Academic and Career Planning: Five Steps for Success

Academic and Career Planning: Five Steps for Success

In a recent Facebook Live with Loren Kelly, we discussed best tips for successfully managing academic and career planning. 

Loren is an experienced college instructor and a career coach for students and young professionals. She spent 10 years in higher education, at both the community college and university level.

Loren kept noticing the same theme when she had conversations with her students. They were investing loads of time and money, and many were still feeling uncertain about their path.

Students were stressed about choosing a major and what their career might be. They had a lot of anxiety. Were they making the right decision? Were they taking the right courses? Loren knew she had the tools to help them. So she now coaches and empowers students and young adults to pursue their futures with confidence and with clarity.

The Number One Fear of High School Students

The number one fear of students is choosing the wrong path or major. They invest a lot of time and money on college, launch into a career and then two years later they are miserable. Whether they’re expressing it or not, there’s probably some kind of anxiety.

College is expensive and it’s only getting more and more expensive. An estimated 75% of students begin college as undecided or change their major at least once. Each time a student changes their major it’s likely to add another semester of school that parents pay for. Only 36% of students finish their bachelor’s degree within four years, which is an alarming statistic.


The Importance of Career Planning Before Choosing a College

By putting the focus on career planning, we can shift the risk management.

For too many years, professionals and families thought about career planning in a chronologically process. Students would select a college and prepare for college. Then once their college was chosen, they would choose a major. Students would worry about career planning later, after they graduated and received their diploma.

What we really want to do is flip this and reverse the process.

First, students should get really clear about their career field and then start identifying programs or majors in that field. Based on those programs and their majors, students can find the colleges that offer those majors.

It may be counterintuitive to what you’ve heard in the past, but we want to start with career first. That way students are choosing the best program and then the best college for that program.

Secrets to Successful Career Planning

The first secret is related to mindset. Maybe you’ve heard from your student that they don’t need to think about career planning yet or that they have plenty of time. Or maybe your student is really anxious around this decision making. Start by identifying your student’s mindset. Where are they at on that spectrum from really nervous to, I have loads of time to decide?

The second secret can be a challenge. But as a parent, try to avoid providing too much of your own advice and opinion early on. Every time Loren meets with a student, the first question she asks is, “What are you thinking at this point and how did you arrive at that decision?” And about 80 to 90% of the time students say that their mom told them they would be good at it, or their uncle said they could make a lot of money. There’s a lot of perspective that is given to the student with good intention, but it really stifles their creativity and their own empowerment to make that decision with confidence and clarity. So when they’re getting a lot of the outside advice about going to university, they begin to take that on and feel that pressure to make that decision rather than coming to it on their own and feeling excited and taking ownership of it.

The third secret is to trust the process. Give it time. Every student is going to move through this at a different pace. Some of that is maturity level and some of that is different experiences that they’ve had. The other side of this is focusing long term. So just the other day on Facebook, Loren saw a meme that said, “If you really want your child to be successful career wise, take a look at who’s still working right now during COVID.” And while there’s a little bit of truth to that, we also can’t make these long term decisions based on what’s happening right here and now. This is a 40 year career for your child. We can’t base that decision on what happened when they were a junior in high school. So just keep in mind, this is for the long term fulfillment. By really approaching this and working through it with your student, you’re teaching them lifelong career planning skills. So when that promotion comes up when they are 35 and they are on the fence about taking it, they can fall back on some of these same steps that you went through with them as a younger child to help them confidently make those decisions.

Finally, Loren’s last secret to success is evaluated experiences. We learn best and we get our confidence in our clarity through evaluated experiences. Every time you have the opportunity to talk through something with your child, what they liked about it, what was shocking, that is what is going to give them the confidence they need to make those decisions, not only for career but in life.

