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Navigating College and Career in the Age of COVID

Even in the best of times, graduating from high school, gaining admission into college and actually moving onto campus is highly stressful for students and their families. I’ve had the opportunity to experience the process from two perspectives — as the parent of three college students during my corporate career, and as a member of a college faculty in my second career. 

The COVID pandemic has added immeasurably to the stress levels, of course. Students are faced with decisions regarding in-person vs. distance learning, living on or off campus, taking a “gap” year, or perhaps staying home and starting with courses at a community college.

Parents who may be unemployed or experiencing sharp income reductions are agonizing over what they can afford, and wondering if the college experience in a pandemic is worth the cost.

Campus living arrangements are uncertain in terms of social distancing. Parties are discouraged, big time sports are suspended, and it is easy to appreciate how the college-bound student can be disoriented, confused and discouraged.

But the pandemic might be offering students an opportunity to pause and reflect on the essential reasons for the investment in time and money they are about to make. 

In typical times, college is seen by many as a “life parentheses” – a four year bubble of really neat-sounding courses, parties, football, study abroad, spring break trips, living without “parental units” and intense socializing. 

In my teaching experience, too many students make it to senior year without appreciating the fact that college is not a parentheses. It’s the on-ramp to a lifelong career and way of life, and many students wait much too long to understand the primary reason they enrolled college, what their career options might be, and how to systematically plan for their futures.

With that said, and based on my observations of the traits of successful students and employees over more than four decades, allow me to offer some practical advice to those about to enter college.

Choosing a major

Many colleges encourage students to wait until the end of their second year to select a major field of study. I recommend not waiting that long, but rather selecting your major at the end of your first year.

It’s not that difficult. Pick something that matches your demonstrated strengths — science, math, literature, art, etc. Check with your high school teachers for their opinions, look at the grades on your transcript, speak with family and friends. As we shall see, selecting a major is not the same decision as choosing a career, as there are many professional paths that emanate from any given major. What you are doing here is positioning yourself within a body of professional activity in which you have the innate talents to thrive.

Keep those free electives in your pocket 

Colleges will invite you to “sample their academic delights” and to experience a diverse range of courses on your way to selection of your major course of study.

Virtually every college has a “core curriculum” that applies to students of all majors. The good news is that these core areas each offer a wide range of courses that can satisfy the requirements. You will have no trouble “sampling the academic delights” within the broad selection of courses that you will need for graduation. So focus on the core requirements for the first two years, and save the free electives for your junior and senior years. You will be glad you did.

Establish yourself as a serious student

From the outset, you will want to develop the standards of professional behavior that will set you apart from the crowd, and demonstrate to those around you that you are serious about this business of education and career choice.

College isn’t high school, it’s the gateway to the organization in which you will find yourself in four very short years. The habits you develop now will be the ones you carry forward to the workplace, so make sure you are developing the correct habits.

Be on time for classes, assignments and other campus functions.

Be prepared for every class session. Do the assigned readings, review prior class notes, and be prepared to extract as much information from the class discussion as possible.

Sit up front, be attentive and engaged. Any older friend or family member will tell you how important this will prove to be in the work organization.

Learn to speak and write in measured, objective terms. Use business terminology rather than slang, and banish the epithets and curse words which do not belong in the workplace or on campus. Many of your fellow students may not follow this advice. But remember, you are separating yourself from the crowd. 

Choosing a career path

OK, so far so good. You have selected a major that plays to your strengths, and have developed the personal habits that ensure success. Now it’s time to think about a career path that makes sense for you, and this process should begin in earnest at the start of your junior year.

Start by thoughtfully reviewing a list of the largest organizations, such as the companies listed each year in Forbes magazine. Read through the list, focusing not on the organizations themselves just yet, but on the markets in which they operate. List each market that appeals to you, and in which you think you would be happy to work for your career. 

Maybe the pharmaceutical industry will appeal to you. Perhaps retail, or journalism, or so many others. The list will be lengthy, and you will be surprised at how well this exercise will clarify your thinking. 

Now wait a few days, pull the list out and cross out the markets that, on second thought, do not appeal to you as much as you initially thought. Winnow the list to three or four markets that hold the greatest appeal to you, and try to rank them in order of preference.

For these few markets, look for the largest organizations operating in each. By and large, they will offer the widest range of job functions and advancement.  Look carefully at the corporate web sites, and try to ascertain the essence of their culture, and the types of positions they offer. Start focusing on these markets and organizations as you prepare to use your precious free electives.

Here is where the matching of majors and careers occurs. A chemistry major, for example, can now decide to pursue a career in research and development, or alternately focus on a career track in commercial positions such sales, marketing and business development. The underlying choice of chemistry as a major provides the platform for all of these various options. You will realize that any major will offer a similarly wide range of career tracks that can be pursued.

If you determine that you wish to pursue a technical career, for example, use your electives for science and technology courses. If you want to be in the commercial functions (remember, everything is a business), take elective courses on economics, trade, patent law, and the like.

Choose internship experiences that fit your career path goals, and do the same with possible study abroad opportunities.

Finally, at the beginning of your senior year in college, when many students are asking faculty and career services staff “do you know of any jobs out there?”, you will be interviewing with select companies and explaining to them how you have spent four years thinking through the markets, organizations and skill sets that will launch you into a successful career with them.

A well-crafted cover letter will capture all of the efforts expended in this process of discerning the right career for you. Remember that a resume might tell people where you have been, but the cover letter is more powerful. It tells them where you want to go.

So, take advantage of the unfortunate current state of disruption brought about by COVID. Develop the long view. Your college years will pass in the blink of an eye. Your career, though, is lasting. Select well.

Vic Brown is a writer and author of “Welcome to College – Your Career Starts Now!”., available on Amazon and elsewhere. He can be reached at