The career counselling conundrum

As more and more students seek information and guidance on college/university admissions and careers, career counselling in a structured format becomes critical to making decisions and offers much-needed direction. Selecting the right subjects of undergraduate and higher studies that lead to jobs, professions and careers of their choice are the main objectives with which they approach career counsellors.

Choice is an important word here – and it should be noted accordingly – as career counsellors mostly inform students about appropriate/suitable options and make recommendations based on the students’ interests, aptitudes, personalities and goals. Unlike a doctor’s prescription which is a clearly-defined course or path to follow for a patient, career counsellor recommendations to their students are seldom a single career path to follow.

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Much to the dilemma and chagrin of students (and their parents), career counsellors usually present career scenarios and options to students, preferring not to pin-point a single subject of study or career path to individual students who seek advice/counsel from them. I’m not sure why this is so, but I’ve found that this practice is true in India, in the United States and in Australia as well… leaving many students and their parents in some uncertainty.

Perhaps this conundrum exists because career counsellors are expected to offer guidance only – a sort of handholding you might say – and. ultimately, students have to make their own independent decisions on their careers, subjects of study and colleges/universities they choose. So, though career counsellors can help students (a) articulate their interests and career goals and (b) identify their aptitudes, skills and talents, the challenge of choosing the right education and career path still rests with the students.

According to, career counsellors perform a range of duties, including the following:

  • Administer personality and interest inventories
  • Use achievement and aptitudes tests to help clients get a better idea of what they are good at
  • Counsel clients who are considering a career change
  • Evaluate clients educational and work backgrounds in order to help them determine what they need to do next to achieve their goals
  • Advise students about what courses and educational programs they need for particular careers
  • Help clients select the right schools or programs for their needs
  • Help students locate sources of financial support to pay for school and other training programs
  • Teach and practice jobs skills such as interviewing, resume writing, and networking
  • Aid clients in the job search process by teaching them where to look for open positions and connecting them with job search resources.”

[Citation: Career Counselor by Kendra Cherry,]

Career counselling adds value to students

For most students seeking admission to college or university, the goal really is securing a job and starting a career. This usually means finding a job that provides security against unemployment, pays well, and offers opportunities for growth over the years spent in building their careers. The college/university education is really a means to that end.

That’s where career counselling comes in – to guide students towards appropriate careers. Mind you, this applies to a minority of students in India as most Indian students do not have access to career counselling. Here’s how the process normally works for students who have the orientation and motivation to meet counsellors:

  1. Students look for careers that match their interests, aptitudes, talents and high school education.
  2. Career counsellors identify careers that match student needs and aspirations – sometimes with help from aptitude and psychometric tests – and recommend appropriate careers as well as college/university programmes to the students.
  3. Students choose one career from the set of career options recommended, and pursue it through college/university and by picking up degrees, diplomas, certificates to build their knowledge and credentials.
  4. Students are hired by organisations either through campus interviews or by applying to jobs on their own or by using their (parents’) networks.

A good job is almost always one that’s in a large reputed organisation or in the government. Jobs of both types offer a combination of security, pay, anticipated opportunities for growth and career advancement. Every other type of job possesses a lower priority. A college/university education – and the degrees that come with it – simply prepares the students to meet this goal. This means college/university education and the counselling/recommendation career counsellors offer prepare students to enter the workforce in the best possible ways.

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However, in the past ten years, the global economy and the nature of work – and, in turn, the job market – have changed substantially. But within this universe, higher education reforms, curricula and faculty have failed to stay abreast with technology in the industry. Much of the education and the degrees students obtain from colleges and universities are outdated with reference to what the employers demand from their fresh recruits.

Even if a small portion of fresh graduates and post-graduates are able to find employment in reputed organisations, these once-coveted jobs no longer offer guarantee in terms of security that the employees seek. In terms of employment, what matters today are not only degrees that employees carry with them to their jobs, but also a mindset for continuous learning, innovation and self-improvement throughout their lives.