Loren offers advice to parents of students who have to be pushed to explore different careers. There are a lot of great ways to sneak career exploration and planning in without a student even really realizing it. One of Loren’s favorite ones is while you’re on vacation in the summer. When you are in a different city or state, choose a factory tour anywhere or any kind of organizational tour that you can get on. Your student can just watch all the different roles that are needed to make that place tick. So, for instance, Loren and her husband recently toured a sea salt factory. Sounds kind of odd, but it was phenomenal. The amount of scientists that they employed just to get the temperatures right for the evaporation of the water. Another idea is showing your student how many people are on the marketing team to make that Harley Davidson motorcycle drive off the lot. There are ways for you to sneak that in and build in some critical thinking without the student really even realizing it. You are still exposing them to it without having to really try hard or create resentment or tug of war between the two of you.

For some students going to college and taking a class like an introduction to business course or introduction to engineering can really help provide some clarity in that area. But the industry or the real world in these career fields are so much different than what we experienced in a classroom. Even students say that they’re lacking that firsthand, real world experience.  This is really different than what is experienced in the classroom. So, for some they’ll just focus on general education classes and not really take the opportunity to go in and explore and some students will go in undeclared and kind and test that first year and find that niche. But students that have some tangible firsthand experience, have confidence and clarity more so than the student that is relying more on just the educational experiences.

When looking at a job for long term fulfillment, your student should be asking, “What are the work values that align with what they want?” Loren recently had a conversation with a student who had a long term physical therapy goal on mind, but a lot of times students aren’t even exposed to some really great technical jobs. So for example, a physical therapist assistant is a two year degree, with an average cost of $45,000 a year. That’s a nationwide average so of course it’s going to vary depending on where you live. But it is way less commitment upfront financially and timewise. You are still making a good wage depending on, again, where you’re living and what that looks like. So that is why Loren stressed at the beginning, that students should first get clear on a career field and then we can dig a little deeper. That financial lens, is one that Loren looks through with students toward the end. So once they’ve got it down to two or three careers, then they start to look at that financial piece because, long term fulfillment, as we all know, doesn’t always come from money.

Step One: Raising Self-Awareness

The first step in the process is raising self-awareness. As adults, we are all still raising this level of self-awareness, but it’s really important for young students. For those high school sophomores and juniors, this is going to be a step that you spend a little bit more time on. Usually the younger the child, the more important the step is because they don’t have a lot of those experiences yet to evaluate. So you’re just using as many open ended questions that your child will allow you to ask. It’s just humble, unbiased inquiry, letting them work through what that experience was like. So maybe they’ve gone on a field trip recently and they toured a company or they had a guest speaker at school. Just help them dig through that. What aspects of that person’s perspective seemed interesting? What didn’t seem appealing at all? Just let them verbalize that, because a lot of times what happens is students hear it, but they don’t actually think critically about it. It just kind of comes in and goes out. But ask them those questions and help them cultivate that environment of curiosity, while getting them to ask some more questions and think critically about it.

One way to help students raise self-awareness is through everyday conversations and questions. Loren believes it’s one of the best ways to do that. Whether it’s with their parent, their high school counselor, or a teacher they really know and trust, it really takes a village in this process. Those everyday conversations are really powerful.

One of Loren’s favorites is the strengths exercise that Loren uses in her college career planning class. She asks students to talk to three people that they interact with differently. They can’t be parents or close family members. It could be a teacher, work supervisor or a community member. They will be getting other people’s perspectives on what their strengths are. This builds so much self-awareness because we’re not asking students to propose the weakness but instead we’re asking them to get feedback on their strengths.

Often times what students view as their own weakness, someone else has identified as a strength. That’s a really powerful exercise you can use for self-awareness. Another one that Loren likes is just a good old fashioned personality assessment. She lists this one last because while she love them, they can also stifle that creativity and curiosity just a little bit. So Loren always uses this one last because she want the student to come to their own conclusions first, before they get that assessment.

Personality assessments work really well if you’ll do them as a family. The 16 Personalities assessment is free. Maybe someone in your family is the campaigner. She’s the really outgoing popular one and someone else is the inventor. So he’s very analytical. An assessment can call those traits out and it makes it fun for the family. And the more you build it into conversation on a daily ir weekly basis, the more it raises that self-awareness. If you take one of these assessments and you look at the results and then toss it to the side, it really doesn’t do much good. The real power comes from continuing to integrate it into the conversations.

