How Can You Engage With Upper-Level College Students Better?
Imagine. It’s the spring of junior year. Students are 60 percent through their majors. The goal line is in sight as they eagerly anticipate the summer before senior year. There’s only one problem: at this point, many upper-level students still have no idea what they want to do after they graduate.
It’s not that hard to imagine. This is a known story. So known, it’s a little cliche.
The problem is that it’s easy to take for granted the risks on the table, and how compounding they can be:
- Prolonging the next step can slow graduation rates
- Lack of confidence in applying and networking can lower placement rates
- Alumni affinity (“was my degree worth it?”) can also suffer post-graduation for those unhappy with their career trajectory
Preventative Measures: Engage Early, Engage Often
The needs of first-years and sophomores are, unsurprisingly, quite different from those of juniors and seniors. While introducing the career exploration process in the first and second years may seem overwhelming for students, some career programming activities are better suited for under-level students looking to connect their areas of interest or degree programs with future career paths. To ensure that upper-level students are progressing towards pre-professional milestones on track, a focus on early engagement is critical. After all, we’d argue that there is no such thing as too soon when it comes to career exploration.
Employers Aren’t Just Sourcing Talent via Your Job Board
Surveys conducted by hiring managers and recruiters indicate that anywhere from 70-85 percent of job placements are made through networking. There is a vast hidden job market, meaning that many roles at small and large companies alike are never posted on (university) job boards, but are instead filled through word-of-mouth. This underscores the importance of teaching networking skills to your students before they need them. Wisr has worked hard to make networking less stressful for students. Our software provides recommended matches based on interests and “ways to help,” so if a student requests a specific need for mentorship (e.g., preparing for a job interview), they will only be matched with alumni who have indicated they’d like to help in that way. Suggested conversation agendas also help students guide the conversation with confidence.
By the time your juniors and seniors are ready to recruit, they should have already started to build their professional networks. For many students, however, networking seems like a terrifying but necessary evil, even for upper-level students who have great grades and appear confident in their major. Unsure how to help them start? Learn more about empowering your students to develop networking skills.
Another trend is that employers are increasingly bypassing career centers and instead building relationships with staff and faculty to better understand which students would be a good fit for their companies. Because employers are exploring new recruiting strategies for sourcing the top talent on campus, leaders in career development or career services roles should also consider new ways to build bridges between employers and students. One popular trend has been to integrate career development directly into the classroom.
Create a Culture of Mentorship
According to a Gallup-Purdue Index Report in 2015, recent college graduates are 1.9x more likely to “Strongly Agree” that the cost of their education was worth it if they had a mentor who encouraged them to pursue their goals and dreams. This metric is as high as the correlation between having a great relationship with a professor at the university. The takeaway? Mentorship, whether it comes in the form of student-to-alum or student-to-faculty, is incredibly influential on your alumni’s perception of the value of their college degrees. Just as incoming freshmen-to-peer mentor pairings are valuable experiences for helping high school students transition to college, upper-level students benefit greatly from the guidance and feedback of recent graduates.
As more universities unlock the power of their constituents through mentorship, higher ed leaders are exploring the concept of a culture of mentorship on their campuses. This involves asking questions like, “How do we help our constituents see that there is value for themselves and others in mentorship?” and “What does it mean to be an engaged student at our university?” People rise to the expectations set for them. Treating students like future alumni means setting the expectation that they should help other students, other alumni, and be proud of their network.
The “Culture of Mentorship” taking hold of many college campuses may, in fact, be part of a larger movement towards a customer-centric approach. This perspective borrows lessons and strategies that are common in the business world and are slowly spreading to other industries, such as healthcare. Adopting a customer-centric approach in the ways you and your service delivery colleagues serve constituents throughout the student lifecycle can go a long way in engaging students after they graduate.
Focus Your Messaging On Your Students’ Top Needs
Underutilization of the career center is a common theme in our conversations with Directors of Career Services. It can be frustrating to dedicate your already under-resourced staff’s time and budget to events or campaigns that don’t meet your engagement goals. We surveyed 2,200 students at Denison University to ask, “What is your top priority right now?” The survey was designed to allow students to click their answer within the email and provide an optional long-form response. As a result, there was a 22 percent relative click-through-rate (CTR) of the entire student population.
Note that freshmen and sophomores have very distributed needs, but they primarily revolve around exploration. On the other hand, juniors overwhelmingly believe they need to find an internship. Seniors report their top need is finding a job.
Our findings were congruent when we surveyed college upper-level students who had already joined the Wisr network to understand why they are trying to connect with alumni.
This is all to say that administrators need to be highly targeted in their messaging. The call-to-action of “Explore Careers” is a lot less effective than “Find Internships Through Vetted Alumni” when emailing a junior. It’s no longer enough to send an email with relevant information. You need to learn how to personalize the messaging so that your audience clearly understands how the offerings align with their needs. Learn more about how we approach marketing to students.
Foster Collaboration Among Leaders Across the Student Lifecycle
Potentially more so than any other stage of the student lifecycle, the most impactful services for juniors and seniors necessitate collaboration across departments. For example, peer mentorship (junior or senior to first-year or sophomore) involves a partnership between admissions and student affairs. Offering alumni mentorship programs means collaborating with your alumni relations colleagues.
Our goal at Wisr is to partner with higher ed leaders to unlock advising networks through a single community that interconnects core advising segments.
We like to think about mentor/advising relationship with the “5 Years Back” rule. It’s easy for a graduating senior to empathize with a freshman and give great point-in-time guidance. It’s a little harder for a 45-year-old alum with two high school-aged children to share tips for picking your schedule or which professors to take a class with. Technology can and should be a unifier of higher ed professionals across departments. After all, a holistic engagement approach should touch every type of constituent from high school students and their parents through experienced alumni and employers. Collaboration across Admissions, Student Affairs, Student Success, Career Services, Alumni Relations, and Advancement is more critical than ever.