Consider a School's Career Services Before Applying

Consider the breadth of a school's career services before you've finished your applications.

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When Christine Bonney, a 2009 graduate of Cornell University, decided last fall that she wanted to pursue a master's degree in psychology, she met with admissions officers and filled out applications, but a school's career services center wasn't on her mind. "I know it's important, but my focus was on the caliber of the program, the professors, and the location," she says.

Bonney's approach is typical. Not many graduate school applicants ask what type of career counseling and job search support will be available to them as they near completion of a degree. "Students don't think that far down the food chain," says Robin Mount, director of the Office of Career Services at Harvard University. "When you're picking a professional school, you're really going for the highest-ranked one, one that's in a region you think you might settle in afterwards because of how you might build out your connections in that area," she says.

But in today's tight job market, you should be asking. Top-notch career services can make a difference now and quite possibly down the road if you change jobs or decide to start your own business. 

[See the U.S. News Best Careers 2010 series.] 

In 2009, students who used career-center resources were more likely to land a job than those who didn't use them, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers' recent survey of more than 35,000 students from over 840 colleges and universities nation­wide. Fifty percent of students who sought out career serv­ices intensively—meeting with counselors for résumé review and interview practice sessions—received at least one job offer, compared with 42 percent of students who did not use the career center or used it minimally, according to the survey. Moreover, 26 percent of students who consulted the career center extensively had secured a job before graduation, compared with just 17 percent of students who only searched job listings on the career center website. 

The demand for help is palpable as anxious students looking for work besiege centers. The result: Centers at colleges and universities across the country have been adding staff and ramping up their offerings at a brisk pace. In the past two years, Harvard's career services center has doubled the number of educational programs to close to 100. Some sessions include exploring careers in sports management, preparing for a career as an independent musician, or looking into careers in the culinary arts and fashion fields.

In addition to the basic services—reviewing résumés and cover letters, staging mock interviews, sponsoring job fairs, and providing free use of copiers and computers—career centers are trotting out a variety of workshops, offering Web seminars, or webinars, reviewing résumés and cover letters via E-mail, and extending office hours. They're recruiting a more eclectic mix of employers of all sizes to campus and aggressively wooing alumni to networking events with students in the hopes of opening doors for internships and jobs.

Here are four ways you can take advantage of cutting-edge career centers to boost your job search.

1. Look for opportunities early. At a growing number of schools, career management is now offered as a class, and it may even be a required credit in some M.B.A. programs. Career service centers typically develop the syllabus, and staffers frequently teach the course.

The advantage: You're going to have to do the work sometime, so you might as well score a credit for it.

Duke M.B.A. students need a personal development plan before the first semester begins, says Sheryle Dirks, associate dean for career management at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. "The students participate in a one-day career workshop, which focuses on personal branding and telling their story, self-assessment, and job search strategy." In addition, all Fuqua students are required to take a semester-long class titled Leadership Communication. Approximately half of the course includes career and job search content taught by career center staff. In a tough job market where so many variables are out of your hands, if you have a plan, there are things you can control, says William Wright-Swadel, executive director of Duke's career center. For instance, you can control whether you're networking. You can reach out and meet five or six new people at an alumni event, he explains. "We coach students to take responsibility, to think about what they really want to do, what matters to them, and to find joy in what they choose. We call it integrating heart, head, and spirit."