If a student is attracted to a certain type of career but the parent doesn’t believe that the student has the academic strengths to be able to handle that career, the best thing for the parent to do is to get the student in front of a professional that’s in that field. So for example, in a medical field, find someone you know who is a doctor, nurse, physical therapist or someone in that realm, and just get that student to ask that person questions. What do I need to have to be competitive to enter into it? What do I need to have to be hired? And let them get those cold hard facts from someone that is living it. That takes the pressure off of you as a parent, but also allows that student to come to that conclusion.

Again that is where this unbiased inquiry kind of comes in. After that student has that conversation, ask them questions like “How did that go? What did you learn? Do you have any reservations now?” And it can be really easy to tack on a guided question. “The person you spoke with talked about having strong science grades, and that’s an area where you’re not as strong. What do you feel about that?” That could create resentment and the student may shut down. It’s tough but try really hard for that unbiased inquiry. The best way to do it is just to get them in front of someone in that field.

Right now is a great time to connect with people virtually. It’s easy to get them on the phone or on a zoom. A lot of businesses in some industries have slowed way down. Most people are available or can be available. Social calendars are wide open so it is a great time actually to be engaging in this.

Step 2: Career Investigation

The second step involves career investigation. This is broad low-commitment exploration. We would never want a student to jump straight into an internship or part time employment when they are still trying to figure it out. So this second step is really about the careers your child is already interested about or curious about. It’s about finding alignment between interests and careers and trying to expose him or her to what they’re not aware of.

It’s amazing how 17 and 18 year olds first think of doctors, lawyers, teachers, and very traditional common careers. They’re not even exposed to jobs like a cloud network engineer or some other really great lucrative careers that they just don’t even know exist. So for this career investigation, again, we’re thinking broad, low-commitment in terms of time and energy for you. There are still ways to do informational interviews during the quarantine. You can do it over the phone or via zoom. It should only take 15 to 20 minutes and they will get really good information. One of the best parts about an informational interview is it can take things off of the table. So if your student is curious right now about five different areas, if they did one informational interview in each of those five areas, he or she could probably take two or three of them off the list just from that conversation. They’re going to get perspective that they haven’t thought of before.

Another great idea is doing company tours. Students would be shocked at what it takes to operate a facility. You can tour a chocolate factory. There are going to be mechanics working on that machinery, and students did not even know that career field existed. There’s going to be someone in there, fine tuning a recipe, breaking down chemical structures. It’s a great learning experience but it also exposes them to things they might not have thought of.

For those younger students, some other ideas are summer camps and programs. They might not be open this year, but when they do open they are wonderful. You can do a quick Google search of the universities in your city. Many of them have programs that offer day camps for students as young as fourth grade. Loren’s family is based out of Wichita, Kansas. Wichita State University has a wonderful engineering college and they offer camps all the way down until elementary school. They start out as three day camps and then by the time you have a high schooler, there are week long camps. The students get to be on campus, so you’re combining that college and career piece in one. It’s really good to dive in and get that firsthand experience that they can evaluate to feel more comfortable and confident. So, once a student goes on that tour or has that informational interview, don’t let it just die. Really try to debrief that with them because that’s really where the power, self-awareness, competence and clarity will come from.

Step 3: Career Exploration

Once a student has started to narrow it down to their top two or three for this step, they can now focus on higher commitment experiences. Steps one and two can be done well during this time of isolation. When you’re at home, you can do some of those informational interviews. Step three, is more of a longer term plan. When life returns to normal, students can start to map out their future. This step includes industry tours, really good job shadows, or a structured job with someone who’s really enthusiastic about what they do and good at communicating with students. Industry camps and workshops are also really great. A volunteer experience can provide a wealth of knowledge to a student as can part-time employment. Loren’s older brother who thought he wanted to be a pharmacist, started working as a technician at a Walmart pharmacy at age 17. He got his technician license and was making a decent hourly wage for a high school junior. He never wanted to change his major and he’s now the manager for a Walmart pharmacy in Iowa. He has been happily employed for several years. So during the younger years, part time employment and internship experience can be extremely valuable in getting that clarity.

