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Tara Vasold Fischer, Dickinson College
Christopher Nelson, Arkansas State University-Newport

Chris Nelson.jpgTara Fischer.jpgThe National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) (n.d.) defines career readiness as the identification and demonstration of competencies that prepare college graduates for successful transition into the workplace.  Whether a student is attending a community college, a private liberal arts college, or anything in between, the inclusion of career competency or soft skill development into conversations with undecided students is important because it sets students up to apply, transfer, and integrate various aspects of their experiences.  Some students may feel overwhelmed with different choices or pressured to make an outcome-based decision about their intended major.  Including career competencies into discussions about choice of area of study provides a tangible way for students to see how what they want to learn can be applied to real world problems in ways that produce results, meaning that discussions about soft skill development can help undecided students decide.  

Our conversation, a conversation between two advisors interested in career competencies, began at the NACADA Summer Institute, after a session on advising undeclared students.  Although there are different institutional approaches to these early conversations, we quickly realized that, as advisors, we could shape positive change within higher education by helping students identify what they want to learn—and why—and how they will use that knowledge.  So that got us thinking: ensuring that college students are prepared for career readiness is an important issue within higher education, the labor market, and society as a whole.  As we talked, we realized that regardless of institution type or area of student focus, the questions we ask and the connection back to the identification and development of those skills early on means that we are intentionally teaching students to put it all together so that they are ready to tackle the world.

Below, Christopher Nelson (Arkansas State University Newport) and Tara Fischer (Dickinson), advisors at two vastly different institutions, discuss the ways they guide students through the process of exploration, declaration, and application using the inclusion of career competencies and soft skills as a guide in advising conversations.   

An Introduction to Our Institutions

Arkansas State University-Newport (ASUN) is an open-enrollment community college focused primarily on career development through trade skill training.  ASUN gained standalone recognition from the Arkansas State University system in 2001.  Its mission is to provide an accessible, affordable, quality education that transforms the lives of students, enriches communities, and strengthens the regional economy.  The student body of just over 2,800 is primarily from Arkansas and surrounding border counties in Tennessee and Mississippi.  

Dickinson is a selective, private liberal-arts college in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.  Founded in 1783, its mission is to offer students a useful education in the arts and sciences that will prepare them for lives as engaged citizens and leaders.  Dickinson students (2,370 currently enrolled) hail from 44 U.S. states and 46 foreign countries.

The impact of big questions on advising: What do you want to learn and why?  How will you use it?

Arkansas State University-Newport: Those questions have a great impact on our students’ direction, and the conversation is vital to ensuring student success.  From the first contact with a student, ASUN advisors try to identify the program or degree track that fits the student's interests, career goals, and life situation.  Our initial conversations with students are nearly always focused on the declarations of a specific degree track.  In many cases, student program decisions or major declarations are made after just a few minutes of discussion.  ASUN is a two-year and technically focused college, and we cannot allow students to be undecided.  Our undecided students are steered toward our broad Associate of Arts in Liberal Arts degree plan, which allows them, and the university-bound students, to continue their education while not losing time or wasting money taking courses they do not need.  Arkansas’s funding model is based on student completion, making it paramount that we use answers to “What do you want to learn and why?  How will you use it?” to form the basis of the most important conversation students may have in regard to their college and career goals.  Understanding the long-term goals allows us to focus on the development of the technical skills and the soft skills needed to be successful in the field.

Dickinson: Beginning in the recruitment process, students are challenged to think about alignment between their personal and professional aspirations.  At Dickinson, we encourage students to begin reflecting on their experiences and goals before engaging with online resources and advisors available to help them make decisions.  Students must declare their major by the end of their sophomore year and the credits needed within that major make up only about one-third of the total courses needed for graduation, so while a luxury, the timeline is rational.  From an advising perspective, we encourage students to sort themselves into one of three categories: I know exactly what I want to study; I’m considering 2–4 fields of study; and I want to spend my first semester exploring as widely as possible.  Approximately one-third of the entering class fall into each category.  “What do you want to learn and why?” and “Where and how will you use it?” are key components of the liberal arts experience.  Exploring, but with focus, is key to an intentional and integrative experience.  

How does soft skill development and identification factor into the decision process for undecided students?

Arkansas State University-Newport: Soft skill development begins at first contact with a student.  Everything advisors do with and for our students sets an example of what we expect from them and helps us guide them into fields of study.  Through my initial discussions with a student, I try to help them find the type of work that fits their current strengths.  I then try to model soft skills that I find particularly beneficial to students’ specific skill development:

  • Shake hands every time you meet with a student, look them in the eyes and listen intently when they talk.  
  • Do not work on the computer or answer the phone while with a student, unless required for a student’s specific advising session.   
  • Take a moment to let them talk about their interests or something other than classroom work or college business.  
  • If possible, do not sit across a desk during advising conversations.  
  • Voice professional expectations of the student, though not in a way that seems like a lecture.  
  • Look for teachable moments, but try not to expound upon them more than is needed or they will lose their impact.  

