and according to Dillon, that’s a mistake. “Self-assessment is new to many students, but it’s so important,” she says. “We don’t just want people to get a job; [we] want them to be happy, or they’ll be out there looking again in six months.”
How can you build—and work—your network?
If you feel confident about your professional path, the career services staff can work with you on those important next steps: networking, letting others know about your job search, and meeting new people. Many jobs aren’t advertised on job websites, social media platforms, or old-fashioned “Help Wanted” ads; they’re filled by referrals to hiring managers from existing employees. Here is where networking and getting in front of people can make a huge difference.
“Many students think they don’t have [networks], but they usually know many more people than they realize through family, friends, school, work, or church,” says Jennifer K. Pickerell, Director of Career Services at McKendree University in Lebanon, Illinois. “We tell our students and alumni that networking is extremely important in a job search, and some reports show that up to 80% of jobs are found this way. They are doing themselves such a disservice if they don’t utilize their networks.”
“Every student needs to know how to do this—it’s an absolute must,” says Gegg-LaPlume. “We tell students that it’s about being confident and assertive, not desperate and aggressive.” Even simple things like perfecting a handshake and keeping good eye contact—both easy to learn—make a strong first impression. Gegg-LaPlume also stresses the importance of following up after that first conversation, a step that’s often missed.
You might feel too intimidated to meet with a career counselor if you aren’t totally sure of your future plans, but the professionals say that is exactly when you should make that appointment. “Career offices are the experts in the field; they know the recruiting trends, best practices for interviewing, can guide the networking process, and more. They are at the ready to assist students, navigate resources, and discuss next steps,” says Jennifer R. Barr, Associate Director & Pre-law Advisor at the Center for Career and Professional Advising at Haverford College in Haverford, Pennsylvania.
The staff doesn’t expect you to know exactly what’s next after college, but they will work with you to figure it out. “Students may have that ‘What do I want to do?’ question at any age,” says Dillon. “Our office treats the whole person, and it’s a safe place where students can share their fears and weaknesses. We can work together to help get to the bottom of issues.”