Another suggestion is to choose at some of the bigger, most admired brands and look at the job postings online in different areas of the company. It will give students an idea of the different types of jobs in the company. Larger companies like Nike and Disney post videos of their employees on YouTube. Loren suggested one of her students watch the YouTube channel of a fashion design company in Los Angeles and they had some really good information. Disney’s animators are on YouTube, too. That is amazing.

Colleges and university camps that are offered face to face are moving online. It’s so empowering for a student to be surrounded by other students with similar interests. Many times students don’t know others that are interested in the same area of study, so attending camps and conferences online or in person offers the opportunity to connect with students who have the same interests. College and university camps can be expensive but there are also a number of camps that will offer scholarships to students if they’ll apply early. Maybe you’ll get a discounted rate, so look at that option. If there is something that your teen is really interested in, there are often scholarships offered by that university to get the student there. They’re exposing the college in hopes that the student will likely attend there.

Another suggestion is to find people on LinkedIn and look at their majors and job experience. LinkedIn can be a really good tool for just researching and getting an idea of the names of the jobs that people have and what experience they had that have to lead them to it.

If your student is interested in a history major or a liberal arts major, they might want to think about combining it with something else. Maybe combine with something that is more practical like business or public health or a degree that is a little broader. For example, communications is a good one, where it’s a little bit broader. And a student should try to combine that with really good internship experience while they’re in college. The National Association of Colleges and Employers does a big survey every year and the data is showing time and time again that employers are wanting work experience. Gone are the days of the bachelor degree getting you the job. Employers want a degree plus work experience. So once they’ve got the career choice or the career field in mind, then look at the training and education requirements.

Step 4: Academic Planning

The next step in the process is academic planning. Let’s use a radiology technician for example. You can get a four year degree in that or you can get into your certificate. Both are likely to have the same wage at the end. Loren has a friend in Kansas City, Missouri that is a radiology technician. There is a four year university that offers a degree but also to your technical college. The two year technical college actually has a better reputation among employers. So this is where it’s really important to do your homework regarding the program itself rather than just assuming that the four year university is going to have the better reputation.

The best way to kind of gather this information is during college visits. When you’re going on college visits, schedule in advance and ask to meet with someone in the department, not just an advisor. Academic advisors know the degree plan inside and out, but they don’t always know about employment. Try to meet with that department chair or an instructor and ask about the graduation and employment rates of students in the program. Ask them what supports are in place to help with internship placements and jobs. Do they offer interviews on campus? Who recruits from that program? What employers are coming to talk to the students and kind of seeking them out? Then ask to speak with a current student. You’ll get a lot of great insight about what it’s like in that program and what the instructors are like by talking to a student because they’re not going to be trained to sell that university or that program.

In our current world, if you cannot visit, you can call the admissions office and tell them you are interested in a particular major and ask if you can I talk to somebody there. Ask to talk to the head of the department and then you can have these conversations. Even if you are not able to visit in person you can still have these conversations over the phone or in zoom or even by starting with an email.

Loren was coaching a student who was a sophomore and had to declare a major by December. She was really stressed out about it. They determined that she was really interested in social media marketing, digital content, the creative aspect of marketing. There were two degree routes at her college. She could go to the college of business and do marketing or she could go for a liberal arts program with an emphasis in marketing communications. They looked at the job she’d be interested in and what was required. They looked at the classes and she did two informational interviews for people in that field. It was very clear at the end that the liberal arts route with what was going to set her up for success. But with that, Loren had the student start applying hard for internships that would give her more of that specialized experience too. Because at the end of the day, a minor or a specialization is really just a few classes. It doesn’t allow the student to dig as deep.

For students with learning differences, every college campus will have an office that helps with this and usually within that office there is someone specifically assigned to workforce and career advising. So if you’re calling a college that is a great resource for you. Workforce development offices in your city or county can be a great resource for students as well. And the limitations are few in terms of employers. If a student is well trained and passionate about doing it, an ADA issue for example is not going to set them back in that career path. If it is something that they really want to do, those in higher education are committed to opening up that pathway to get that student the training that they need to be successful.

