College Advice for Parents

College Advice for Parents

An interview with career planning professional, Marcia Harris

Marcia Harris is the Director of Career Services at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill. With 20+ years of experience and a Master's Degree in Education Guidance and Personnel Services, she retains a wealth of information that can be helpful to any parent with a college-bound child.

In addition to her background, Ms. Harris co-authored a book entitled “The Parent's Crash Course in Career Planning” (VGM, 1996), which offers advice to parents and their children regarding the early years of college, choosing a major, and the post-college employment challenge.

Emphasizing parental involvement, Ms. Harris says that parents “should have been encouraging their child all along to strive to be the best student that they are capable of being.” In the following interview, she provides additional insight.

Give us a little background on yourself. Where did you go to college and how did your career as a counselor start?

I grew up in Scranton, PA and went to a private boarding college prep school in Kingston, PA – Wyoming Seminary. My college degrees are from Vassar College (BA Psychology) and North Carolina State University (M Ed Guidance & Personnel Services).

Just prior to completing my Master's degree, I accepted a job as Assistant Director of Career Services at Meredith College in Raleigh, NC (1975). I worked there for a little over a year and then went to North Carolina State University as Assistant Director; and later as Associate Director of the career services office. I moved to the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill in 1982 as Director of Career Services.

As a counselor dealing with students and parents, what are some problems, challenges, or misconceptions you often stumble upon?

Parents are often unaware of the importance of students' doing summer internships that relate to their career goals. They also don't realize that many internships are unpaid and require students to go out of state for the summer, but in the long run these sacrifices definitely pay off.

Many students put off making career decisions and preparing to be a strong job candidate until close to or after graduation. By that time, they are far behind their classmates who have acquired leadership skills and several internships and have much stronger credentials to offer employers.

How important is the role of the parent in the educational process and why?

Studies show that parents are the single greatest influence on a student's career selection. It is important for parents to give students support and encouragement to explore many options and to find the best career fit for them (the student) as opposed to trying to live out their own unfulfilled career dreams through their child.

How can parents help their child to pick the school and program that will best suit them?

Parents should consult the high school guidance counselor, since that individual is trained on helping students make wise college selections. Of course parents must consider a variety of factors, such as their budget, the student's competitiveness for admission, distance from home, size, and most importantly, whether the college or university has the program that their child is interested in.

If their child has not yet selected a major or career area, they should ensure that they are considering colleges with programs of study that are likely to be of interest to the student. For example, a student with technical interests should consider universities that offer majors in computer science and engineering, while a student with broad interests in the social sciences or humanities could choose either liberal arts colleges or large universities, since both will have departments of interest.

If a student has a low GPA, how can the parent deal with that? What can they do to prevent their child from having a low GPA?

Parents should have been encouraging their child all along to strive to be the best student that they are capable of being, with the acceptance that not everyone is cut out to be an academic scholar. If the student has made an appropriate college choice, achieving a 3.0 GPA should be a realistic goal if they make grades a priority.

Parents might suggest that their child visit their college career office once they are accepted to hear from the career counselors the importance that employers place on grades. Knowing that their future employment prospects may depend on the grades they make may provide motivation.

Should parents encourage their child to go after specific skills, and if so, what are some examples of those skills?

Employers request skills such as science and lab skills, finance and accounting, computer science, sales, demonstrated leadership and teamwork, sales and persuasion, communication, and foreign language. Students should strive to develop strength in at least two skill areas.

Should parents encourage their children to develop leadership skills, and if so, are there any particular activities they should be encouraging their children to take part in?

Parents should most certainly encourage students to be involved in activities and to take increasingly more responsible leadership roles. The particular activity is not so important, although involvement in an organization related to the student's career interests is an advantage. The organization can be a campus political, social service, business club, etc. as well as an off-campus organization.

Employers want to see experience on a resume. Should parents encourage their children to take advantage of internship opportunities, even if it means not coming home for the summer?

Parents should understand the need for students to gain at least one summer of career-related experience, usually through an internship, and be supportive and encouraging of the student's going wherever necessary to get this experience.

There are pro's and con's to both early graduation and late graduation. Many parents may be concerned about this topic. How should parents handle this?

Parents need to discuss their concerns with their child. While there may be a cost-saving to early graduation in terms of tuition, the student may graduate with less experience and a weaker resume, resulting in a longer job search or less attractive job opportunities, thus negating the benefits of early graduation.

On the other hand, for a student looking at many years of continuing education to pursue a law or medical degree, for example, early graduation may be a wise choice.

Interviewed by Doug Schmitt, Staff Writer.

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