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Finding a job is work, which is why some colleges use winter break to advise students

Students attend a career coaching program at Scripps College during winter break, when there are no distractions from classes or other obligations and when campuses are otherwise quiet. (Yunuen Bonaparte for The Hechinger Report)

CLAREMONT, Calif. — Tiny Scripps College is still on winter break, and the Spanish colonial revival-style campus 30 miles east of Los Angeles seems deserted but for one small group of students busy practicing their handshakes.

The visiting graduate who is testing them pronounces most to have good, solid grips, just right for greeting the job interviewers they’re here learning to impress.

These 15 students, at a school with enrollment of about 950, are back at Scripps early not to focus on how to do a job, but on how to get one.

The session at the private liberal arts college for women is among a handful of efforts using seemingly endless winter breaks to provide career advising that many students never seek out the rest of the year.

“It’s just really hard to wrangle them, with their schedules” when classes are in session, said Vicki Klopsch, who runs the program.

The winter-break sessions are among the ways some colleges, especially those that focus on liberal arts, are responding to demands that they provide more practical career advising. It’s also an attempt to improve graduates’ placement rates and salaries, measures on which the schools are increasingly judged.

“Whenever I talk to prospective students and their parents, there are two issues I have to address: college costs and affordability and the employability of liberal arts graduates,” said Bill Tsutsui, president of Hendrix College in Arkansas, which just held its second winter career program for sophomores.

“The perception is so strong that just about the only thing liberal arts graduates can do is become baristas,” Tsutsui said. Yet “every year in April, I would meet seniors who had that deer-in-the-headlights look about, ‘What am I going to do when I graduate?’ And when I asked them, ‘Did you go to the career center,’ they’d say no.”

There’s another powerful influence that makes students think about careers during the weeks between the fall and spring semesters: their parents.

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“When students are home is when they get the inquiries over and over and again: ‘What are you thinking about? What are you going to do next summer?’ ” said Beth Throne, associate vice president for student and postgraduate development at Franklin & Marshall College in central Pennsylvania, which hosts a career boot camp for seniors at the end of winter break.

One who came back early to Scripps, Nicole Greenberg, said when she’s home between semesters, “There’s definitely a lot of asking what I’m going to do when I graduate.” Another, Emilie Hu, said she otherwise would have spent winter break at home in Pasadena, Calif., with her dog and, because her twin brother already went back to college, “alone with my parents.” Instead, she spent a week learning job-seeking tips.

Wintertime vacations started growing in the 1970s, when closing campuses for three to six weeks helped colleges and universities in colder climates save on heating costs. The practice spread to schools in warmer spots, too, and most have left things that way. Exactly why the breaks are still so long “is a great question, which I don’t think any of us know the answer to,” Tsutsui said.

Career advising during the lengthy intercessions lets colleges capitalize on a period when they’re otherwise ghost towns, with what Tsutsui called “a lot of very underemployed staff members” — and when students aren’t consumed with academics or distracted by their extracurricular activities and social lives.

Hendrix has invented a name for it: Career Term.

“It makes great sense because it’s such a downtime,” said Rich Feller, who studies trends such as this as a professor of counseling and career development at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.

The career programs — available at only a few schools — are optional and generally offered without additional charge. At Miami University in Ohio, which this winter is holding its first Career Summit, students have to pay to come back early to the dorms.

Some programs are for underclassmen who are just starting to think about careers; others, for seniors nearing graduation.

Formats vary, but the sessions last from a few days at most schools to a week at Scripps and generally cover the basics of searching for a job: writing résumés, practicing interviews, networking, dressing professionally, business etiquette, finding internships, personal branding. At Miami University, students were invited to attend in business attire, and the program was modeled after a professional conference with a keynote speaker and breakout sessions, all covering career preparation.

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Because the programs are taught in groups, they maximize the reach of career offices; the median number of professional career services employees at a college or university is three, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

“The question is, why haven’t we tapped into this before. For the right student, who is willing to come back early, it seems like a good use of that otherwise downtime,” said Jen Franchak, assistant vice president for the Center for Career Exploration and Success at Miami.

On the other hand, said Scripps College’s Klopsch, “A lot of colleges struggle with how are they going to pay for it, or there are staff who take vacations.”

Some institutions use the winter break for job-shadowing and alumni networking events. Lafayette College, where the winter break lasts almost all of January, sends teams of students for networking and professional development to Boston, New York and Chicago and to the area around its Easton, Pa., campus to visit businesses and graduates in their eventual fields.

“There’s lots of conversation among my peers about the winter break,” said Mike Summers, Lafayette’s assistant vice president for career services. That’s because, during the rest of the year, “It’s difficult to run programming of any length against academic obligations, and most professors won’t let [students] miss class. You’re constantly competing for those students’ time.”

Campus career officials are also straining to help students find good jobs — and that’s the reason 85 percent of freshmen said they went to college in the first place, according to a national survey run by a University of California at Los Angeles institute.

But fewer than half of employers say graduates have the professionalism and work ethic they need, the National Association of Colleges and Employers found in a survey.

University graduates seem to hold their colleges accountable for this. Only 17 percent told a Gallup poll that their career services office had been very helpful to them. Then again, 40 percent never set foot in the career center, Gallup found.

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“Some institutions wait for someone to come through the door for an advising appointment” instead of reaching out with programs such as the winter-break events, Franklin & Marshall’s Throne said. “It doesn’t work.”

Among her friends, said Scripps sophomore Margot Mafra Spencer, “maybe one out of 10” have gone to the career office, even though “they’re all overwhelmed and thinking, ‘What am I going to do with my life?’ ”

That’s because “there’s maybe a little bit of hesitation, that sense of, ‘Hey it’s in the future,’ ” said senior Emma Loftus, who is from Seattle.

But Loftus said she doesn’t see it that way.

“I definitely do consider college to be an investment,” she said. “I’m not going to move home after this and do nothing.”

If the stakes are high for students and their families, who have invested heavily in higher education, doing better also is essential to universities and colleges.

Graduates who considered their career offices helpful were more than three times as likely than those who didn’t to recommend their colleges to others and nearly three times more likely to donate money, Gallup found.

Scripps students said their winter break was teaching them that looking for a job was not as intimidating as they had thought.

It’s their self-confidence that needs the most work, Klopsch said. “Hands down. They don’t know their own confidence. They don’t believe in their own confidence.”

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Hu, for instance, said she has “never been someone who was fearless or the first to speak.” Added Loftus: “As a senior entering the workforce, I do have anxiety about feeling whether I’m ready.”

So the students practiced interviewing, learned how to create convincing profiles on LinkedIn, found the typical salaries and workplace demands for careers they’re considering and created words they said described them.

“An effective communicator,” one pronounced, as the rest applauded in a career office ringed by shelves of books about writing effective cover letters and mastering the job interview. “Sparkle,” said another, using her hands for emphasis.

“People make it seem much more intimidating than it actually is,” said Spencer, hours into the third day of the program. “This breaks it down into manageable pieces. All I really needed was the tools.”

Greenberg, a senior just a few months from graduation, found it equally helpful.

“I wish I had done this as a freshman.”

This story about college career advising was produced by the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.