Parents and the College Student Job Search

Walking the fine line between supporting and helicoptering.

Posted Aug 17, 2018

I’m starting this post by recommending an excellent essay in The New York Times entitled How to Get the Most Out of College. I think it’s one of the best essays I’ve read about the subject, and it will help parents understand what is really important about the college experience.

Parents can be an integral and helpful part of their college student’s job search and career planning process. Career Centers at colleges and universities rely on parents to help mentor our students and find job opportunities for them through their companies and organizations.

While parents generally understand the importance of strong career planning and development, they often struggle with how to best help their student. Because they know their student better than anyone else, they can often provide a level of guidance that career centers can’t. (And they are likely well aware of how receptive—or not—their student is to their advice.) 

College is a time for students to make independent decisions, but they are new at this and don’t have the same perspective as their parents on the world of work. At the same time, parents tend to know their own career field or experiences in the working world but may not be as familiar with career paths and approaches they didn’t take.

Few parents want to be labeled as a “helicopter parent” and yet watching their student go through college seemingly oblivious to the potential post-graduation outcome can be nerve-wracking. It’s all too easy to just step in and make demands or do the search for them. But there is an in-between state where you can both support their career development and their independence. I have observed an interesting interplay in the parent/student dynamic: if the parent calls me, I will likely never hear from the student. And, conversely, the more knowledgeable and action-oriented the student is, the less likely I will hear from the parents. There is a balance between supporting your student while not taking away their independence and self-direction.

It can be particularly disconcerting when their student chooses a path which is unknown, and perhaps, risky to them. A bulk of the conversations I have with parents stem from two key issues: either the student doesn’t appear to be doing anything toward finding a future career, or a student has chosen a major or career path that seems unusual to the parent. Perhaps the parent is a banker or lawyer, but the student wants to be a musician and tour with a band. Or the son/daughter of two engineers is considering a liberal arts major which doesn’t have the same linear and predictable outcome. It’s perfectly normal to be concerned, and it’s appropriate to ask challenging questions to make sure your student has made their decisions knowingly and not on a whim. But it is their career, not yours.

It can be hard to know when to step in and when to leave your student alone, so I’m going to offer 10 tips to consider when talking about career paths with your student. Before I do that, here are two important points to keep in mind:

  • Different career fields have different hiring calendars. Students interested in banking, consulting, engineering, and many health professions will need to start planning their careers earlier than other students. Recently, the most prestigious banks and consulting firms have been starting their recruiting and hiring processes early—some banks are currently interviewing first-semester sophomores for summer positions in their junior year! Medical schools and other healthcare programs require certain courses (not majors) prior to acceptance, so students will want to work closely with an academic adviser beginning their first year in college. Many other career fields hire on a just-in-time calendar, so their opportunities might not even be advertised until the final semester of the student's time in college. 
  • Students who are seeking Rhodes, Marshall, Mitchell, Fulbright and other prestigious scholarships and fellowships will want to consider these awards beginning their first year in college. These students, in addition to needing a high grade-point-average, must also be able to demonstrate long-term commitments to leadership, community, and research/scholarly work. It is not unusual for these students’ interests to show up in middle school. Several of the successful candidates my institution has endorsed literally found their interests in middle school and started taking action then, whether their focus was science research, journalism, the arts, or community service.

With that in mind, here are 10 tips I hope will provide some guidance for the process:

1. Encourage your student to visit their Career Center and take advantage of their services. Research shows that the earlier the students start planning their futures, and the more active a role they take in the process, the more likely they are to experience success. 

2. Don’t assume their choice of major equals a career decision. Majors represent a body of knowledge, a perspective, and an opportunity to explore new ways of understanding the world. With a few exceptions (e.g. engineering and accounting) many career fields are open to a variety of majors. Students simply need to learn to articulate the value of their major to potential employers. The myths about “useless” majors are mostly that: myths.

3. Most Career Centers have some sort of web-based portal that houses jobs, internships, professional development opportunities, events and interview schedules for recruiters. And yet, many students fail to login to this service and end up missing valuable opportunities. Encourage your student to completely fill out their profile as soon as possible. The more fully a student fills out their profile, the more targeted the Career Center’s communications can be.

4. Listen to their career plans with an open mind. College is a time of significant growth and increasing independence and smart students use this time to consider many different careers or opportunities. Very few students select their paths at 18 and stay on them. Listening with an open mind and encouraging them to explore possibilities is one of the best ways to help.

5. Encourage your student to acquire experience. Students and parents often focus on the term “internship” and stress about finding one—which can be difficult for first-year students. Instead, focus on acquiring “experience” in a variety of forms: summer jobs, volunteer opportunities, research projects, self-designed study, networking, etc. The focus should be on acquiring knowledge, skills, and competencies. (See my previous post on making the most of a summer for more tips on this.)

6. Provide resources and networking opportunities if you have them. If you have connections in career fields of interest to your student, by all means share them. But don’t set up the meetings for them: give them the person’s contact information and encourage your student to set up the meeting or call. This is a valuable part of the learning process around networking.

7. Don’t do the search for them. Parents tend to be more goal-oriented about the search than their students, and it’s natural to put their job search on your to-do list. But learning to independently search for a job is one of the most valuable skills a student can acquire—and one which will serve them throughout life. Don’t deprive them of this opportunity. If you call the Career Center to discuss their search—or lack thereof— please remember that we are under FERPA guidelines and cannot discuss your student's situation without their written permission. We cannot tell you if they have visited our office or what services they received. 

8. Don’t accept “I don’t know what I want to do” as an excuse for not moving forward with the career search process. Many students mistakenly think that they can only plan their career when they know what they will do. (This myth is so pervasive I wrote a book about it!) The truth is, career planning is a process, and even students who “know” what they want to do after graduation often change their minds. Any student can start the “career experiment” process anytime. They can develop a basic resume that they can later tailor to a specific field. They can take interest inventories or other assessments to uncover a career focus. They can try out an internship or volunteer activity to see if they enjoy it. (Or not—sometimes the best experience is learning what you don’t want.) Students often mistakenly think the Career Center only wants to see them if they know what they want to do. Quite the contrary: Career Centers enjoy helping students figure out what their first steps might be after graduation.  

9. Help your student’s Career Center by sharing any employment opportunities at your place of work. Tell your Human Resources office about the quality of students and academic programs at the university they are attending and encourage the HR office to share job and internship opportunities. Consider letting the Career Center know about your area of expertise if you would be interested in mentoring other students. Finding mentors is one of the most valuable experiences students can have during college. Check out the activities during Family Weekend—quite often there are career-related programs where parents can participate.

10. Finally, be sensitive to signs of stress in your student. Perfectionism and “comparisonitis” run rampant in this generation. If your student seems overly stressed about the search, see if you can uncover the source of their stress. Many times their stress is based on a myth or misunderstanding about the process. They may see their banking-oriented friends in suits actively interviewing in the fall and think that they “should” be doing that as well. But if they aren’t going into banking, it’s likely that they don’t need to be doing the same.

Colleges have all sorts of support systems for stressed-out students, from residence hall advisors to wellness centers to counseling centers. Having worked on many campuses I am aware of how kind and caring the individuals in these offices are. My goal in career services has always been to make my office the “anxiety reduction” office—not one more source of stress in the process. Support services are there to help reduce stress. Encourage your student to take advantage of them.

©2018 Katharine S. Brooks.  All rights reserved.