Career Planning–Year by Year

Students don’t always see career planning as a necessary process until they reach their senior year. However, students who spend some time each year thinking about what they need to do now to prepare for their future career will be in a better position when it’s time to write letters of application and be interviewed by potential employers.

Major Decisions

First-year students:

The first year of college is a time of exploration. It can be an opportunity for students to rethink their plans, explore unanticipated options, and consider “what if…?” based on the new information they’re discovering about themselves. Students who have not selected a major or who are questioning their goals can find guidance and assess their skills and interests at their college’s career center and by talking with their academic adviser.

First-year students typically are told to meet with their instructors, but this often seems uncomfortable and unfamiliar for a new student. They wonder, “What would I say?” A good conversation starter is to ask what kind of jobs come from a major in the professor’s field, or what skills a student can learn in the major that might be helpful in the careers the student is considering.

Tips for Parents of First-Year Students:

Encourage your student to explore his or her academic strengths and interests.

  • through introductory courses
  • through involvement in on-campus groups, volunteering, or internships
  • by meeting with a career counselor and taking career inventories related to personality, interests, values, and skills
  • by meeting with an academic adviser to talk about opportunities in the areas of study the student especially enjoys

If your student is enrolled in a vocational, trade, or certification major (such as nursing, engineering, construction, or other career track majors), suggest that your student sample the work environment through volunteering, job shadowing, or informational interviews.   Doctors coat, artists apron, nurse scrubs hanging from hangers on door

By the end of the first year, students may see that their volunteer and other out-of-classroom activities fall into distinctive areas. That shows where their interests probably are strongest. It can be helpful at the end of the first year—and each subsequent year—for students to review their achievements both in and out of the classroom as a way to start building a resume.

Second-Year Students:

If students have not yet declared a major, they will probably be expected to select one by the end of their sophomore year. For some students, this is the year they might recognize that their original choice is no longer a good option–they don’t have the same interest, or they don’t have the necessary skills, learning style, or motivation for the major they planned.

Scene from TV Show Parks and Rec that says, "I am 100% certain that I am 0% certain of what im going to do"

The courses that students have taken during their first and second years in college will help them understand the kinds of learning they most enjoy, the courses they’re best at, and the subjects that most interest them. During the second year, students should be talking to an academic adviser and a career adviser about possible career direction and planning.

Tips for Parents of Second-Year Students: 

If your student hasn’t already selected a major, encourage her or him to talk to a career adviser on campus. Career centers should have tools for career assessment to help students match their interests with potential majors and future jobs. They also can provide information on job-shadowing and mentoring, and they can provide advice on the skills that will be needed for internships and part-time jobs. At this point, students should be developing professional-style resumes or portfolios that will be needed when they begin to apply for those internships or part-time jobs related to a professional career.

Third-Year Students:

As students begin their third year on campus, they should make an appointment to talk with a career adviser about job trends related to the major they are studying. What kind of jobs are available? What are employers looking for in terms of experience and qualifications? What are pay rates? Where are jobs located?

Student getting academic advising from teacher

By this time, students are taking courses in their major and are probably committed to the field, but they may still need to refine their career goals. A major can lead down very different career paths, and in some cases, the major might best be combined with a minor that will help the student become a better job candidate. Job-shadowing and conversations with professors can help students focus their goals.

Internships, part-time, or summer jobs in a field have become the answer to the postgraduate interview question, “Do you have any experience?” Increasingly, students are working at more than one internship. Often students begin with a short-term unpaid internship as a junior, then move into a paid internship, sometimes applying for yet another internship after they graduate.

International experiences have often proven to be an asset during the job search. By studying abroad, students gain confidence, enhance language abilities, and improve problem-solving skills. Some learning-abroad programs include internships or research components that connect directly to a career path.

Tips for Parents of Third-Year Students:

As students apply for internships or part-time jobs, a well-crafted resume or portfolio and positive references become important. Encourage your student to update his or her resume and review it with a career adviser. Ask your student to think about professors or advisers who could provide references for an internship or job. If your student is considering graduate school, remind him or her to start researching graduate or professional programs and begin to prepare for graduate level admission tests.

Fourth-Year Students:

By fall of the senior year, students who plan to attend graduate or professional school should be taking admission exams. Most graduate programs have a fall application deadline. Students applying for graduate school will need letters of recommendations from professors, employers, or advisers.

Seniors who will be looking for a job after graduation should check in regularly Graduate in cap and gown holding sign that says, "hire me!"with the career center in their college, beginning the fall before they graduate. Career centers typically offer workshops and advice on interviewing. Advisers can work with students to tailor a resume and letter of application to a specific position, and most career centers sponsor job fairs and invite interviewers to campus. Students can also watch for career fairs near campus. Students should be asking professors or former employers if they will serve as references and let their references know about the jobs they are applying for.

Tips for Parents of Fourth-Year Students:

Many students will receive job offers during the first semester of the senior year; others will not have time to even begin a job search until they graduate. It’s simply a fact that for some positions, employers can hold a job while the student finishes college, while other employers cannot. Still, starting early in their final year on campus, students should be visiting the career center on a regular basis and looking for job openings. In recent years, trends have indicated that employers do the majority of their job recruitment in the fall.

It may be tempting to put off applying–a senior project, responsibilities related to student organizations, or the demands of coursework may take considerable time for seniors. The sooner students begin their job search the better, but during the second semester, students who don’t have a job offer certainly should be prioritizing their job search.

Newspaper with magnifying glass over job section

Students who do not have a job by the time they graduate might do well to stay near campus for the summer, working a “non-professional job” such as wait staff or lawn care if necessary, while they look for a professional position. The competition among applicants is somewhat lighter after the end of the academic year, and companies are contacting career centers year-round with job openings. A flexible schedule can be helpful when a recent graduate is filling out applications or going to interviews, and career advisers will be a good resource for a continuing job search.

Parents’ can play an important role during the job search stage by raising critical questions that the student may not be taking into account. For example,

  • What benefits are offered?
  • Do good benefits make up for a lower salary?
  • Will the salary support the student’s cost of living?
  • If the job is in a different location, what is the cost of living in the area where the job is located, and are moving expenses covered by the company?

What Are Employers Looking For?

When employers review job applications and portfolios, they want evidence that the applicant has some experience that will be relevant for the position. They also want to know that the applicant has some basic skills and characteristics that fit well with other employees. Increasingly, evidence of teamwork and leadership are important factors. Characteristics employers look for when they review a candidate’s qualification:

  • Problem solving
  • Teamwork
  • Communication
  • Leadership
  • Strong work ethic
  • Analytical/quantitative skills
  • Initiative
  • Detail focus
  • Flexibility/adaptability
  • Technical skills
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Computer skills
  • Organizational ability
  • Friendly, outgoing personality
  • Strategic planning skills
  • Creativity
  • Tactfulness
  • Entrepreneurial skills/risk taker
  • Fluency in foreign language

In final decisions about which candidate to hire, when more than one applicant is being considered, the attributes that influence the decision are, in order of preference:

  • Has completed internship with the hiring organization
  • Has internship experience within the industry
  • Major
  • Evidence of leadership
  • General work experience
  • High Grade Point Average (3.0 or higher)
  • Involvement in extracurricular activities at school
  • School attended
  • Evidence of volunteer work
  • Fluency in a foreign language
  • Study abroad experience