3 Ways to Get More Students to Visit Career Services

Behavioral science offers tips for getting students to start career planning.

Posted Mar 12, 2018

Jerry Rauschert/Wikimedia Commons
Source: Jerry Rauschert/Wikimedia Commons

Two out of every three college graduates leave school feeling unprepared for the job market, yet 40% never take advantage of the free career counseling offered by their college, according to a recent report by Strada Education and Gallup. Some don’t know that Career Services exist, despite the typically extensive efforts to advertise to students. Others remain unaware that they can access these resources for free. For example, up to 75% of students who take classes exclusively online at one institution think Career Services are only for on-campus students when this is not the case.

Finally, some students believe that Career Services cannot help them. But given students' lack of confidence, and rates of postgraduate under- or unemployment reaching nearly 20%, it clearly would benefit many to take advantage of these programs. Furthermore, ignoring Career Services may be especially problematic for students who lack the social capital that could otherwise provide career advice and opportunities. As Lolade Fadulu writes for The Atlantic, “for first-generation students, a career center might be the first source of job advice they’ve ever encountered.” Yet getting students to take advantage of campus resources, like Career Services, is an age-old problem. When I recently asked a college coach in North Carolina how she helps connect her students, she told me “they will not go unless you take them over yourself.” How might behavioral science help us get more students to sit down with a career counselor?

#1. Embed career services in the student experience

Default options are powerful. Change an opt-in process to an opt-out process, and suddenly you have far more people registered to vote, enrolled in a 401(k), or signed up to donate their organs. How could colleges make Career Services the “default option”? One way in which colleges have approached this is to ensure students are exposed to Career Services simply by showing up to class. At places like Rutgers, University of Central Florida, and Monroe Community College, Career Services will visit classes to provide students with anything from a broad overview of career planning to a targeted workshop on topics such as resume writing or interview skills. While these sessions take an important first step toward inviting students into Career Services, there are two obvious drawbacks: the need to foster buy-in from faculty to give up classroom time, and only being able to talk to students in a group format.

Going a step further, Career Services could consider making an automatic introductory appointment for students that fits into their class schedule. A message from Career Services saying, “Planning your career is an important part of college, and we look forward to discussing your goals. We’ve reserved a time for you to speak with Cindy on Thursday at 3:00 pm” would not only remove a barrier—scheduling an appointment—that prevents students from using this resource, but also convey the norm that everyone is expected to visit Career Services. These default appointments would almost certainly result in more students receiving career counseling, but wouldn’t there be a lot of no-shows? Behavioral science has a way to help with that issue, too. When people make a specific plan of action—known formally as an implementation intention—they’re much more likely to complete all sorts of tasks they might otherwise avoid or forget, like getting a flu vaccine, studying for a test, or appearing in court. Asking students who are scheduled for an appointment (automatically or otherwise) to write out their plan—when they need to leave, where they will be coming from, how they plan to get to there, and what they will do in case obstacles arise—should reduce the amount of no-shows.

#2. Leverage social networks

Colleges provide students with a network of dedicated professionals to help them navigate financial aid, select classes, and prepare for a career. Yet studies show time and again that the majority of students turn to their friends and family for advice about college and career planning. While that approach might work for some whose informal networks are filled with experts on these topics, going to Career Services would benefit the vast majority of students. Instead of fighting these networks, however, Career Services could leverage them. For example, Career Services could identify students who found value in career counseling and recruit them to evangelize for this resource and shepherd more students to the Career Center. According to Strada/Gallup, the students who have the best experiences with Career Services tend to be first-generation and students of color; in other words, precisely the students who are most in need of that guidance. Other ways that colleges could bring more students into Career Services is by forming a student advisory board, like at the University of Michigan; training near-peers to serve as career counselors, like at UC Santa Barbara; or focusing their marketing efforts on testimonials about students’ positive outcomes from career counseling, as seen at places like Stark State College (Canton, OH) and Columbia University.

#3. Reframe the value of career services

Today’s students want to innovate, help others, and more or less change the world, and they may not see how Career Services can help them achieve such lofty goals. A quick review finds that many Career Services websites talk about achieving success and finding a job, but few that touch on self-transcendent reasons for entering a career. This may be especially discouraging for first-generation students, who have been shown to be more motivated by prosocial goals, like giving back to their community, than are their continuing-generation peers. Career Services could reframe their messaging to tap into these motives. For example, Career Advising at Warren Wilson College (Asheville, NC) talks about students’ “capacity to change the world” and how they can help “turn your passion into action.” And Career Services at Grand Canyon University (Phoenix, AZ) repeats how they will help students find a “purposeful career” (even their Career Compass access code is 'Purpose'!) This language, when made front-and-center in how Career Services presents itself to campus, should speak to the prosocial spirit present in so many of our students.

Career Services are as valuable for students as they are underutilized, and we need innovative ideas to get more students to take advantage of these resources. Progress on this goal would go a long ways toward having more college graduates, especially those who are the first in their families to graduate, feel confident as they depart college life and enter the workforce. What other strategies have been effective in getting more students to visit Career Services?


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Milkman, K. L., Beshears, J., Choi, J. J., Laibson, D., & Madrian, B. C. (2011). Using implementation intentions prompts to enhance influenza vaccination rates. PNAS, 108(26), 10415-10420.

Stephens, N. M., Fryberg, S. A., Markus, H. R., Johnson, C. S., & Covarrubias, R. (2012). Unseen disadvantage: How American universities’ focus on independence undermines the academic performance of first-generation college students. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102(6), 1178-1197.

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