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Parent-Student Communication

Despite what many parents may believe based on their interactions with their children, parents are one of the most important influencers in their student’s life. This is even truer regarding their student’s career development and post-college choices. Off-hand comments and small biases can have lasting impact on your student’s decision to pursue (or not pursue) a certain major or career. Therefore, we want to offer some suggestions how to have productive conversations with their student concerning this important topic.

Based on conversations with Andy Chan, academic advisors like Betsy Chapman and our OPCD career counselors, we offer our perspectives on the “typical” career development profile a of Wake Forest first-year, sophomore, junior, and senior student during their fall semester. For each student profile, our counselors offer some advice to help parents productively and compassionately engage with their student in their career journey.

First Year Student

Career Development Profile – As you would expect, first-years are just getting started in the career development process. Most have no idea what’s out there or what they could pursue once they graduate from Wake Forest. Others are very firm in their path, most often focusing on pre-law or pre-health tracks, yet they cannot articulate why they are interested in that career field or why it would be a good fit for them. Many first-years are unaware of the proper steps they should take to increase the chances they will find meaningful work or attend a top graduate school after graduation.

Advice – During your student’s first-year at Wake Forest, encourage exploration and discovery of his or her VIPS, values, interests, priorities and skills, as well as careers fields that MIGHT be of interest. The first year of college is the ideal time to explore, try and investigate different ideas and possible pathways while evaluating likes, dislikes and what s/he may find of greatest interest or importance. This initial reflection and self-assessment is very important.  It will empower your student to make thoughtful decisions about choice of major, extracurricular activities and ultimately, what career to pursue.

Parents can facilitate this reflection by asking open-ended, reflective questions. Even if there is an uncomfortable silence at first, try to let your student find his/her voice. Allow your student to think about it, articulate it, and ultimately determine their own VIPS. Be patient and understanding that they may change their minds several times in the process. At the same time, parent feedback is an important aspect of the process. Give your input while respecting that they must seek these answers themselves in order to fully learn and grow from the process.

A brief list of example questions can be found below. Your student may not be able to articulate immediate, perfect answers. S/he may need time to think and reflect adequately answer your question. Remember that there are no “right” or “wrong” answers to the questions as they are only meant to facilitate reflection.

  • What has your favorite class been so far (more than ‘because I loved the teacher’)? What did learned about yourself in this class?
  • What has been your least favorite class (more than just ‘I didn’t like the teacher’)? What did learned about yourself in this class?
  • What organizations or clubs have you gotten involved with on campus? What about that organization interested you?
  • What are you doing with the organization?  What are you enjoying? Not enjoying?
  • Are there any career fields that you have started to think about? If so, what interests you about them?  How are you thinking about getting started?
  • What career fields would you want to learn more about?
  • What aspects of the transition to college have you enjoyed? Which ones have you struggled with? What have you learned about yourself?
  • How might I be able to help or support you in this process?

Sophomore Student

Career Development Profile – Sophomores feel significant pressure related to career direction questions as a result of the need to declare their major. Many sophomores mistakenly believe that their major must strongly correlate with their first job after graduation; thus, the decision to select their major carries the additional burden of also being a career decision – at a time when the student is not prepared to make it. This decision can often manifest itself as choosing between a major that they will enjoy and perform well in versus a major that is “practical” or “marketable” to employers.

Advice – Parent communication around the major declaration is especially important. Some students feel pressure (whether real or imagined) to choose a major that will please their parents or will ensure they are immediately employable after gradutaion. While this is a relevant concern, it is important to note that – in most cases – a student’s choice of major does not guarantee nor preclude the student from a certain career field. It’s important to understand where the major is a pre-requisite for a career and when it is not. To find out the career outcomes for recent graduates by major, go to the Explore Majors webpage on the OPCD website.

One deciding factor a student should consider is the skill set and knowledge s/he will acquire. The abilities and proficiencies students develop from their major courses as well as leadership positions and seasonal work/research experiences are the attributes that potential employers or graduate schools will value in potential new employees. These competencies are what will make the student most “marketable” or “employable,” not just the subject matter of the major.

A second factor is the student’s interest in the course. If your student is genuinely interested in the material, not only will s/he enjoy his time at Wake Forest more, but s/he will most likely receive better grades, which can provide the option for a greater number of career opportunities.

