As colleges compete for your business, they often tout their shiniest new amenities—the Mall of America-size fitness center boasting a 35-foot rock climbing wall (University of Texas), the dorm facility featuring a sauna, steam room, and tanning beds (University of Arizona), or the indoor beach club where waiters will deliver protein shakes and wraps as you drift down the lazy river (University of Missouri). And those are just examples from public universities…

It’s easy to be drawn in by the idea of college as the equivalent of a Caribbean vacation, but it’s important to look past a school’s gilded coating and make sure that the college that you’re selecting actually does what it is intended to do—prepare you for a successful adult life.

With that in mind, we turn our attention to one commonly undervalued aspect of an undergraduate institution—the quality of the Career Services office. Perhaps, in part, because it doesn’t have the same allure as a rock climbing wall or sauna, schools sometimes cut corners on the career services that they offer. Many colleges, even ones that offer excellent in-class educations, possess career centers that are understaffed and underutilized, and which do little to help students refine their professional goals and expand their networks. Given this reality, we encourage you to investigate the quality and breadth of career service offerings before applying. Here’s what you should look for:

The Basics

You first want to make sure that any prospective college’s career services office covers the basics of career development. Visit their website or give the office a call to find out the following:

  • How many full-time employees staff the career services department?
  • What percentage of students utilize career services at their school?
  • Do they operate during typical business hours? Do they offer evening or weekend appointments/events?
  • Do staff members provide services related to career assessment, resume development, and mock interviews?
  • What type of graduate school advisement do they offer?
  • What internship and co-op opportunities are available?
  • Do you see evidence of upcoming events such as career and internship fairs, alumni panels, and employer information sessions?

If you get satisfactory answers to these questions, you can conclude that a school, at the very least, has some semblance of career services offerings. Yet, if a school has an above average program, you should immediately see evidence of so much more, such as…

Connections to Industry

It is critical to ascertain whether an institution’s network has regional, national, or international reach. If a student has a goal to work in a particular field or even for a specific company within that field, such considerations can be of the utmost importance.

In some instances, the institutions that serve as pipelines to a given industry or corporation will surprise you. For example, Redmond, Washington-based Microsoft plucks the majority of their employees from places such as nearby University of Washington, Washington State (where CEO Paul Allen is an alumnus), and Western Washington University. Apple, located in the heart of Silicon Valley draws a significant portion of its workforce from nearby San Jose State and the University of Texas at Austin. Some schools located in close proximity to New York City such as Rutgers and Baruch College have strong ties to Wall Street firms.

A quick glance at the University of South Carolina’s career services website reveals that on any given week, major corporations will be visiting campus to network with students. Penn State offers extremely well-attended Career Days for non-technical and technical jobs, as well as internship and co-op opportunities. Schools with stellar career services will also sometimes offer free access to career building/networking technology. On this front, Emerson College and Wake Forest University both afford students the opportunity to build a “Handshake Profile,” a career development tool that allows students to create a personalized account and connect with potential internship and employment opportunities.

Connections to alumni

It can also be helpful to explore a prospective college’s career services homepage for how they assist current students in connecting with alumni. You should see evidence of a multitude of upcoming events such as career fairs, mock interviews, and speaking engagements involving alums.

Schools with notably helpful alumni networks include the aforementioned Penn State, the University of Michigan, and Texas A&M. Of course, those particular institutions enjoy massive enrollment numbers which, combined with their top-notch career services, creates the perfect networking storm. However, there are small colleges that also do exceptional work linking students with alumni. Warren Wilson College in North Carolina has an enrollment of fewer than 700 undergraduates yet still does a tremendous job connecting students with their tight-knit alumni base. Notable features of Warren Wilson’s career services include: organized trips to meet with alumni in their place of business known as CareerTreks, Clearness Committees where students are encouraged to talk openly and honestly about finding a major and career that will be meaningful and fulfilling, and a robust internship program that sports a better than 50% participation rate.

Connections to alumni may also be evidenced by school-based social network applications. The University of Iowa offers an online alumni recruiting system called Hireahawk.com which connects students to employment and internship opportunities with Iowa alums. Wabash College in Indiana offers Wabash Career Alliances, a network through which students can ask questions of alumni in fields of interest throughout their undergraduate years.

Outcomes data

Although career services staff may not be solely responsible for collecting postgraduate data, they should be able to tell students where and how to access such information. Superior career services departments provide outcomes data that will give you a true idea of how students fare upon graduation. This information should be updated annually, painting a detailed picture of how students in different areas of study fared on the job/grad school market.

One shining example is Syracuse University which publishes a 140-page document each year breaking down where graduates in each of their programs found work, their job titles, salary, and what source(s) led to employment. Such detailed outcomes data allows a prospective student to know that 23% of Orangemen found their first job through an alumni contact while 18% got their foot in the door through a college internship.

Special populations

If you hail from an underrepresented demographic group, you may want to make sure that any prospective college offers specialized career assistance that caters to your unique needs. If a school is committed to providing these services, it should not be difficult to locate on their website. Lafayette College, for example, offers a plethora of specialized resources for soon-to-be graduates who fall into categories such as: African American, Hispanic, Veteran, LGBTQ, among others. Cornell, Northeastern, and Marquette are also universities with strong outreach in this area.

College Transitions’ final thoughts

As you begin to develop your list of prospective schools, it’s important to remember that colleges should offer you more than just a degree and access to high-end recreational pursuits. It should provide skills and experiences that contribute to your professional development—long after anyone remembers or cares to ask about the name on your diploma. With this in mind, look beyond admission statistics and evaluate those who are primarily responsible for connecting you to the opportunities that college is supposed to—but not guaranteed to—provide.

Andrew Belasco
A licensed counselor and published researcher, Andrew's experience in the field of college admissions and transition spans more than one decade. He has previously served as a high school counselor, consultant and author for Kaplan Test Prep, and advisor to U.S. Congress, reporting on issues related to college admissions and financial aid.