Career Centers 101
According to a Gallup poll, college graduates who visit their college career centers are not only more likely to obtain full-time jobs than their peers who do not use this service — 67 percent versus 59 percent — but they’re also more likely to find their jobs more fulfilling. In fact, students who had good career-services experiences were also more likely to have good jobs waiting for them upon graduation. But despite these impressive statistics, only about half of students visit their college career centers during their undergraduate years. This guide explains the various types of career centers, highlight the numerous (and sometimes unexpected) features they can offer, and provides tips for making the most of the experience to advance your career.
Types of Career Centers
Several types of career services exist to help job seekers, whether they’re college students about to enter the job market, working adults looking to change fields, or displaced individuals looking to reboot their careers after job losses. Here’s a breakdown of the types of career centers available.
College Career Centers
Typically located on college campuses, these centers are specifically designed to assist students with honing their job search skills, identifying and working toward career goals, finding suitable careers or graduate school programs, getting referrals to employers, boosting networking skills.
Cost: Usually, these services are covered by the fees students pay as part of their tuition. Alumni generally can access these services at any point in their careers, at no additional cost.
Also known as One-Stop Centers, the nearly 2,500 American Job Centers are run by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration (ETA). They provide job training and apprenticeship programs; one-on-one career counseling and resume development; free access to computer and the internet; free access to job listings; and employment-related workshops, such as how to use Microsoft Excel.
Cost: These services are paid for by the government and are offered at no cost to any U.S. resident. In most states, anyone receiving employment benefits is required to visit an American Job Center location to seek help in finding work.
A private career center can help individuals identify careers well suited to their strengths and interests, as well as provide coaching on writing resumes or doing interviews. They can also offer valuable help with networking or employer referrals.
Cost: These customized services can come at a price, which may range from $75 to $500 an hour, and from $50 for a simple resume up to $2,000 or more for multi-service packages.
Because most career counselors possess graduate degrees in some sort of counseling specialty, these professionals bring a personal dimension to their services. They work one-on-one with clients, getting to know them in order to assess their aptitudes, identify career goals, and develop workable strategies to accomplish them. They may even provide coaching or counseling to help clients with ongoing career problems. These services may be offered in-person or remotely.
Career Center Services & Benefits
Most people know that a college career center can help with a resume and offers job listings for students. But that only scratches the surface of what these valuable campus offices can provide. Here are some of the services frequently offered:
College career counselors are trained to work with students in identifying majors and career paths. They know that not all majors lead in obvious ways to clearly defined careers, and they have access to valuable data showing where people with certain majors ended up in the workplace. Esther Gonzalez Freeman is a board-certified coach who owns My Balanced Plate, a career coaching and consulting firm, and is a former career center director. She points out that many students may know what school subjects interest them, but they may not know the wealth of majors that exist or how those align with careers.
“Working with students, I tended to get the same five or six majors. Because that’s usually what you know. But you may not know analytics, for example,” Freeman said. “Those are things career services can do — engaging students and showing the multitude of paths they can take, paths that lead straight from college to a job and that don’t necessarily require grad school.”
Career centers typically provide career or personality assessments that serve as a good gauge for which schools, subjects, careers, or workplaces are well suited for each student. “The testing that helps you identify your interests is invaluable, I think, and it’s pretty imperative that a freshman use it,” says Andy Swapp, director of Wind Energy Technology at Mesalands Community College who works as a career adviser for his students. “If you get to be a senior and find out your major really doesn’t suit your aptitudes, that’s a problem.”
According to a 2017 study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, although mock interviewing was one of the least-used services among students, it was considered the single most helpful.
Campus career centers often host workshops or bring in professional speakers to deal with specific, career-related topics, such as dressing for success in the workplace or how to use social media to advance your career. These workshops usually take place on a regular basis and may be either hands-on or in lecture format.
Workshops on networking can be extremely helpful, but college career centers also offer networking help in other ways. As a liaison between a college and the local business community, campus career centers often can make introductions between employers seeking help and students, which can be a huge help. In fact, 80 percent of jobs are filled through personal referrals.
College career centers can help pair students with alumni or faculty mentors who can provide advice and encouragement. Some career centers even offer peer mentors — older or more experienced students who can offer students advice on everything from what classes might benefit them to how to navigate the college experience.
Career counselors can work with potential graduate students to evaluate program options and offer advice about what programs or degrees might be most beneficial for a chosen career path. They can also help make connections for grad students. “For example,” says Freeman, “physician assistant school needs 1,000 client contact hours, but where are you going to get that? But a career services office is a great place to start because they can connect students with alumni who are now PAs and may know of opportunities in their workplaces.”