It is important that parents provide encouragement and affirmation along these lines. Encourage your student to major in a subject area that truly interests her and provides the skill set she is looking to acquire. Engage in a dialogue about the decision criteria and the process and resources to gather accurate information. As a result, she will not only make a thoughtful, informed decision, but also learn how the lifelong skill of critical thinking and decisionmaking.

Junior Student

Career Development Profile – During Fall semester, many juniors begin to think about internships for the upcoming summer. They have heard that the junior year internship can lead to the full-time job for after graduation or can help to create a marketable experience that can be attractive to employers during senior year interviews. Therefore, finding a quality internship is crucial. It is the last summer, before graduation, to gain important professional experiences over a focused 8+ week  period before they pursue full-time jobs or graduate schools. Although many internship opportunities are not announced until the spring semester, juniors want to know what they should do right now to prepare.

Advice – For most parents, the methods to assist your student in their career development prior to junior year have been mostly conversation and reflection oriented. Parents of juniors can best help their student by taking action.

The principal method to assist your student is to tap into your personal and network on your child’s behalf. Work with your child to set up informational interviews with your contacts within the career fields they are interested.  These may include job functions, companies, industries or just well-connected people. These contacts do not have to be a hiring manager or have an formal internship program or opening; they just need to be someone who might be helpful in providing information for your student and leading them to other contacts who could also help.  70% of positions are filled through networking so it is important to expand your student’s network by tapping into your own.

During the fall semester, make sure your student is well-prepared to professionally articulate his knowledge, skills, experiences and aspirations with the your contacts. Your student should have a set of clear goals and questions for each meeting. He can prepare for these meetings by getting feedback from you as well as from one of the OPCD career counselors. Visit our Informational Interviewing page to learn more about proper preparation as well as methods to tap into the Wake Forest alumni and parent network.

You may need to provide financial support to your student during their summer internship as many attractive internships are unpaid. In addition, your student may have to incur expenses in such as housing, transportation, and other living expenses. Even if a position pays a stipend, it may not be enough to cover all of the expenses. If at all possible, don’t let these expenses prevent your student from participating in a crucial personal and professional development opportunity. The internship is an foundation-building investment – in the same way that you would consider a college education or an semester abroad experience as investments. While it may seem difficult to afford right now, it will pay for itself many times over – as soon as next year during the senior year job search and also down the road.

Senior Student

Career Development Profile – While senior year of college is often portrayed as one of celebration and excitement, if you do not know what your post-graduation plans are, senior year is better characterized as full of anxiety and pressure. Seniors’ emotional states are split between the harsh reality of leaving college and entering the ‘real world’ and the excitement of being the seniors who are the most wise and experienced students on campus. For seniors who have not started their career process yet, the fall semester involves cramming four years of career planning, reflection and preparation into four months – or four months in an emotional state of denial and apathy. Contributing to this pressure, many set arbitrary, unrealistic deadlines in their mind (sometimes a result of real or imagined pressure from their parents), such as Thanksgiving or Christmas or graduation, for when they must have a job. Sadly, these assumptions lead to disappointment and frustration (and sometimes depression) as these expectations do not align with the hiring and recruiting cycles of the jobs that they are pursuing and the time required to adequately be prepared for a very intensive job search in an extremely competitive job market.

Advice – Assisting your senior student is a tricky balance of encouraging action while not adding to the pressure he has already placed on himself. The key to walking this thin line is by encouraging and praising the accomplishment of having a career action plan and completing action steps according to the plan, rather than making your approval or satisfaction dependent on an end result, such as a job offer.

During the next conversation you have with your student, ask about his progress in his career or graduate school search. If he has a fully developed plan and has been following it, commend him! However, if he does not have a plan or is not taking action to progress, encourage him to visit the OPCD to develop a Career Action Plan with a counselor. Then, ask him if he would be willing to share his plan with you and inquire how he would like you to support him in this process. It will be his journey, but you can be a supportive resource.

If your student is following a well thought-out and thorough plan, a positive end result will come. It might not be before Thanksgiving or Christmas or at graduation, but it will come. Last year, 92% of the Wake Forest graduating class of 2011 reported at six months after graduation that they were employed or attending graduate school. Be an encouragement to your student so that he may learn and succeed in the process… and still make the most of his senior year.