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“I was beginning to be really concerned about the idea of going into marketing. I knew I was going to have a lot of challenges with job prospects, and I was starting to see companies with hiring freezes and friends with rescinded offers.” -- Wake Forest University Class of ’21 student.

She wasn’t the only one. Because of the pandemic, many students were facing and continue to be faced with the possibility of having to pivot on their career plans. And while students changing their minds about what they want to do after graduation is not unusual, the pandemic has forced this choice on some. Now, students who originally planned on landing a full-time job are considering grad school, they may be rethinking their career choices, and some are even deciding to graduate earlier or later than they had originally planned.

In the latest Student Voice survey from Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse, with support from Kaplan, 2,000 undergraduate students were asked how the pandemic has changed their decisions about when to graduate and what to do after graduation.

  • Around one in four students decided to graduate earlier or later than originally planned.
  • About the same number of students decided to change what they wanted to do after graduation.

The pandemic has taken its toll on a lot of people, and college students are not exempt from the stress and fatigue of the situation. For many, classes were abruptly shifted to virtual, and it wasn’t an easy transition for all students. When I asked one Wake Forest junior about how virtual courses were going, she responded, “Classes feel harder, like there is more work than ever before.”

“Mentally and emotionally, students were struggling and are continuing to feel the effects of the pandemic,” says my colleague Heidi Robinson, assistant vice president of career education and training.

On top of navigating virtual learning, students were also dealing with instantly losing their social lives and having to coordinate classes in different time zones. Some students may have been unable to access virtual content, and others needed a mental break. “Students were trying to survive the challenges of remote learning, or to wait and see if they could access a more typical college experience even if it meant extending another semester,” Robinson explains.

Then there were others who decided to graduate early. Some students, fearing financial instability and not wanting to incur another semester’s worth of tuition, decided to enter the workforce instead of spending the traditional four years as an undergraduate. Still others, tired of the restrictions and lack of social life on campus, didn’t see the need to stay when they already had enough credits to graduate.

Not unexpectedly, more students chose to go to graduate school instead of entering the workforce. Students experienced a similar situation during the Great Recession in 2008. When the economy is good, more students enter into the job market, and when there is uncertainty and instability, graduate schools see an increase in applications and enrollment. Some schools were seeing a 35 percent increase in applications compared to the year before. Wake Forest saw a 3 percent increase in students going to grad school for the Class of 2020 compared to the class before them.

Here are three essential strategies career centers can deliver to students when career plans change.

1. Provide a process.

When there is chaos, it’s best to provide clarity. That is just what the Office of Personal and Career Development at Wake Forest University has done with Ready7, a step-by-step process for students to become career and life ready.

“Students want to know what it means to be ready for life after graduation and the steps it takes to get there,” explains Robinson.

Students can self-navigate through steps of Ready7 -- seven of them, to be exact. The process guides students to be fully career and life ready by being more self-aware to eventually developing life and leadership skills. “The earlier students start and build the skills in this process, the more ready they will be for life after college and the more adaptable they will be should they need to make a job or career transition or if unforeseen changes, like the pandemic, disrupt the norm,” Robinson continues.

2. Enlighten students on transferable skills.

Something we tell students daily is this, says Robinson: “You’re not married to your major.” Students often believe that they have to enter into a job or career that most directly aligns with their field of study.

For instance, most students assume that finance majors always go to work on Wall Street or a studio arts major becomes an artist. But we’ve had sociology majors become financial analysts and Spanish majors become logistics coordinators. Engaged, active students learn transferable skills no matter what they major in, and we teach students how to tell their story, highlighting those skills and using them wherever they go. This way, should a student contemplate changing career paths, they are able to do so with ease and confidence that they are qualified for their new direction.

Student Voice explores higher education from the perspective of students, providing unique insights on their attitudes and opinions. Kaplan provides funding and insights to support Inside Higher Ed’s coverage of student polling data from College Pulse. Inside Higher Ed maintains editorial independence and full discretion over its coverage.

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3. Educate students on the market.

“Educating students on the market is one of the most important and impactful ways we can support students, not just during a pandemic,” says Stuart Mease, executive director of employer relations at Wake Forest. Mease and his team keep a close watch on market trends, timelines, who’s hiring, changes in hiring practices and more. This information is then distilled to students through targeted messaging like our Career Pathways to students interested in some of our most desired industries; it contains weekly career resources, tips, opportunities and events.

Additionally, career centers can support a student’s change in direction by offering them historical outcomes from previous class years. When the pandemic hit, certain industries and employers instituted hiring freezes. This forced students to re-evaluate their career choice.

“It gets them thinking outside the box,” says Mease. By presenting these data to students, “We’re able to help students to look and apply more broadly instead of being linear with their career search.”

During the pandemic, and outside of it, career centers can best prepare students by providing a defined college-to-career process, identifying their transferable skills and educating them on the market. With these key strategies and essential information, students will be well equipped to navigate their career-related decisions.

Read additional analysis of the Student Voice survey on pandemic-era career preparation

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