9 Ways That You Can Help Your College Student Prepare for Their Careers

We were excited to have the opportunity to write an article for University Parent on the 9 Ways That You CAN Help Your College Students Prepare for Their Careers

As parents it is helpful for us to remember that it is our students’ developmental task to be separating from us and becoming more self-reliant.  So we are all clearly walking a bit of a tightrope here when we try to coach and advise. I have first-hand experience as a parent in how hard it can be to support, let alone coach, your student as they transition from college into their career.  My son graduated from college this past May, and while he is happily working in pretty much his dream job, it wasn’t all smooth or easy. I knew that my son believes in what I do, (he refers his friends to me) and yet there were still times when I could absolutely feel his eyes rolling through the phone.

1. Pay attention to your student’s interests to help them focus on career direction.

Pay attention to what they say about what they are doing. Think about where they have thrived and what seems to have brought them joy.  Ask them open-ended questions and offer (gently) your observations. If they tell you that they really enjoy their tutoring work, explore with them what they like about it.  See if you can get them to think about the skills they are using when they tutor. Reflect to them what they have said to you. Instead of saying “I think you should be a teacher” ask them “have you ever considered teaching”?

2. Help your students understand their strengths. Be less interested in their weaknesses.

Hiring managers report that today’s students have real and relevant skills and experience but that they are not articulate about what they are capable of, nor are they able to connect their strengths to job openings.  Share what you see, offer them words to describe their strengths, and, if you can, help them see how those strengths could be of interest to a hiring manager.

In terms of weaknesses – they are theirs to work out.  We all have them. Did you want your parents sharing their perceptions of your weaknesses to you when you were just starting out? Let this go – they are worried enough about them.

3. Support their efforts to problem solve effectively through college.

What is right behind this suggestion, of course, is avoiding trying to solve your student’s problems for them. To avoid rushing in, a good place to start, no matter what the issue, is “who on campus can help you with this”. College is a place to build muscle in developing problem-solving skills.  If the first person they try isn’t helpful – help them keep looking until they find one who is.

Hiring managers ask questions to understand when applicants have overcome obstacles for a reason – they want to see some grit and some independence. Students make mistakes — and some of them are costly – but if they are robbed of these learning experiences, they can have trouble answering questions like: “give me an example of when you learned from a mistake, or when you overcame an obstacle or when you failed.”

4. Please…do not try to control what they are majoring in.

The most confused and inarticulate students we work with are those who feel forced into a major of their parents’ choosing.  They have less passion and joy, and that is hard to fake in an interview. Too many of them are stressed to the max trying to do two majors – one for them and one for their parents.  In our experience it matters less what a student majors in, than whether they can connect that major with actual jobs and whether they have had quality internships. And all majors can be connected to real jobs.  So, do expect that they can answer basic questions about why and how that major will translate into jobs. If they can’t, here comes the magic question again: “who on campus can you help you with that?”

5. If you are going to insist on anything – insist that they do at least one, and hopefully two, quality internship(s) before they graduate.

There is nothing that they can do to prepare for going into their first job that will be more helpful than doing quality internships.  I could write a short novel about this, but it is a clear and persistent expectation across most any field. Hiring managers want to be able to ask them questions about experience they have had in the working world. A way you can help them here, is to be clear that this is an expectation and then to be willing to open up your contacts and help them network into an internship where they can learn and grow.

6. Encourage them to connect with mentors. Whether they are professors, coaches, or administrators, you want you student to graduate with people who have positive regard for them.

There are a multitude of professionals on college campuses who are there, in part, because they genuinely like connecting and supporting young people.  It is a missed opportunity if your student doesn’t develop some relationships here that will last into the future. These are future references, people who have networks, etc.  I am full of stories of young people whose first or second job was facilitated by someone whom they built a relationship with while at college.

7. Be willing to open up your network to them.

The connections we talked about in 6, above, are the beginnings of a professional network.  A very real way you can be helpful to your student is to introduce them to your network; to friends, colleagues, neighbors, etc., with whom they can do informational interviews.  At all career levels, people who move into a new opportunity are three times as likely to have that move facilitated by someone than they are to have gotten that opportunity by applying cold to a job or answering a recruiter’s call.

8. Expect that, by the middle of their senior year, they have a plan for how they are going to move into the working world.  For some fields it must be the beginning of their senior year.

Your student may tell you that they will do this after they graduate, or that they don’t have time now, or that they are too stressed to do this now.  We know that if students wait until after they graduate to get started, that, on average, it can take them six months from when they got started to find that first professional job.  Also, somewhat counter-intuitively, we have found that getting started with this work lowers their stress level. As they develop a plan, they get more confident, more focused, and less anxious.

9. When you know they are floundering, consider supporting them by getting additional help.

Back to not solving the problem for them, in most cases you are not going to be the one that they let help them through this work.  But you can encourage them to get someone whom they will be willing to work with. We push our clients to work with their career center.  Some centers are great, some are terrible, and most are in between, but they all have something to offer. So that is one option. Is there an older sibling, a trusted aunt or uncle, or an ex-boss that they could reach out to?  We recommend that you expect them to have a plan and offer them ideas about resources that they might consider.

We would be honored to be on that list of potential resources. We would be happy to have a free consultation with you about your student and our program and see if our services could be helpful.  We might work with your student in a month, or in a year, or we might never work with them. But we know, whether we work with your student or not, parents who contact us pretty much always find that free consultation helpful.

Bonus Tips

We know from talking with hundreds of parents that many of you can visualize your student’s eyes glazing over when you try to initiate some of these conversations.  If this is your situation, here are four tips on how to get into better conversations with your student:

  • First, long car rides are good places to engage young adults.  Specifically, to and from college was great in our family. It is a bit less threatening, and they don’t have to be sitting across the table looking at our worried/frustrated/anxious expression. There is time to settle in to the conversation.
  • Secondly, one reason those eyes start to roll is that they can tell that we ALWAYS have something we want to talk with them about. Sometimes it is grades, sometimes it is relationships, sometimes it is money – but they know we are lurking. They have experienced us using somewhat neutral questions as a way of ‘warming up’ to the real stuff on our minds. They are on guard. Whether you are face to face, on the phone, or texting, get practiced at being the first one to leave the conversation. As parents we often keep asking questions to keep them in the conversation. So, for the next month – try limiting yourself to two questions or one thing you want to talk with them about – and then be done.
  • Third, be alert to the dynamics of both parents talking to your student at once. The parents we work with report that, while it is very important that parents are aligned in their messaging and expectations, it is usually better when these are one-on-one conversations. Every couple is different, and we don’t mean that only one of you should engage your student in these conversations; just think about taking turns.
  • Fourth, if you are really struggling, consider setting up a specific time with them where you want to talk about an important topic.  Make it regular but not constant. Maybe it is Sunday nights – some time that you all agree will work for you. We call this the family huddle. It is important that if you are doing this, you stick to this. Don’t keep bringing up your concerns in between times. This will help them be less on guard because they think that at any and every minute you are going to want to talk with them about their future.