Step 5: Advanced Career Planning & Industry Experience

The next step includes long term planning for continued career development. A lot of students think, “Great, I’m going to college. I’ve got this major. That is career planning.” But what we really want them to do after they’re there is build out a long term plan for continued career development. At a minimum there are four areas that Loren likes to look for with college students once they’re in college.

One is a professional industry organization. What are they a member of now? Loren was an education major in college. She joined the National Education Association because she wanted to receive the literature. Often times you will get a monthly or weekly magazine. It helps keep you up to date and prepared for interviews. And she was able to attend conferences that way which is a great for networking opportunities and is awesome for a resume.

Related work experience is important, too. Multiple internships in different areas give students really great perspective. Internships are a great way to network. And students should get on LinkedIn.

Almost every city has LinkedIn local, and list LinkedIn local events. Professionals love it when a student will take the initiative while they’re in college to go to some of those events. Students can find young professional networking events all over Eventbrite.

This isn’t an option right now, but as soon as the quarantine is lifted, get your student out there and encourage them to go to networking events. If they are uncomfortable going alone, they can take a friend. It is totally fine to do the buddy system thing. Networking can be intimidating, but just going there and getting comfortable, having those conversations is really key.

Loren’s other big tip is to find supplemental education experiences. Students can take a little course here and a get an industry certification. What do you need to do to make yourself most marketable when you graduate? In the coming years as we’re coming out of this situation, this is going to leave a huge economic imprint on us. It is going to take us a while to recover. So having these things on your resume is going to be helpful in the competitive job market. Get your student thinking in advance. What can they do in the next couple of years to really set themselves apart? Employers spend 10 seconds or less scanning resumes. That’s how long you have to make an impression with a resume. So having some of these really critical pieces on there as an entry level candidate is important.

Demonstrate Soft Skills with Tangible Examples

The number one mistake Loren sees from people is saying on a resume or a job application, that they have excellent skills, or are a great leader. Anyone can write that. Employers want to know how you demonstrated it. For example, you were a leader by being the treasurer of a student organization. You were a leader by managing your sorority’s social media campaign or running their fundraising events. You were a great communicator by delivering the address at your high school graduation. You’ve got to be able to give tangible examples of how you’ve demonstrated those skills. So if your student can’t do that yet, they need to be thinking of ways to build that in.

For students who will be job hunting in the next few months, more than ever, a tailored resume and cover letter is going to be really, really important. If your student has a generic resume that they’re just looking to apply on LinkedIn or Handshake (a software platform for colleges where employers post job openings), it’s not going to get them very far. They need to ask themselves a few key questions and really use that job description to tailor that resume every time they’re sending it out.

There’s no better way to demonstrate written communication skills than by writing a killer cover letter. Take the opportunity to write one anyway, even if it’s not required. If you’re not doing it, you’re, you’re missing a really big opportunity to make yourself stand out. So every single time you apply for a job, you should be building in keywords from that position description into the resume and cover letter. Because for larger organizations, sometimes your resumes not even seen by a human being. It’s a software that’s filtering them. They’re looking for keywords. And if you don’t have enough of those, your resume’s out the door before it even enters in front of human eyes.

Use all of your resources in terms of networking and in the unpublished job market. Look at virtual opportunities but be really careful. There are a few websites out there that want you to pay money to build a profile and then claim to leave you with internship opportunities. If you have to pay money, just be aware that there are some people out there that are making money on this situation.

An interview tip that many students miss out on is preparing interview stories in advance. If you have a student that’s getting ready to go to a job interview, the number one mistake they make is answering all questions really broadly and vaguely. Use the opportunity to build in a story. Again, how did you demonstrate the skill? Give me an example. Something that employers can really relate to because again, anyone can say they have excellent customer service skills. But if you back that with a time where you really relate it to excellent customer service and gave specific examples, you’re going to knock it out the park and really stand out. Loren suggests that if they have one story, a student could use it on multiple different questions to use that illustration. So Loren usually suggests that students have five stories of when they really stood out and were at their best. They are usually able to shift those to answer some different questions that come their way.

