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Sarah May Clarkson, Juniata College

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Those of us who advise students nearing the end of their degree, certificate, or training programs know that there is good news and bad news connected with advising these students. The good news: students “ready to launch” can use advice and guidance at several points during their education and training. The bad news: too many students wait to have conversations about post-graduation plans until the weeks just prior to “crossing the finish line.”

Today’s senior students find themselves in one of the most competitive job and graduate school markets in a generation. This scary senior scenario has paralyzed some soon-to-be graduates. Last spring Marilyn Mackes (2009), executive director of National Association of Colleges and Employers, reported that only 59 percent of that year’s four-year-college graduates had begun a job hunt by May (Clegg, 2009). If we “do the math,” that means more than 40 percent had not undertaken any kind of career or job placement activities before crossing the stage. More depressing, only 19.7 percent of 2009 graduates who had applied for a job actually had one by the time they graduated (Clegg, 2009).

Today’s employers and graduate schools expect a lot from graduates, and they are in a position to pick the best and the brightest from a large pool of applicants. They are looking for respectful and responsible team members who are curious and have a willingness to learn. It should go without saying that a positive attitude goes a long way when searching for a position. Honesty and dependability are key characteristics for successful candidates, as are critical and creative thinking. Communication skills (interpersonal, writing) and the ability to listen can make the difference in securing an interview or getting an eventual offer. As important as it is to be goal oriented, it is also crucial that candidates demonstrate positive energy and have a sense of humor. That’s a tall order, but students who have used their college time wisely will have practiced these skills in various venues and be able to move on confidently.

What can we say about senior students and graduates as a cohort? They are quick and creative thinkers, innovative, highly adaptable, technologically savvy, confident, not bound by norms, accomplished at teamwork, willing to take risks, and multi-talented. These skills and attributes can be highlighted on resumes and used during interviews.

But soon-to-be graduates must confront, and sometimes overcome, traits and tendencies that could impede their efforts to land a job or secure a seat in graduate school. While confidence is good, overconfidence is not. Many of today’s graduates have strong basic skills (analysis, writing, oral communication), but they can be impatient and distracted, have too many competing demands, and lack experience dealing with failure and setback.

Here are suggestions that advisors can share with students as graduation draws near:

  • Use college as a preparation for what is ahead. Just as high school, life, and work helped prepare students for college, so is college a preparation for the life to come. We should inspire advisees to do their best. Success – however it is defined – in college is a predictor for success in the workforce or grad school. It, however, is not a guarantee that all aspirations will be fulfilled; students should not expect that good grades will equate to graduate admission or a high paying job. All of college – the whole experience – is preparation for what is ahead. Advisors want students to enjoy college but students should realize that college also is a training period.
  • Start early. Students should have hardly arrived on campus when advisors begin talking about internships, relevant summer jobs, and work/study experiences. At the halfway point in their time with us, we should ask advisees if they know two people who could write a sterling (not lukewarm or so-so) recommendation letter for them. If the answer is “no” they must work harder to develop meaningful mentor relationships. Each student should identify someone who could serve as a mentor; such a relationship provides students with real-world advice and someone who can serve as a cheerleader. Remind students early and often that they must get to know individuals outside their family who can speak to their positive qualities.
  • Get experience. Internships are necessary in today’s job market. Most colleges do not secure internships for students, but students can find opportunities if they look in unexpected places. Be sure advisees understand that finding an internship is like finding a job – it takes time, grit, and follow-up -- which makes this good practice for the senior-year job hunt.
  • Polish their skills. Advise students to take advantage of mock interview opportunities, etiquette dinners, and gatherings with graduates in their field offered by Career Services or within their academic departments. Advise seniors to change their cell phone message so that it contains no music or goofy words; instead, voice mail messages should provide a crisp, clear communication of the student’s name and number and a promise to call back promptly. Social networking sites such as Facebook© should be cleaned up or taken down. Students should practice firm handshakes, good eye contact, and dressing professionally for interviews; female students should show no cleavage and college men should be in suits, wear a belt, and not wear white athletic socks. It is important that students solicit feedback on resumes and constantly refine those resumes. Recommend that students put together a work portfolio with evidence of mastered skills.
  • Own their post-graduate plans. This means students must be disciplined about the search process as they consider honestly what they have to offer and what skills still need work. Ask advisees to set aside their egos and be realistic about what an entry-level position means. They should consider multiple paths or a parallel plan for reaching goals. Remind students to be positive; an optimistic, can-do attitude might set them apart. The adaptability and flexibility we so admire in these students can work to their advantage as they prepare to leave the academy. One of the most important things students can do is make time each day to slow down and reflect on dreams and goals. They should consider the preparations they have made to reach these goals and fill in any gaps in that preparation. Our culture does not make it easy to reflect but advisors can encourage it as a regular practice.

Is it scary out there? You bet. While the economy is always a factor (be it good, bad, or ugly) for our graduates, students who see opportunities early will be prepared for whatever the future holds. The advice we provide can help students succeed.

Sarah May Clarkson
Juniata College
clarkss@juniata.edu

Acknowledgement: The author would like to acknowledge those who attended the sessions by the same name at the NACADA Region 2 conference (April 2009) and the Annual Conference (October 2009). Their comments and insights are found throughout this article.

References

Clegg, Amanda. (2009, May 17). Hire me, please. Altoona Mirror citing Mackes, M. (2009, May 6). College Class of 2009 Graduates With Fewer Jobs in Hand (press release).  Retrieved from www.naceweb.org/Press/Releases/College_Class_of_2009_Graduates_With_Fewer_Jobs_in_Hand_%285-6-09% 29.aspx

Cite this article using APA style as: Clarkson, S.M. (2010, September). The sacry senior scenario: Advising soon-to-be graduates in an uncertain world. Academic Advising Today, 33(3). Retrieved from [insert url here]

Posted in: 2010 June 33:2

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