Q+A: College Counselor

Suzanne O'Connor on careers, education, and what employers are looking for.

~ 7 minute read

The CareerExplorer Discord Community had the opportunity to speak to Suzanne O'Connor, a career counselor at Siena College, in a live, fireside Q&A.

Suzanne O’Connor is the Associate Director of the Career Education and Professional Development office at Siena College.

She spent much of her career in business, working in management and then in recruiting. Midway through her life, she was itching for a change. She returned to graduate school and obtained an MS Ed. in College Counseling. After 20+ years she found her niche.

Suzanne takes a holistic career counseling approach with students. Each student has their own story, and helping them connect that story with a next step is the best part of her day. She believes that career decisions are tied to many variables — interests, values, competencies, personality, geography, motivation, and past experiences. They are not separate considerations.

The transcript below has been modified and abridged from the original conversation.

Careers & Education

How do I find a career that fits me best? Is it by career assessments, informational interviews, or something else?

You are thinking about important considerations, which is great. A career assessment, like CareerExplorer for example, is important. But career assessments are just a starting point — they are not magic.

Seek out a career counselor. Guidance counselors in high school can help, but they are not always literate in careers. Of course, this depends on your school, but the main thing is to do a LOT of research on careers so you understand what options you have.

Select a few careers that interest you, and interview people in those fields. The best advice I have for finding people to speak to is to go on LinkedIn and onto your college’s LinkedIn page.

If your LinkedIn profile is not robust and professional, get that in shape first. Then join some groups that match your interests. Search alumni by what they studied, and see what other people with particular majors have done career-wise. Set up Zoom interviews if you really connect with a person and they seem helpful. Students love LinkedIn; it’s a great way to explore.

Also, remember that no one can TELL you what to do. Don’t get backed into a career because you have the potential to earn a lot of money. You have to like it or the money won’t matter. I see students whose parents tell them to major in accounting, for example, because they will get a good paying job. But if a student hates being in the career, it won’t be a good fit and they won’t be happy.

Do you recommend that we retake career assessments every once in a while, or is once sufficient?

Yes, take a career assessment every year or so. As you grow and change, the basics of your personality will not change, but your interests may.

Once you take an assessment like CareerExplorer, don’t just look at the career images. It is a robust resource — read the “Overview”, “How to Become”, and “Jobs” sections of the careers you are interested in. See if the duties and responsibilities appeal to you.

How does one pick an academic minor? I am a prospective student going for a major in computer science.

Where you intern is actually more important than what you minor in. If the major you are looking at pursuing is technical, then where you intern is critical in your field.

As for choosing a minor, check your school’s catalog, review the minor curriculum, and see if any of the courses offered are of any interest to you.

What do you say to students that are in a less fortunate position financially and feel intimidated by the high cost of college?

I suggest a student who is financially strapped study at a community college. Then, depending on their degree, they can transfer to a state school (this is applicable in the United States). They should also research financial aid and scholarships in their city, civic organizations, etc.

If college is totally out of the realm of possibility, they should look at a trade that interests them; trades are often financially lucrative.

What advice would you give to a student that doesn’t feel a passion for any one specific thing? How do they go about deciding on a degree or a career path?

I would advise a student to be careful about seeking a passion. That implies they are going to FEEL something right away. There is a great TED Talk called Stop Searching For Your Passion which is very enlightening and well worth watching. Carol Dweck has also done studies on this topic — this article in The Atlantic is a great read.

Also, there are many good books out there — such as Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett/Dave Evans, and Everything is Figureoutable by Marie Floreo.

Interning and talking to people in the fields you are interested in is also advisable. Look at the skills you have and see what careers match; that is a great starting point. Also look at college programs — you can use Petersons.com to do this.

Resumes & Interviews

Are there any resume tips that you recommend? Is there a specific structure that is preferable?

There are many opinions on resumes, and sometimes different styles are needed for different careers (marketing versus technical for example). Moms and dads may want to help, but they may not know how resumes are now designed, so it’s best to talk to a professional if possible (such as the Career Center at your college).

My resume tips are:

  • Keep it to one page (employers skim resumes)
  • Put your most relevant experience at the top
  • No personal pronouns
  • Identify your skills using bullet points
  • Start bullet points with verbs
  • If you are a recent graduate, your education goes at the top
  • If you have been out of college for several years, your education goes at the bottom

How can I leverage my internship background when seeking a job?

Leveraging your internship is the best way to go about getting a job. If you have connections from where you are interning, ask them for advice. Write down a list of skills and topics in which you have developed expertise. Talk to people in the field to find out what they would seek if they were hiring.

Do you think that the traditional interview process is often ineffective? Do you think that it needs an overhaul?

That is an interesting perspective. It has more to do with the level of insight the interviewer has. If the interviewer is just asking routine questions, they are not getting deep answers.

Also, on the issue of diversity, people with Asperger’s do not have strong social skills, therefore interviewing is a challenge. More forward-thinking employers are offering interviews that involve asking the applicant to solve a problem or a puzzle, rather than just asking questions. Of course, this works better in technical fields.

What are some things I should do to prepare for an interview?

First and foremost, you should always know what a company’s mission statement is before going into the interview. A company’s mission will always be on their website.

Have several mock interviews (practice sessions) before you engage in a real interview. Interviewing is about telling stories — don’t just say “I’m a good communicator” or “I’m a good team player”. Have solid examples ready. Do some research by reading articles and watching YouTube videos — look for behavior-based interviewing questions and prepare your answers.

Also, because almost all interviews are now virtual, make sure you look professional and that the environment behind you is clean and neat. With virtual interviewing, it is easy to have notes in front of you to remind you of key points.

What skills are employers looking for?

Employers are looking for both hard and soft skills — although the emphasis now is on soft skills. You learn hard skills in your studies and on the job; soft skills have to be developed and articulated.

According to the results of a national survey with NACE (National Association of Colleges and Employers), there are eight skills employers are seeking:

  • Critical thinking
  • Teamwork
  • Technology
  • DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion)
  • Career management
  • Leadership
  • Communication skills
  • Professionalism

How do you convey to an employer that you are the right candidate for the job?

Great question. Employers love to see enthusiasm. They also want to know that you’ve done research on their company. Explaining how your skills and experience line up with the position is also key — having solid examples demonstrating this is important.

Ask about next steps at the end of the interview, and make sure to send a thank you email!

Find weekly Live Q&As in the CareerExplorer Discord Community.

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