Loren’s final tip for job hunting during the COVID recession is don’t take it personally. Rejections are going to happen simply because there are going to be gray collar people out there. Gray color is someone who’s overqualified applying for lower level positions simply because we’re in a really, really tough job market. So your student may have had a killer standout and there was just someone with 10 years of experience and the company was getting a steal. It shouldn’t be a reflection on their experience. Try to keep their spirits up and tell them that sometimes that’s just part of the situation that we’re in.

Whether your student is in school or doing internships, people will always be open when they say, “I’m a student” or “I’m an intern at the company” and “I just want to find out…” If your student is an intern at a company they should try reach out to somebody higher up and say, “I’m here on an internship and I’d love to learn this.” People rarely turn down a request from an intern or a student who’s just exploring. It’s a great position to be in and students should leverage it as much as possible.

Finding Opportunities During a Quarantine

A lot of internships are getting canceled. Things are changing so rapidly, so just be flexible, be adaptable, and keep looking. If we aren’t able to remove the lockdown orders in a few weeks, even a summer volunteer position is going to be so valuable on a resume. Students want to have a dollar sign attached to their time but if they option is between no experience this summer or gaining some really valuable volunteer experience, go for the volunteer experience every time. Look at some of those virtual internships. Make sure it has good structure. A bad internship can set your student back in this process. So, make sure as they’re going through the process and that they’re asking good questions. What’s the onboarding process look like? Am I paired with a mentor? What are the outcomes? What am I going to be expected of me? What does success look like in this internship? Because what you don’t want is an unstructured internship where your student is in the other room at your house feeling totally lost and scared, but they’re not meeting expectations and then all of a sudden the idea of graduating and going off into the workforce is terrifying. So, help your student formulate really good questions when they’re going to go into any kind of an interview for a virtual internship. Internships are supposed to be really rich learning experiences for a student. And if they’re not structured well, especially in the virtual environment, things can get hard for students.

Look for potential virtual internships in bigger cities. They often have startup communities and those types of companies are always, year-round looking for college students, even high school students to help out with various aspects of their startup because they’re lean and stretched thin and they’re always looking for extra help. Sometimes in startup communities, there are associations in their city that you can contact and then they can put out the word to all the startup companies in the area.

Nonprofits traditionally also offer really good internships because they’re used to working with volunteers a lot. Your student could be in a paid internship, but they’re used to structuring things well. So they have systems in place and interns typically will have a really great experience there because they understand how to kind of make that a good learning experience.

These tips should help your students gain some confidence and clarity, become more focused, and cut down on the time that they’re in university or college. And it gets us to that end goal of employment. One thing that they are really working on in the postsecondary realm is shifting the idea of success being graduation and the degree to success being employment. Where Loren teaches in the state of California, there are metrics in the college system that are now tied to employment. So it’s not enough for the student just to complete the associate’s degree or certificate. Instructors are measured by the student’s wage increase and their employability afterwards. Loren wants that to be the focus for everyone including parents and students. It’s not about just getting the degree, it’s about that long term fulfillment and employment.

Final Thoughts for Parents

So approaching this process from the backward route, students should get really clear on the career and get those evaluated experiences in place. Wouldn’t it be refreshing to have your student really excited about their plans? And when someone asks them what they plan to do for them to share about it with excitement and smile on their face? Taking ownership in the future, getting excited about internship, work experience, opportunities, attending a networking event. This is always the tough one for students because it’s really scary. But getting them to go and do that, being focused on their goal and how they’re going to get there. And accepting that first position out of college. What an awesome celebration. So that is our goal, teaching our students these skills so they can continue to use them throughout their career.


Links and Resources


Free College and Career Planning Guide: 

Blog Article Links (include as many or as few of these as you would like):

Things to do During Quarantine to Get Ahead: 

Best Books for Personal Growth: 

How to Write a Resume with No Work Experience: 

How to Find Paid Internships: 

Free Planning Guide to Planning Informational Interviews

Virtual Opportunities search “Summer Virtual Internship” or “Remote Internship”

Personality Assessments: 

Social Media:
Instagram: @lorenkellycoaching

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