It doesn't take much digging to find negative comments about college career centers, such as "the career center sucks at my school" or "my career center is worthless," on the Career Planning for College Students message board. These sentiments often reflect a fundamental disconnect between students' expectations and their career-center staff's many limitations.
Just what can you reasonably expect from your school's career center and its staff? That question is best answered by beginning with what you cannot expect, followed by what's reasonable.
Expect Job-Hunting Help, Not Placement
Some students think their career center will get them a job; in other words, place them. But career centers aren't placement agencies, and their staff counselors aren't recruiters.
More realistically, your career center will help you develop the skills and contacts necessary to get a job. "We offer on-campus interviews, career days, e-fairs, information sessions, job postings, resume databases, open houses and special events," says Richard White, career center director for New Jersey-based Rutgers University. "We're trying to build connections between as many students and employers as we possibly can."
Expect to Be Shown, Not Told
It's unreasonable to expect that your career center will tell you what major or career to pursue. How could anyone, let alone a relative stranger like a campus career counselor, talk with you for a short time and tag you with your perfect major or career?
More realistically, your career center will teach you how to explore majors and careers that might be a good fit for you. The professionals at your school's career center should have both the resources and personal expertise that will help you explore majors and careers thoroughly. The career center should also have data on the jobs landed by past graduates in various majors from your school.
You may also think your career center will have lists and quick answers to address every conceivable career question you might have. You may want a list of, say, all the companies in the area that are hiring. But how could any campus career center develop such a list? Similarly, how can your campus career counselors be expected to know the answer to any career question?
More realistically, your career center will help you find answers. The staff should be willing and able to show you various ways to research your specific questions and concerns. Your career center should be "a place where caring people will help [students] navigate the seemingly unlimited career and job search resources out there," says Marianna Savoca, director of the career center at Stony Brook University in New York.
Expect that the Staff Has Limits
You may think your career center can and will make your emergency a priority. However, the staff's time and resources may be limited. For example, a colleague of mine is the sole member of her school's career center staff. It's simply impossible for her to drop everything she's doing to see a student who stops by. So she asks students to make an appointment to see her. Recently, a student kept dropping in. My colleague kept politely asking him to make an appointment, which he never did. His incredibly unfair response: He complained to his department's administrative assistant, who in turn complained to my colleague.
More realistically, your career center will be respectful and genuinely willing to help you. Most campus career counselors are in their profession because they truly enjoy helping college students with important career issues. Once in a while, you'll run into a counselor who is indifferent, incompetent, insensitive or all three. Ask to see a different counselor before you write off the entire office as worthless.
The people at your school's career center aren't miracle workers. They don't read minds, and they aren't your personal job search agents. And they don't have bags full of internship and job opportunities in their offices just waiting to be handed out.
But if you'll "at least show up by your junior year, make some plans and get some help, the career center can make your next transition a successful one," says Jerry Houser, director of the Career Development Center at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, California.