4 major problems college students face in career navigation

Here are 4 problems college students seem to face in career navigation, based on my own experiences as well as through my own primary research on the entry-level recruiting space.

I. Students feel pressured to “find and pursue their passion” — and I don’t think this is the right mindset

All their lives, students have been graded on getting things “right.” As a result, many students, particularly the high achievers, have this perfectionist urge to find the “right” career path. Countless career advice about “finding your passion” and “doing what you love” only reinforces the notion that the correct path exists somewhere and that it’s just a matter of identifying it as soon as possible.

I don’t agree with this view.

In my opinion, most college students *cannot* possibly have a clue about their ideal career path. One, there are so many factors that influence whether you’d be happy in a certain job (role, pay, lifestyle, organizational size, quality of team, etc.). There is simply no way that you could know what you would like before actually trying out the different options. Two, there are so many different career options out there, and students gain exposure to only so much while staying within the confines of a university campus. They will encounter many new, exciting opportunities once they graduate, and only by staying openminded will they take advantage of these possibilities.

In other words, “finding and pursuing one’s passion” is not an appropriate mindset for college students because it a) makes them overanalyze their career trajectory in abstract and b) encourages them to focus on a narrow path too soon.

Instead, I think it’s important for students to approach their careers in a more experimental way. Read my story Don’t try to “find your passion.” Instead, take an optimal learning approach to your career., where I encourage taking an optimal learning approach to career navigation.

II. Recruiting is subjective and error-prone, and many talented “gems” get overlooked

There are many “gems” with great talent potential who unfortunately get overlooked in recruiting.

One class of such “gems” are found at lesser-known universities. They are just as intellectually capable and hardworking as Ivy League students but may have ended up at a lower-ranked institution for a variety of reasons (scholarships, proximity to family, didn’t apply to top schools, got unlucky in the lottery of college admissions, etc.). As job applicants, they are systematically disadvantaged because many firms don’t actively recruit from their campuses. Simply put, it’s WAY more difficult to get your foot in the door of a great employer if you are at a non-target school.

This cross-college disparity, while certainly unfair, is not surprising. Talent identification is very costly (some firms spend up to $10K per successful hire), and it’s economically efficient for employers to rely on pedigree as a quick, low-cost upfront screening filter. Investing $100K in recruiting at Princeton where the average talent quality is higher is statistically more likely to yield a better return than investing the same amount at a state school.

[By the way, it doesn’t seem to be true that firms somehow place some intrinsic value on college prestige. All top firms I’ve spoken with about recruiting acknowledged that talented people can come from everywhere and were actively seeking ways to widen their talent pipeline beyond their current target school list without blowing up their recruiting budget. Only smaller, newer firms actively sought to bring in Ivy League grads to strengthen their company brand. Thankfully, technological innovations are starting to reduce the cost of upfront talent assessment (e.g., Interviewed, Knack, Arctic Shore), and I am optimistic that the cross-college disparity will continue to diminish as a result.]

What is more surprising is the level of heterogeneity that exists within a campus. That is, some students at Harvard are *substantially* more job savvy (which doesn’t necessarily mean they are more talented) than others. Recruiting is a game, and some have much better knowledge on how to play it right.

This brings me to my next observation.

III. For many students who lack the right backgrounds and connections, recruiting is a stressful “black box” they find hard to navigate

I have spoken with 20+ current undergrads and recent grads over the past 6 months to understand their hopes and worries when it comes to recruiting. I’ve come across 4 broad segments of students:

