Career Counseling in Colleges/Universities

The process of acquiring knowledge is the essence of higher education. Career decision making is a tangible expression of this process, and since almost half of all college students change majors and even more change career goals while in college, career services for higher education students are crucial to the mission of the institution.

Characteristics of Higher Education Students as Related to Career Decision Making

Developmental theory is the foundation on which career services at colleges and universities are based. Developmental theorists describe students’ cognitive maturation as progressing from dualism, where students view career choice as an irreversible, once in their lifetime decision, to relativism, where students realize that choices are complex and have multiple aspects. Similarly, students’ growth can be conceptualized as moving from low commitment to and exploration of options, to having a successfully resolved and integrated ego identity. Career theorists link in to these psychological models by characterizing career development as people progressing through a series of life stages with attending coping behaviors and tasks. Most college and university students find themselves in the exploration stage, a time in which they sort out career choices. Others describe a process of differentiation, where people through life experiences become increasingly aware of their unique types of interests, skills, and values.

In addition to students’ broad-spectrum developmental issues described above, university students may have specific concerns related to disability, gender, age, or cultural differences. Through society’s prejudicial attitudes and because of their limited life experiences, students with disabilities may make inadequate career choices because they may lack occupational information and/or have an incompletely defined self-concept. Women’s career development, research shows, involves attention to personal issues including low self-esteem and self-efficacy, low expectancies for success, math avoidance, and family-career conflict. In addition, gender bias in education and occupations and a lack of role models play a role. People of color may not have the endless opportunities implied by the term career choice. Overt and covert racism and a negative self-image may limit their number and kind of career decision-making choices. Finally, adults returning to college to seek retraining or more advanced training may experience stress related to transitions and unmet expectations.

Types of Services Offered

Career services at colleges and universities tap into students’ differential levels of maturation and special needs by providing career decision-making support ranging from individual and group counseling for self-exploration and exploration of the world of work to resume writing and learning job interviewing skills. The services are guided by theory and typically consist of three focal points: knowledge of self, knowledge of the world of work, and ways to match these personal traits with job characteristics. For those in the early stages of development or for those who have special needs, the model’s first focal point may be of most relevance.

To learn more about oneself, individual career counseling is available, an option that may help students examine how the environment and their reactions to its expectations have created their belief systems and notions about career decision making. This kind of career counseling, which most typically happens at university counseling centers, encourages students to examine the role work plays in their life, to problem solve, and to develop a clear picture of their values, skills, interests, and goals. Furthermore, students’ interests, values, and skills can be explored using formal and informal assessment devices such as interest inventories, values checklists, card sorts, and computerized career guidance systems. Individual counseling as well as interpretation of assessment profiles likely shape students’ academic pursuits, which in turn help students further test and refine their career decision making.

Many of these activities can take place not only during individual counseling, but also as part of group counseling, projects in classes, seminars, workshops, or career clubs provided by the campus counseling center or career center. Class or group assignments address personal interests, skills, and values as well as the content of academic majors and careers. Counselors help integrate the results of such exploration into students’ future life-work relationships by problem-solving and decision-making practices.

For those who need less direction, counseling and career centers provide self-directed career planning activities, including computer-guided self-assessments. Through their sophisticated interactive nature, these programs help individuals assess abilities, interests, and values and match these with occupational and educational information.

For those who have decided or tentatively decided on a major, the second element of the paradigm, knowledge of the world of work, becomes the center of attention in career counseling, students are given the opportunity to participate in career events or discipline-related panels and fairs organized by campus career centers, where they can connect with alumni or employers to get information on particular jobs. They engage in informational interviewing to learn about work in a particular field and to start networking. They utilize library and Internet resources for information and may participate in internship and externship programs where they observe and work with professionals. Such activities help students gain experience, build career-related skills, build mentoring and networking relationships, and further test their commitment to a career choice. Especially students with unique needs because of limited work experience or exposure to the world of work benefit from intern-and externships since they are key to testing and perhaps revising assumptions and self-image. Through these activities, knowledge of self becomes interwoven with the world of work, which represents the third focal point of the aforementioned paradigm.

Finally, career services most typically utilized by students who are ready to graduate involve using resource rooms in the career center, which provide information on careers and job options. Students can explore alumni and parents’ career databases as well as job listings in different fields. Web links provide information on job market conditions, future trends, and earning potential in different types of work. Graduating seniors receive help with job search strategies including researching potential employers, writing a resume and cover letter and then learning how to publish them online, and learning how to interview for a job and how to apply for a job online.

Professionals Providing Career Services

Career services are provided in different offices by a range of professionals on campus. Career decision-making concerns representing identity development or cognitive and environmental obstacles require a broad based kind of counseling often provided by counselors who work in campus counseling centers. These counselors are trained to address immediate and life-threatening crises, but also difficulties with disabilities, relationships, depression, substance abuse, and identity processes, some or all of which could be related to career decision making.

Campus career centers typically provide job placement services, consisting of appraising and dispensing credentials and organizing job fairs, panels, and interviews, but they also offer self-assessment, diagnostic tests and aids, programs and resources on choice of major and career, and counseling in career exploration and decision making.

Cooperative education and internship programs include myriad experiences consisting of out-of-class, during-the-school-year, summer work, for-credit, not-for-credit, salaried, and volunteer activities. They may be housed in academic departments, in career centers or placement offices, or in a specifically designated office.

Advice on the selection of appropriate course work, helping students recognize the complexity of professional schools’ admission processes, writing letters of recommendation, and helping students gain information on admission into professional schools is offered by administrators, faculty advisors, and mentors in academic departments such as prelaw, dentistry, or medicine.

Minority student services offices were created to recruit those that historically had been unable to attend college, and they provide services to help people of color in the areas of residential, academic, financial, and personal concerns. As it became clear that career horizons of women and people of color needed to be expanded, career advising and programming have been added to minority service functions.

Finally, academic departments and colleges, alumni offices, the office of financial aid, student employment, adult and women’s resource centers, and campus libraries are involved in career services.

Career services at colleges and universities are important to traditional and nontraditional students; to their parents, faculty members, and administrators; and to the campus as a whole since they help directly and indirectly advance higher education’s mission of teaching, research, and public service.


  1. Holland, J. L. (1997). Making vocational choices: A theory of vocational personalities and work environments (3rd ed.). Odessa, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources.
  2. Krumboltz, J. D. (1996). A learning theory of career counseling. In M. L. Savickas & W. B. Walsh (Eds.), Handbook of career counseling theory and practice (pp. 55-80). Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologist Press.
  3. Super, D. E. (1990). A life-span, life-space approach to career development. In D. Brown, L. Brooks, & Associates (Eds.), Career choice and development: Applying contemporary theories to practice (2nd ed., pp. 197-261). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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