According to the NACE study, one of the most used services available in college career centers is its job listings, which are usually available in office and on the career center’s website. Many career centers have access to job openings that major job boards don’t, since employers may reach out personally to career advisers.
Career centers also help with job and internship placement by making referrals to employers, placing students in internships, and hosting campus job fairs. Students needing work-study jobs as part of their financial aid packages can also be placed in positions through the career center.
A career center’s work doesn’t stop when students are employed. They can also provide advice on moving up the career ladder, asking for raises or additional benefits, or obtaining additional training.
For many students, it’s helpful just to have advice from someone objective. “Just to hear from someone who doesn’t have a horse in the race — because we know parents want certain things to happen, and even professors may have a stake in what happens — can be very important in helping students to identify their own strengths and encourage them to pursue their passions,” Freeman says.
Career Centers and First-Generation College Students
Freeman, a first-generation college student herself, says first-generation students face a unique set of challenges when it comes to pursuing college degrees and careers, including lack of income, resources, knowledge, and support from family and friends. “They don’t have stories from Mom and Dad about when they were in school, so first-generation students need a lot of support,” says Freeman.
Because of these challenges, these students are less likely to finish college on time, if at all, according to research from the Postsecondary National Policy Institute. Internships can be tricky as well, she says, explaining that many of these students are low-income and may already be working 20 or 30 hours to support themselves.
Career services can help guide these students into majors or careers they may not be familiar with, then help formulate a plan to achieve those goals. They can provide assistance with certain tasks such as applications or other paperwork necessary to apply for these opportunities. And they can help students have those important conversations with family members in order to create a supportive environment.
How to Get the Most Out of Your College Career Center
Like most things, you only get out of a career center what you put into it. There are certain things students should keep in mind in order to obtain the greatest possible value from a career center. Here, our experts share their advice for maximizing the experience.
Founder & Career Coach, My Balanced Plate
Esther Gonzalez Freeman is a board-certified career, leadership and business coach. During her 16-plus years in higher education, Gonzalez has drawn on her experience as a first-generation college graduate and her expertise in higher education to develop and lead programs focused on leadership and career development. She is passionate about motivating, empowering and guiding others to create fulfilling, purposeful and balanced lives. Gonzalez earned B.A. in political science from The College of New Jersey and an M.S. in leadership & business ethics from Duquesne University. She is the founder of My Balanced Plate, a career coaching and consulting firm.>
Career Adviser and Student Mentor
Andy Swapp is director of Wind Energy Technology at Mesalands Community College in Tucumcari, New Mexico. A former staff sergeant in the U.S. Army, Swapp embarked on a career in education following his retirement from the military. He has 18 years’ experience as an educator, both at the high school and college levels, and his areas of expertise include career and technical education, public speaking, renewable energy introduction and veteran advocacy. At Mesalands, Swapp provides career advisement and mentorship to students.>
What do you think is the most valuable service available at a career center?
Freeman: Setting up those social media accounts would be a good thing for students, to make sure their ducks are in a row. LinkedIn is huge right now, but college students underutilize it. They don’t realize they can do informational interviews and connect with folks doing that on LinkedIn, look at those people’s career trajectory and mimic them. So anything LinkedIn-related is always helpful. A career center can teach you how to set up your profile and use it professionally.
Swapp: I think one of most valuable things is learning how to do a very clean, legible resume and cover letter. The cover letter basically gets your resume read, and the resume gets you the interview. There are so many templates out there for resumes, but if you just have a nice, simple, clean, easy-to-read resume and cover letter focused toward the company you want to work for, that’s one of the most valuable things you can do.
When and how often should students visit their campus career centers?
Freeman: The benefit is really in being able to hop on opportunities early. In our parents’ generations, you went to career services in senior year, you got an entry-level job out of college, you worked there for a few years and then you moved on. But now that entry-level job asks that prospective employees have three or four years’ experience, so students really need to be doing this in freshman year. But if you can connect to the career development office, you get that opportunity early; just being in the space, going to workshops and employer visits and career fairs … all that benefits students who take advantage because they end up with resumes full of experience, and now they’re competitive in the workplace. Students who don’t go until senior year missed out on three years of opportunities.
