How to Make the Most of Your College Career Center

Career planning is a lifelong process requiring ample amounts of trial and error. Pursuing a formal education can be an excellent foundation, but a degree alone is rarely the only step required to launch an ideal career. There are many more components that lead to success. Most colleges and universities offer guidance to help with the career planning process via a career center or internship center, often staffed with a mix of full-time career service professionals and part-time peer advisers. During this time when career centers are reimagining how they can best serve the needs of students, many of whom may be virtual or hybrid, it is a perfect opportunity for college students to be strategic in how to access and take advantage of a career center’s offerings. Here are tips on how to make the most of your college career center.

1st Year Students: Learn what is offered early in your college journey.

In life, you won’t often have a whole team of people solely dedicated to your success. But in college, you do. The career center’s purpose is to help students make a successful transition from college to career. And with every year, these centers add more and more programming and services to improve career outcomes. However, many students avoid the center altogether or only skim the surface of their benefits. An excellent first step for all students, but especially if you are a freshman, is to visit your career center (online and/or in person) to build awareness of what is offered.

Here is an example of what was available at one major four-year university’s career center: document reviews (resumes, CVs and cover letters), drop-in peer advising, online job postings, one-on-one counseling and workshops to explore career options, practice interviews, conduct internship and job searches and review application materials. Additionally, there was an employer conducting information or interview sessions or there was a presentation to explore different career paths almost on a daily basis.

The center also hosts a well-organized library of online guides, videos, tools and assessments that can be accessed any time of the day. In short, there are usually way more offerings than students realize — you just have to be aware of what is available.

2nd and 3rd Year Students: Identify your needs or get support for changes.

Some students have very clear career paths while many others are not sure how to connect the dots between school and work. There is no right or wrong when it comes to career path awareness — but it is important to identify where you are so that you can work toward greater clarity over your time at school.

If you currently have a path in mind for yourself, connect with your career center to see what programs they offer to help you explore within your targeted profession. Not all accounting or engineering or sales roles are alike. For example, in accounting, many leading firms come on campus multiple times per year, inviting students to learn about careers and options during info sessions and “meet the firm” events. They also conduct formal interviews for internships and career roles. Students who attend these events have an unparalleled opportunity to better understand a targeted profession, discover an interest in an unexpected industry and/or build a network of professionals who come on campus to present.

[Read: How to Ask for the Job at the Interview.]

If you have not yet determined what you want to do professionally, your career center has options to explore careers. Some programs start with assessing your interest areas so that you can get role suggestions or potential career paths. Want to target majors or professions that are in demand? You can use the career center to access career outcome data by majors or market trends. Want an insider’s recommendation? You can meet with an adviser to learn about what paths they have seen others pursue or what roles employers seem to recruit for most often. Your classes are rarely reflective of what it feels like to be in a related job, so your career center can help to demystify job titles or to help you uncover paths you may not have thought about. The key is to leverage the career center to learn more about yourself, your interests and to increase knowledge about possible options for the future.

3rd Year Students and On: Build your emotional intelligence and soft skills.

When employers interview college students and new grads, many of whom may have similar academic resumes with minimal work experience, the soft skills are what often make the difference. A student may have great grades, but if he or she submits a poorly written cover letter or gives a surface level answer to an interview question — an employer may worry that the candidate is not ready to be in a complex, nuanced work environment. Diplomacy, awareness, professional communication and understanding interpersonal dynamics are all skills that take time to hone. The students that interact with the career center early and often get valuable hands-on experience using soft skills that are work appropriate.

[Read: Job Market Outlook.]

For every year, plan ahead.

Per the National Association of Colleges and Employers’ Career Services Benchmark Survey, the average number of students per college career center employee is 1,735 in the 2020-2021 school year. These employees are trying to do more with less, given budget cuts that have impacted greater than half of the career centers surveyed. Career centers are often very busy — especially right before the fall and spring career and internship fairs.

Sign up for events in advance and consider off-peak times for support that may require more time or attention. Each school is a little different, but there are usually internship and career fairs in late September and early October and again around February and March. Often the most competitive employers in in-demand fields such as management consulting, investment banking, public accounting and leading tech companies, will recruit in the fall, extending offers with the hope of acceptance in early November. If you did not participate in fall interviews, do not worry. While a handful of select firms make decisions in October, there are plenty of other roles available throughout the year and via online job positing sites, such as Handshake, hosted by the career center.

[See: Sites to Find Work-From-Home Jobs.]

Engage

If you are looking for a high impact but relatively low effort way to boost your career prospects, engage with your career center early and often. Not only will you get the benefit of a wide variety of resources, but you will also build valuable skills and relationships. Careers are marathons — not sprints. The care and attention you dedicate to learning about yourself and exploring paths as a student, the better equipped you will be to pursue and secure ideal opportunities.

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How to Make the Most of Your College Career Center originally appeared on usnews.com

Update 11/04/21: This story was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.

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