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Recently I had an opportunity to connect with Kelly Kowatch, Assistant Director of the University of Michigan’s School of Information Career Development Office. Kelly is also one of the co-authors, along with Judy Lawson and Joanna Kroll, of the excellent The New Information Professional: Your Guide to Careers in the Digital Age (Neal-Schuman, 2010).

I asked Kelly to do a bit of “virtual career coaching” for students by providing some practical advice on how to make the most of a program’s career services.

In Kelly’s words:

You’re sitting in the lobby waiting for your name to be called. Your hands are sweaty, your heart is racing. Will you know the answers to their questions? Will you be a good fit for the position? You are nervous. Of course, you’ve spent a considerable amount of time preparing for this interview. You’ll be great in this situation. However, the one “interview” that you may not have spent enough time preparing for is your first meeting with your career counselor – and it never even crossed your mind to be nervous. You may not consider it an interview, but this really is your chance to be interviewed by – and interview – a professional who can make your future job search much more successful. And, just like an interview, both parties should get to ask question. The employer asks you questions about your qualifications; you ask questions to determine if it’s an ideal situation for you to work.

I’ve been a career counselor for nine years. In those nine years, I’ve met with a multitude of students, some prepared and eager to meet with me, and some merely in my office because their parents told them to see me or they saw me speak at orientation and wanted to see what I can do to help them. I can do a lot for you; I’m a wealth of information regarding job search strategies, negotiation tips, networking contacts, and resources to make your search easier. However, if I don’t get the opportunity to ask you some questions and you don’t ask me the right questions, I can’t answer help you as best I can. I’ll try my best to anticipate what it is that I think you need to know, but that’s not always effective depending on your personality, experience, or the depth of our relationship.

Therefore, you should prepare for your “interview” with your career counselor. A good career counselor will start the session off with questions to get to know you, sometimes asking “Tell me about yourself,” just as an interview commonly starts. Other questions will include, “What’s your experience job searching?”, “Why are you at this school?”, “What do you want to do when you graduate?”, and “What can I help you with?” Having thought about your answers to these questions before you arrive will help me best provide you with assistance and for you to maximize our time together – and if I don’t ask you these questions, offer the information anyway as it will be helpful in our meeting. Know that a career counselor can help you with everything from general career exploration questions, resources for finding internship and job leads, resume and cover letter writing, portfolio preparation (paper and electronic), interview preparation, networking tips, salary negotiation, and preparation for your next career move. You should utilize your career counselor for every step of your job search process; another set of eyes and ears will never hurt as you work through the sometimes anxiety-ridden and unfamiliar territory of the job search.

Now what about what you should be asking me? To maximize your time with your career counselor, make sure to ask these three question:

What are my strengths and how can I best articulate them?
I find that even at the graduate level, the population I work with now, students do not know their strengths. As a mid-career professional, sometimes even I feel like I’m just figuring out exactly what makes me tick. People know functional what they are good at – they can code script like no one else, they can work through accounting principles like a whiz, or they are an amazing writer – because someone gave them a good grade in these areas. These are hard skills that have been taught through coursework. However, you also need to know your inherent strengths, sometimes also known as soft skills, which are not commonly graded or overtly recognized. These include things such as attention to detail, being a good negotiator, the ability to analyze complex information, and many others. You’ll find that as you progress through you career, after an organization has done a review of your hard/functional skills in an initial interview – sometimes much more minimally than you expect – they really want to get to know your strengths and find out if you are a good employee. Being able to clearly articulate your strengths will impress an employer in an interview and allow for you to show your worth beyond the fact that you can write really nice PowerPoint presentations. A career counselor can introduce to you assessments to help you identify your strengths and then can coach you through exercises that will help you be able to articulate the value of these strengths in any situation, from an elevator pitch, at a career fair, in a cover letter, and finally in an interview.

How can I make my interviewing better?
Time and time again, in my appointments with students, I nit-pick over their resume and cover letter. This is good, but these materials will only get you the interview, not the job. After the resume is perfect, it’s common for students to stop visiting me until I hear that they’ve had several interviews but no offers, a situation that can be disheartening and frustrating and can cause unnecessary plummeting of self-confidence. In this situation, the student missed out on a key step of preparation: interview practice. Preparation for interviewing is not something that should be done solo. Get someone to help you; even if you spend hours researching and practicing, if you don’t share with someone the answers that you plan to say, then you might just say the wrong thing. Bring your resume, cover letter, and a copy of the job description to your career counselor and let them ask you questions and help you prepare solid answers. In my experiences, people often undersell themselves, or don’t articulate their skills and strengths in alignment with the position and organization well enough. A career counselor will guide you through this experience to ensure that you are well prepared to impress.

When can I see you again?
Studies show that the number of job offers a student receives is in direct relation to the number of times they visited there career office. Therefore, make it a point that your career counselor knows you. This doesn’t mean that you need to stop by their office every day; however, they should know your resume/experiences well and also have a strong sense of your desired internship and career outcomes. During peak season, I see five students a day, and up to 25 per week, not including the 20 to 50 that I see in workshops. Therefore, if you visit my office once during that peak time, I probably won’t remember you. In fact, I’ll probably remember your resume, but not your face. I have students that see me often, with new versions of their resume or cover letter to review, general questions to ask about which classes to take that align with their career goals, or to just touch base about their evolving interests. It doesn’t have to be a long meeting, but these check-ins allow me to get to know you beyond an initial meeting in which I give you general advice and tips. The benefit of this is that I can make personal recommendations for you and also point out resources and networking opportunities to you that are tailored to your interests. For example, one student who I’ve met with regularly over the past year has had a difficult internship search. At a conference I was at recently, I ran into a person that I had been on a committee with at my university and he mentioned that he had a project that needed to be completed that was right in this student’s field of interest. I was able to put the two in touch and voila! an internship resulted.

When you are in college, a portion of your tuition pays for the career center to exist, whether you use it or not. Most offices have a variety of staff that you can meet with, so if you don’t click with the career counselor that you meet with the first time, try another. Just don’t not visit, as you are missing out on valuable information and just visiting once won’t usually do the trick to allowing you to maximize this service. Being sure to ask these three questions over the time that you meet with your career counselor will ensure that you will have a successful job search.