Go as soon and frequently as possible; that’s where students get value. From a student perspective, because this is covered by your student fees, this is basically free money you’re getting, so take advantage. Very few things in life are like this, and even post-graduation, a lot of these offices will serve alumni. They can help connect you to a job network, or a LinkedIn group. They’re not just helping students in college; they help throughout your career.
Will my career center place me in a job?
Freeman: It’s not career placement. A lot of families think that when they come to a career counselor, we’ll place them in jobs. But at college career services, we teach students how to fish. We help people find internships and work and get ready for the workforce.
Are there things students should or shouldn’t do to get the greatest possible value from career centers?
Swapp: Just use it. It’s so hard to get some students to even approach it! They say, “Oh, I’ve got it, I’m fine.” But I’ve seen students just do their own resumes, and the students go months without landing jobs. I always recommend they use our resume specialists, and when they do, it’s amazing what a difference it makes in landing job interviews.
Also, remember that having you use career services and get a good job really helps the college. If their alumni are successful, nothing else helps the college quite like that, so the college really wants you to be successful.
Career Center Spotlight
Most colleges and universities offer some sort of career development assistance to students, but the following career centers offer an impressive array of offerings.
In recent years, Clarion University Center for Career and Professional Development has made a shift from using traditional methods of delivering career services to one of actively and creatively developing partnerships and engagement involving students, the university, employers, and alumni. This has made career development a critical component of the students’ entire experience at Clarion. Here is some of what Clarion offers:
- New-student orientation, in which career staff members introduce the skills employers expect of new college graduates and help students develop them
- Support from career specialists, who serve as liaisons to students pursuing majors in specific career clusters and help them become familiar with employers in those fields
- Help developing four-year professional development plans in all academic disciplines, so that students go into their educational programs with professional milestones in mind
- Programs, workshops, and events
- Formal and informal alumni mentoring programs
DVU focuses on providing relevant, real-world experience that prepares students for their careers. All undergraduates must complete the Experience360 Program in order to graduate. Experiential learning activities, which include a menu of options ranging from leadership development to study abroad, are included on students’ transcripts along with their grades when they graduate. As part of the program, students:
- Create action plans for their professional development
- Set goals for learning
- Reflect on a variety of outside-the-classroom activities to prepare for their careers
The Center for Student Professional Development offers services including:
- Career assessment and counseling
- Resume and interview preparation
- Job search strategies
- Major and career information resources
- Graduate school preparation
- Recruiting events
- ExperienceLink, an online career management program that enables students to upload resumes, create profiles, research employers, and apply for jobs.
The Elon University Student Professional Development Center ranked eighth in the nation among career services programs by the Princeton Review. Its comprehensive services include:
- Help with identify the right majors and minors
- Customized searches for internships and jobs
- Resume, cover letter, and online presence help, to help students market themselves in the most effective way possible
- Practice in-person, telephone, and virtual interviews
- Assistance with graduate school selection, applications, and interviews
Its online tools for students include:
- Career videos
- The ability to order student business cards
- Cost of living calculators and budgeting help
- An online job network site
- An app for finding jobs and internships as well as navigating career fairs
- Information about leadership development programs
The following resources provide useful information about job searches, career counseling or career service centers that may be helpful for students or job seekers.
LinkedIn Higher Education
LinkedIn Higher Education is designed to help students at any stage in their education transition into the workforce. The site includes job searching skills for students, interviewing tips, job postings, and LinkedIn’s social media networking platform.
“Survey: Career Services of Greater Benefit to Minority Students”
This article by Jamaal Abdul-Alim, published by Diverse Issues in Higher Education, provides insights about the career development challenges diverse populations of students face in their career searches and what particular career services seem to be most valued by minority students.
A Strategic Advantage
Founded by Marie Zimenoff, this firm provides career coaching, training, and curricula for leaders, companies, and career services professionals. The website features The Career Confidante, Zimenoff’s series of recorded career development talks, as well as career management and job search resources like resume samples.
Job Hunters Bible: The Official Site of Dick Bolles, author of What Color is Your Parachute?
Ten million copies of What Color is Your Parachute: A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters & Career Changers, by Dick Bolles, have been sold since the book was first published in 1970 and has been revised every year since 1975. Considered the job hunters’ bible, the book’s online companion site features job lists and resources, articles by Bolles, and more. It also and includes the eParachute self-inventory, which allows users to discover their strengths, create personalized career ideas, and explore career options.
“What to Expect from Your Campus Career Center”
This article by Peter Vogt on Monster.com describes what students can expect from their experiences visiting college career centers, as well as clears up misconceptions about them.