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When Your College Student Needs an Extra Year to GraduateVicki Nelson
Your students have had two years of discovery and growth and many opportunities to sample ideas and academic departments. They know their campus and its resources and have formed deep friendships. They are juniors!
Now the second half of their college career begins. It’s time to dig in, study hard, and prepare in earnest for independent life after college. The first two years of college are about breadth of exploration; this year is about depth.
By the beginning of their third year, most students have completed any General Education requirements and declared a major (or two) and possibly a minor or secondary concentration. The major is the depth portion of the curriculum, and it really matters — students are committing to rigorous study which will make a difference in their life choices following graduation.
A major usually requires the completion of 8-12 courses of increasing difficulty. Courses are more specialized, covering narrower topics in more detail. Students no longer study just to prepare for a test but instead dive into an academic discipline that will hone their critical thinking skills, their writing and research skills, their analytic ability and more.
Junior year can be the happiest of all. Students have settled in with a tight group of friends, their studies are purposeful and satisfying, and an initial sense of professional direction is emerging.
Junior year is a perfect time for students to cultivate relationships with professors. Major courses are typically much smaller than earlier survey courses and often discussion-based. Papers and projects receive closer examination by faculty members. Feedback is more detailed; standards are higher.
Faculty members continually engage in their own research (not just in the sciences, but in all disciplines). They may be supported by graduate students, but most faculty members also welcome undergraduates to their research teams. Many institutions provide financial support to students for the completion of independent research under the direction of a faculty member. What a useful and interesting way to spend a summer, and what a great resumé builder.
Much has been written about the relationship between the choice of a college major and future earnings. One way for students to navigate these waters is to look for marketable combinations of academic study — a history major and a business minor; a communications major and a Spanish minor (or double major); a biology major and the completion of pre-med requirements. A visit to a career counselor can be productive at this point. Career counselors are masters at identifying combinations of study that allow students to pursue multiple passions simultaneously.
Regardless of major, most importantly, this is a time for students to load up academically and to excel in the classroom. Employers are looking for excellence. The confusing reality is that GPA does matter — sometimes. GPA certainly matters when students apply to graduate schools. And some employers use a minimum GPA as a cut-off to eliminate job applicants. Other employers never ask. Either way, for students, the discipline of excelling in the classroom is its own reward.
Many students study abroad during their third year. The experience of being in a new culture seems to spring students open. It is so stimulating, so eye-opening. Students return to campus feeling “different,” more interested in new things, less interested in the same-old, same-old.
Be open to how the study abroad experience might change your students’ academic or professional direction. Capitalize on your students’ new confidence and independence — encourage other new experiences and opportunities that might clarify their strengths and professional direction.
Part of your students’ professional preparation involves the acquisition of leadership skills. By their third year, students can go in depth in one or two extracurricular activities and take a leadership position. Experience is experience; it doesn’t matter whether it’s paid or unpaid. The ability to lead a large student organization — to plan events, manage budgets, head committees — is professional, resumé-building experience. And fun.
By the end of junior year, students will benefit from having completed one or more paid or unpaid internships. Planning and applying for internships should therefore happen right at the start of third year. Most colleges and universities are well-organized to help students find relevant internships, either through the career center or through students’ major academic departments. Parents’ own professional networks are often the best source of internship opportunities.
In addition, part-time work on or off campus is valuable. Students establish an employment track record, test their aptitudes and interests, and develop professional references. Part of students’ education involves making the most of opportunities in the surrounding community. There’s reciprocity — the community benefits from the energy of the college students in their midst as students contribute to the public good.
That work starts now. Students have one more summer to gain in-depth academic experience through research with a faculty member or professional experience through an internship or a job. No more life-guarding or burger-flipping. The summer before senior year needs to be a natural extension of the professional preparation that has happened during third year. Did your students study abroad? Don’t be surprised if they want to go back. But it’s reasonable to ask them to put together a plan that will include resumé-strengthening experience.
And if your students haven’t yet drafted a resumé, urge them to run, not walk, to the career center for coaching and advice. Most seniors will be applying for jobs or to graduate programs. The resumé is an important, tangible tool to launch that process.
Students’ junior year can be the happiest of their college career. Their academic work is purposeful and satisfying, their confidence is growing, and an initial sense of professional direction is emerging. They’ve settled in with a tight group of friends and have found extracurricular activities that enrich their daily lives.
Although most adults don’t experience one straight-line trajectory towards a single “forever” professional path, the skills your students develop during their college years can position them to make wise choices at each professional fork in the road…and you can help through your continuing support and coaching.
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