  • Super job savvy: There is a fraction of students who know the in’s and out’s of recruiting really well. They realize early in their college years what they need to do to maximize their chances of landing their desired offers and make use of all the available resources, whether it be getting their resumes reviewed by upperclassmen or practicing interviews with industry professionals. These students tend to come from affluent, well-educated families (e.g., went to the best boarding schools, have parents who work in elite professions) and often belong to powerful, exclusive student circles on campus (e.g., student government, business clubs, fraternities/sororities, sports teams). Many mentors and peers proactively offer them timely guidance regarding how to navigate their transition to adulthood.
  • Focused on a set path: These are students who are set on going into established post-undergrad paths that require very little “figuring out” (e.g., medicine, law, academia, highly-technical field).
  • Interest driven: There is a small minority of students who have a pretty defined sense of what problem space they are interested in and the career path they envision themselves pursuing. They find internships in smaller, niche organizations that they have been following in their specific interest area. While they likely have a good grasp of the organizational landscape in the sector of their interest, they may be less aware about broader career opportunities or about how the process of recruitment actually works.
  • Unaware/confused: There is a massive group of students who think little about jobs during the first couple years of college and have limited understanding of how to navigate the recruiting process when senior year rolls around. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they are lazy or untalented. Included in this segment are students who excel in college (e.g., high academic achievers, student leaders in different extracurricular activities) but haven’t felt the impetus to think seriously beyond student life. I’ve met a lot of amazing peers at Princeton and Harvard in this bucket and noticed that many were Americans from mid to low socioeconomic backgrounds or internationals — essentially, students who didn’t have close mentors actively guiding them on their careers.

Diving deeper, particularly into the latter two segments of students (i.e., the interest driven and unaware/confused groups for whom most of my writings will be tailored), I’ve observed the following:

  • Many students don’t understand how the recruiting process works and feel very insecure/stressed about how they will be evaluated.

“How do companies evaluate candidates? What really matters?”

“What experiences/skills do they value?”

“Am I good enough?!”

  • They have trouble differentiating employers besides some vague sense of which ones are more prestigious than others. So there is a huge herding behavior when it comes to what jobs they end up applying to.

By the way, my observations are also rooted in my own experience, as I was definitely in the unaware/confused camp until junior spring.

For the first 2.5 years of college, I was a classic academic nerd and the antithesis of “job savvy.” I had arrived in the US with very little understanding of the professional landscape, coming from a small public HS in Canada. I was an aspiring scientist who did bio research on campus for the first two summers of college, putting zero time and effort into exploring off-campus internship opportunities. I never realized that internships were for important for getting jobs later on. For me, i-banking just sounded like another Apple product and consulting was the most nebulous profession ever.

So when I pivoted away from academia and decided to apply to jobs junior spring just as the internship recruiting frenzy started to take hold, I was disastrously unprepared. I had no idea which companies I should apply to or how I should present myself. In fact, I was so unprepared that my first interview ended with the interviewer dismissing me by saying, “I hope this [interview] was good practice for you.” That’s probably one of the worst things an applicant can be told in an interview (only slightly better than getting straight-up kicked out of the room).

IV. Existing career resources are not sufficiently addressing the students’ needs

You might ask, don’t these universities have career offices that are looking out for their students?

Most career offices take a laissez-faire approach to career advising — letting students seek them out for help versus proactively advising them. I think there are several reasons for this.

  • Philosophically, one could argue that the core mission of a college is to holistically prepare students for their future rather than to funnel them into specific jobs and industries. So in that sense, colleges shouldn’t try to steer students in a specific direction.
  • Career offices are often quite under-resourced.
  • Chances are, career office staff likely have limited direct recruiting experiences unless they come in with several years of work across different sectors. Therefore, it’s not realistic to expect the staff to know all the nuances around how today’s recruiting really works.
  • Career offices care about the placement rate of the overall graduating body. Rarely does the quality of the placements or the satisfaction of individual graduates get tracked. So while career offices are well incentivized to make sure all students connect with whichever employers recruit on campus, they aren’t incentivized to invest significant time and effort in screening and matching each student to high-quality job opportunities.

So basically, I don’t think career offices are in the best position, institutionally, to solve the career navigation problem for students.

Well, what about online resources? Can’t students easily seek out resources online?

It’s true that nowadays there is a lot of free career advice on the web. But I still get so many job-related questions from confused undergrads, and I don’t think it’s because these students don’t know how to Google. I think it might be because there isn’t as much content tailored for college students who face a very particular recruiting challenge:

  • On-campus recruiting operates fundamentally differently from regular job search
  • With little or no real professional context, students have limited ability to evaluate different opportunities they see on their college job board.
  • Without a professional track record, there is much more art in how students can frame their academic and extracurricular achievements to appeal to companies.

In light of these problems, I hope that sharing some of my learnings through College to Career will:

  • Help students think about their careers in a less deterministic and more exploratory way
  • Level the playing field of recruiting, especially for talented but disadvantaged students who can really benefit from another pair of guiding hands throughout their transition into the real world
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