By practicing each of the ideas above, I have found that soft skill development works well when modeled and when the purpose is understood.

Dickinson: By beginning to teach students about career competencies from day one—or sometimes even prior to enrollment—and then revisiting the topic intentionally during their time at the college, students recognize that those competencies exist, are valuable in their decision-making process, and begin to identify where and how they will continue to build on those skills through their curricular and co-curricular experiences.  Through individual and group advising, advisors at Dickinson ask students to draw parallels between competencies and their personal and professional experiences.  While not all students may have direct experience with all core competencies, many will take the opportunity to explore new opportunities to develop soft skills with which they may be less familiar—in or outside of their chosen field of study.  

Expanding reach and encouraging application: How are soft skills developed within the student body as a whole to prepare students for unscripted problems and opportunities?

Arkansas State University-Newport: We take a cross-curricular approach for our general education and transfer-minded students.  Their soft skills development is passive, not measured in terms of learning outcomes or specific objectives.  In all of our courses at ASUN, we strive to integrate our Institutional Learning Outcomes: Communication, Reasoning, and Responsibility.  All students should build a strong foundation in those areas.  However, our skilled trades programs have a more structured approach guided by advisory committees made up of professionals from the program field.  These advisory committees guide our curriculum development and ensure our programs remain on the leading edge of industry need.  On their recommendation, ASUN created a course titled Workplace Essentials to coach, model, and build needed soft skills.  Students learn interpersonal and effective communication, conflict resolution, oral communication, resume and cover letter writing, interview skills, professional deportment, team building, and leadership.  Every skilled trade student must successfully complete Workplace Essentials in order to complete their chosen program.  The skills taught are essential for our students not only in seeking and securing employment in their chosen field, but in building the foundations that create lasting careers and professional relationships

Dickinson: We have connected career competencies in a flexible but intentional way to a four-year integrative experience, the Dickinson Four.  This year by year program provides scaffolding to support students in making meaning of their experiences in and outside of the classroom and breaks the process of reflection and exploration into smaller, less overwhelming steps.  Although deceivingly simple, the Dickinson Four initiative asks students a series of questions, that, when paired with a variety of intentionally designed signature programs—in conjunction with the breadth and depth of the liberal arts curriculum and more than 100 student-run clubs and organizations—gives students the opportunity to navigate their college experience with confidence. 

  • The first-year experience is focused on helping students make Dickinson their own and the leading question is “who”.  Who do I want to be?  Who do I need to connect with to help me navigate the transition process?
  • Sophomore year is about discovering what matters.  While focusing on the question of “what”, students are given opportunities to continue exploration while balancing plans for the future with an appreciation for their current experiences and opportunities. 
  • Whether on or off campus, junior year is all about deepening your focus.  Through study abroad, internships, research, or opportunities for the cultivation of further co-curricular engagement, students are challenged to focus on “how”. 
  • The senior year offers students the chance to expand their story by putting it all together and preparing to articulate the value of the experience they had- and the skills gained along the way.  “Where” will you use your knowledge next?

Throughout each year program designers have intentionally embedded competencies into programmatic learning goals and assessment. 

Bringing It All Together

Encouraging students to see how the choices they make contribute to a larger narrative about their experiences and the value of the education they are receiving—and then asking them to practice telling their stories—is key.  Whether they are headed immediately into the workforce, going to graduate school, or pursuing other noble endeavors, they need to be able to tell their stories.  Understanding and articulating the choices that were made and why provides a natural framing for the college experience.  

As educators and advisors, we have a responsibility to our students to ask questions that evoke provocative and useful reflection.  Including tangible, outcome-based skill development into initial conversations helps serve our students, institutions, professions, and society most fully.  By encouraging students to identify and articulate how their past, current, and future experiences fit together, advisors equip students to be active and engaged participants in determining their majors and eventually finding their way into satisfying personal and professional futures.

Tara Vasold Fischer
Associate Dean of Academic Advising & College Dean
Office of Academic Advising
Dickinson College
[email protected]

Christopher Nelson
Senior Instructor of Career Readiness
Applied Science Division
Arkansas State University-Newport
[email protected]


National Association of Colleges and Employers. (n.d.). Career readiness defined.  Retrieved from http://www.naceweb.org/career-readiness/competencies/career-readiness-defined/

Cite this article using APA style as: Fischer, T.V., & Nelson, C. (2018, June). Using career competencies to help the undecided decide. Academic Advising Today, 41(2). Retrieved from [insert url here] 

Posted in: 2018 June 41:2


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