I’m a big believer in leaving things better than I found them. It’s a value of mine that I try my best to apply with spaces, places, and most importantly, people. Although it can be challenging at times, I believe it’s important to leave people feeling better after a conversation then before it.

This same idea especially applies with the students I coach. I’m driven by the challenge to raise career aspirations during career advising sessions and applying those aspirations long after the conversation. There are three ways that I intentionally apply this during interactions with students:

  • Listening and reflecting.
  • Providing concrete career guidance.
  • Developing a career action plan.

These three approaches can be applied to various settings when it comes to supporting students’ career development as a career advisor.

Listening and reflecting.

The most important element to raise students’ aspirations is to truly listen and then let them know you’re listening by reflecting back what they’ve shared. As a communication strategy, it’s important to seek out an understanding and then let them know you’re listening by mirroring emotion or mood to drive the conversation forward. Whether you’re meeting face to face or virtually, you can apply the same rules to help facilitate a productive and comfortable listening atmosphere.

  • Focus on the conversation and the mood and eliminate distractions. For example, if I’m on the phone with a student, I place my phone on “do not disturb” and handwrite my notes to avoid typing and the distracting clicks of the keyboard. I also use headphones that cover both of my ears to make sure outside noises don’t redirect my attention.
  • Be empathetic and open to their perspective. It isn’t part of career advising to judge your students; it’s your job to hear them and allow them to speak freely.
  • Reflect the mood, nonverbal cues, and emotion behind the conversation. When reflecting back what the student has said, make note of the mood and emotion. “When you were sharing your experience with your previous manager, it appeared that your tone changed. Was there something else you would like to share about that experience?”
  • Build themes through the conversation. Listen for repeated words or phrases. What words did the student use? Were they repeated? When taking notes, I write the themes I’m hearing in the margins and use checkmarks to identify how much it’s been used. I then reflect that back to the student: “I noticed you used the word ‘values’ several times throughout that conversation. It sounds like having a career/job that reflects these values is very important to you.”
  • Leave silences silent. Silence can be uncomfortable but it is a remarkable tool for career advising. Leaving someone the space to not only think about their answers but also time to add more to their thoughts after they pause can be a great benefit in developing understanding and it can reassure students that they’re being heard. Again, when I’m on the phone with a student, I mute the phone after I ask a question. This forces a silence and can even help stop me from responding prematurely because of the time it takes to take the phone off of mute. In a face-to-face situation, you might find putting gentle pressure on your tongue or lip will remind you to be quiet as the student explores the question you’ve asked.

Providing concrete career guidance.

Career advising conversations can lose power if you don’t apply concrete guidance in your follow-up. Listening is essential in identifying students’ needs as well as asking direct questions about areas from career guidance. In order to provide this guidance, it is essential that career advisors spend time creating and identifying resources that can be used with students. Some areas where concrete guidance is necessary and important are:

  • Accessing the latest information about careers. Support students in narrowing down their search for occupations and what those occupations mean in terms of real jobs. It’s essential that advisors share the realities of job outlook and availability in their geographic area as well as the salary range for a given occupation.
  • Using the right resources. The Kuder Career Planning System® (KCPS) and online research will help students identify appropriate options for programs and schools. Providing resources and direction can improve the confidence of a student as the search itself may feel very overwhelming. In addition, it would be a good idea to ask questions related to online vs. traditional programs, in-state vs. out-of-state schools, private vs. public universities, and certificates vs. degrees. These questions along with some step-by-step guidance can narrow down programs and schools.
  • Putting language in real terms. Sometimes occupations don’t have a specific major related to them. Hence, in these cases, it can be very helpful to define the types of programs that might be applicable. Using the KCPS and other online resources, such as college websites, can help identify appropriate education pathways for students in these situations.
  • Being aware of lesser-known education options. Let students know the traditional path isn't the only path. For example, 2+2 programs, which consist of two years at community college followed by two years at a university can cut costs and support the transition from high school to bachelor's degree. (Here's an example of a 2+2 program.) Also be sure to give them information on "self-paced," online or hybrid programs that are available to help overcome transportation, lifestyle, or disability challenges.
  • Encouraging inventive ways to pay for school. Learning about financial aid may be one of the most important things a career advisor can do. Discuss the implications of taking student loans with students and make sure they understand the importance of grants, scholarships, and other special programs available to them. (Here's an example.) Also be sure to inform students about their various financing options.
  • Honing job search skills. Make sure that you discuss resumes, cover letters, and employability skills with students to ensure that they’re building a portfolio. It’s essential to keep a list of good job search sites and resources for building resumes and cover letters (like the resume builder in the KCPS).

Developing a career action plan.

Student aspirations can be affected by the development of a career action plan. A career action plan is a guide to help identify and document short-term and long-term goals. Remember goals are different for everyone. Some students might be open and able to identify lofty long-term goals while others might need specific help setting and achieving short-term goals. The important thing is to ask, listen, and identify the various needs of individuals and most important of all, write down the goals and ideally, the steps to achieving the goals. Each student should walk away from advising with some kind of documented career action plan that they can use to pursue their dreams and aspirations.

In summary, the challenge and privilege of career advisors is to help students raise their career aspirations. By applying listening and reflecting, concrete career guidance, and written career action plans, we can help our students achieve their aspirations and become what they want to be.

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