By Jo Calhoun
If the second year in college centers on reflection and decision-making, the third year is one of purpose and preparation.
Students have had two years of discovery and growth and many opportunities to sample ideas and academic disciplines. They know their campus and its resources and have formed deep friendships. They are juniors.
Now the second half of their college career begins. It’s time to dig in, study hard, and prepare in earnest for independent life after college. The first two years of college are about breadth of exploration; this year is about depth of exploration in several areas:
By the beginning of their third year, most students have completed their General Education requirements and declared a major (or two) and possibly a minor or secondary concentration. The major is the depth portion of the curriculum, and it really matters — students are committing to rigorous study which will make a difference in their life choices following graduation.
A major usually requires the completion of 8-12 courses of increasing rigor and complexity. Courses are more specialized, covering narrower topics in more detail. More content will stay with them. They no longer study just to prepare for a test but rather dive into an academic discipline that will hone their critical and analytical thinking skills, their writing and research skills, their quantitative ability and more.
This is a perfect time for students to cultivate relationships with professors. Major courses are typically much smaller than earlier survey courses and often discussion-based. Papers and projects receive closer examination by faculty members. Feedback is more detailed; standards are higher.
Encourage your student to inquire about research opportunities with faculty members. Faculty members continually engage in their own research (not just in the sciences, but in all disciplines). They may be supported by graduate students, but most faculty members also welcome undergraduates to their research teams. Many institutions provide financial support to students for the completion of independent research under the direction of a faculty member. What a useful and interesting way to spend a summer, and what a great resume builder.
Relationships with faculty members are also important for students’ post-graduation plans. First, students should get to know one or two professors well enough to seek professional references from them. Second, professors are the most important source of guidance as students consider graduate study options. Having a faculty mentor is priceless.
Much has been written about the relationship between the choice of a college major and future earnings. One way for students to navigate these murky waters is to look for marketable combinations of academic study — a history major and a business minor; a communications major and a Spanish minor (or double major); a biology major and the completion of pre-med requirements. A visit to a career counselor can be productive at this point. Career counselors are masters at identifying combinations of study that allow students to pursue multiple passions simultaneously.
Regardless of major, most importantly, this is a time for students to load up academically and to excel in the classroom. Employers are looking for excellence. The confusing reality is that GPA does matter — sometimes. GPA certainly matters when students apply to graduate schools. And some employers use a minimum GPA as a cut-off to eliminate job applicants. Other employers never ask. Either way, for students, the discipline of excelling in the classroom is its own reward.
Many students study abroad during their third year. The experience of being in a new culture seems to spring students open. It is so stimulating, so eye-opening. Students return to campus feeling “different,” more interested in new things, less interested in the same-old, same-old.
Be open to how the study abroad experience might change your students’ academic or professional direction. Capitalize on your students’ new confidence and independence — encourage other new experiences and opportunities that might clarify their strengths and professional direction.
Part of your students’ professional preparation definitely involves the acquisition of leadership skills. By their third year, students can go in depth in one or two extracurricular activities and take a leadership position. Experience is experience; it doesn’t matter whether it’s paid or unpaid. The ability to lead a large student organization — to plan events, manage budgets, head committees — is professional, resume-building experience. And fun.
By the end of junior year, students will benefit from having completed one or more paid or unpaid internships. Planning and applying for internships should therefore happen right at the start of third year. Most colleges and universities are well-organized to help students find relevant internships, either through the career center or through students’ major academic departments. Parents’ own professional networks are often the best source of internship opportunities.
In addition, part-time work on or off campus is valuable. Students establish an employment track record, test their aptitudes and interests, and develop professional references. Part of students’ education involves investigating and exploiting opportunities in the surrounding community. There’s reciprocity here — the community benefits from the intellect and creativity of the college students in their midst as students contribute to the public good.
In all of these professional settings, building relationships builds references.
That work starts now. Students have one more summer to gain in-depth academic experience through research with a faculty member or professional experience through an internship or a job. No more life-guarding or burger-flipping. The summer before senior year needs to be a natural extension of the professional preparation that has happened during third year. Did your students study abroad? Don’t be surprised if they want to go back. But it’s reasonable to ask them to put together a plan that will include resume-strengthening experience.
And if your students haven’t yet drafted a resume, urge them to run, not walk, to the career center for coaching and advice. Most seniors will be applying for jobs or to graduate programs. The resume is an important, tangible tool to launch that process.
Students’ junior year can be the happiest of their college career. Their academic work is purposeful and satisfying, their confidence is growing, and an initial sense of professional direction is emerging. They’ve settled in with a tight group of friends and have found extracurricular activities that enrich their daily lives.
Although most adults don’t experience one straight-line trajectory towards a single, “forever” professional path, the competencies your students develop during their college years can position them to make wise choices at each professional fork in the road…and you can help by your continuing support and coaching.
Other recent articles by Jo Calhoun:
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