Career Planning

A 4-part plan for second year success

By Jo Calhoun

For most college students, the first year is a total rush. New place, new space, new friends, new freedom. It goes by in a flash — one long strobe light effect.

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After the adrenaline of year one, there are very few welcome-back parties for sophomores. Roommates are new. Neighbors have changed. Three more years stretch out ahead; it’s time to get serious.

Some students enter college single-minded about their professional goals and fall lock-step into required course sequences and major expectations. Most students start college with, at best, a vague notion of the kinds of courses they like. They know where they’ve excelled in the past and where they have failed. What they love most (playing in a band, hiking, skiing, doing community service, reading) may or may not translate into an academic course of study, let alone a career path. Even if students have found courses that excite them, they may see no correlation to a future direction. Think about how little life experience you had when you were 19 years old.

This uncertainty is compounded by the expectations of others. Parents get restless about how the tuition dollars are getting spent. Colleges and universities set deadlines by which students must declare a major course of study. Legislators lament about 4-year graduation rates. Student loans loom large.

Sophomore year can be a time of angst for students. Parents and families may “pile on” by pressuring their students to make decisions about majors and careers now. This can result in students feeling paralyzed — better to make no decision than to make the wrong decision. Inertia becomes a strategy for pushing back on pressure, and “sophomore slump” results.

There is another path — the “slump” is avoidable! Parents and families can become effective coaches by encouraging their students to actively embrace a year of exploration and self-examination. For students to have a strong sophomore year, they need to develop an emotional focus and do the hard work of translating their passion into a profession. Here’s how you help:

Remind your students that choosing a major doesn’t mean closing off options.

When you are a teenager without significant life experience, you don’t always understand that most choices are reversible. Students may postpone declaring a major or a career direction, fearing that it’s a permanent choice that can never be undone. Of course students can change majors. Of course students’ (and adults’) career direction will change multiple times. Right now, your students are making a first choice, not the only choice ever. Change isn’t just possible; it’s probable.

Encourage your students to tolerate uncertainty.

First, because this is a great life skill, but also so that they can see their sophomore year as a creative process, and a time for growth and reflection. Everything is not clear. The “right” path is not obvious. This is because there is so rarely (if ever) only one right path.

Challenge your students to see this as a year of creating scaffolding for their ongoing life choices.

The point is not to wait passively for a bolt of magical insight, but to take intermediate, manageable steps that will inform their direction later. Here is a checklist of tangible steps your students can take to stay out of a swamp of inertia:

  • Find a mentor. There are many possibilities: a first-year seminar instructor, a professional academic advisor, a favorite faculty member, the advisor of a student organization, a kind financial aid worker, a mental health counselor, a work-study supervisor. These people work in higher education because they love students. They are flattered to be asked for advice.
  • Declare a major. Seems like a big hurdle, but it doesn’t need to be. The old saw “You are not your major” is absolutely true. Most majors open doors to many potential careers. Students should choose a major with only two criteria in mind — first, a content area that they love to study, and second, a content area in which they can excel academically.
  • See a career advisor. Remember the advice you’re giving about not closing off options too soon? Career counselors are experts at helping students identify and then combine their passions into real, marketable professions.
  • Find a study abroad program. Studying abroad is a transformative experience — nothing helps students clarify their values more. Whether your student selects a summer program, a service-learning experience or a full year of language immersion, now is the time to identify places and programs and to begin the financial planning to make it happen.
  • Apply for internships. Career advisors (see #3 above) are students’ best source of internship information; professors and mentors can also provide leads. Internships make students more marketable following graduation, but even more importantly, they help students have hands-on experience to discover work-related skills and preferences. Even a disappointing internship is valuable — that’s one career field eliminated!
  • Get leadership experience. Students’ most valuable learning outside the classroom takes place in residence halls, athletics, student government, clubs and organizations, volunteer activities, outdoor recreation programs, community involvement, event planning, work-study positions and other part-time employment. Encourage your students to walk through open doors. Apply to be an RA. Apply to be a campus tour guide. Audition for a music or theater group. Campus resources abound. They are there for your student.

Try a “clarity” exercise together.

Have some fun with this! You both have to respond to these “5 Things” topics — during a coffee talk, on a road trip, around the dinner table: 5 things I’d love to learn; 5 places I’d love to visit; 5 jobs that sound intriguing to me; 5 summer “dream jobs”; 5 people I could talk to about their career paths. These topics may lead to others. The point is to keep talking, to keep clarifying, to keep eliminating and expanding possibilities.

Sophomore slump is optional, not inevitable. Help your student plan to make the coming year one of good inner work and outer exploration. That builds strong scaffolding for the future. The sign of a sound decision is the emotion of relief. Most students find their choices liberating, not paralyzing. Help them enjoy the ride!

Did you enjoy reading this article? Sign up for UniversityParent’s weekly eNewsletter and purchase the Guide to Supporting Your Student’s Freshman Year for additional tips, insight, and to help your college student succeed. You may also add to the discussion and get feedback from fellow college parents by joining our Community Forum and College Parents’ Facebook group.

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