Considering India’s growing student population, this is a huge opportunity for career counsellors. Career counselling no longer needs to be in a rut with a handful of options for students, using the same-old counselling scripts and methodology. Rather, career counselling opens up many more careers, jobs, courses, programmes, qualifications, colleges, universities, skills and experiences that employers and the industry seek. Thereby helping students make informed decisions about their careers.

To counsel students well, counsellors themselves need to stay abreast with and ahead of changes and innovations in higher education, careers, industry diversification, employment opportunities, entrepreneurship, student aspirations and mindsets, and counselling techniques. If career counsellors do this well, they can add much-needed value to this universe of higher education, jobs and careers – and create an important niche for themselves and their profession.

The good news is, career counselling in India is coming of age. It is being recognised as an important aspect of career building for students. Since colleges and universities in India are still not geared to offer career counselling to their students, career counsellors are setting up their own private consulting ventures. This is an urban phenomenon at the moment and yet to become popular with students and their parents. Even school and college teachers aren’t informed enough to recommend names of career counsellors to their students when their students turn to them for advice.

As a response to this lack of information exchange between schools/colleges, students and their parents, career counsellors have begun marketing themselves to schools and colleges.

Tough college admission systems benefit students

I applaud all Indian students who are successful in navigating the rigorous admission procedures of colleges and universities in the United States or in other developed nations such as the UK, Canada, Australia, Singapore or from Western Europe. Unlike the relatively easy admissions procedure of Indian colleges and universities, which I’ve described in my College admissions are a breeze in India post, colleges and universities in the United States – which are favourite destinations for Indian students – for instance, follow a rigorous system for student admissions. The process is something like this:

There are Grade Point Averages (GPAs) for American students or their equivalent, Scholastic Assessment Test scores (SATs) or ACTs, letters of recommendations, résumés, and presentations of interests and extra-curricular activities the student has engaged in (typically) in the last three years of his/her school life (which is uncommon among Indian students). Besides these, some colleges and universities request for presentations of other assessment transcripts.

If compliance with this process isn’t tough enough, the student is required to submit one or more essays for evaluation. These essays almost always put Indian students to task because they have never had to do this in their school/college life, nor do they have the orientation for it. I’ve touched upon this issue in an earlier post What’s your main reason for applying to university.

In the essays, the student is expected to present (a) why he/she is best qualified to be selected for admission into the college/university and the course/programme he/she has chosen, (b) his/her purpose of selecting the specific college/university and the specific course/programme and career, and (c) demonstrable skills, qualities and interests which validate various aspects of the student’s life, character, personality and creativity. In short, the essays are expected to reveal details about the student’s life and thinking which a standard résumé does not.

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Of course, within this global perspective, different colleges/universities look for different attributes in students from their essays for selection. So, the evaluation is pretty much subjective and it’s difficult to define precisely what criteria winning essays should fulfil. In an interview with Clear Admit, Amanda Carlson, Assistant Dean of Admission of Columbia Business School says,

“We try to glean details from the essays, details about a candidate’s character and interests that a resume will not reveal. We know there is more texture, more depth to candidates than just what is printed on a resume. 

There is nothing specific for which we are looking in terms of backgrounds or experiences. We are looking to craft a class filled with ambitious, smart, talented and collaborative students. How this takes shape in terms of the backgrounds of an individual candidate really depends on what his/her background looks like and how the candidate tells us about his/her interests. 

There is no “right” or “wrong” answer. We are simply looking for the candidates to tell us what they feel is important for us to know and what they will bring to the Columbia community.”

Once the student submits his/her completed application to his/her college or university of choice, the application goes up for review by members of the admissions board or committee. This review is, once again, an entirely subjective process and the student application may go through as many as three reviews by three individual reviewers before a decision is taken to accept the application for admission or not. If the student application is accepted, the student is called for an interview.

Usually, the admissions board does not share any student data with the interviewer(s). So, the interviewer gets to know only whatever the student shares with the interviewer during the interview. Once the interview is completed, the admissions board/committee reviews the student application one last time after incorporating comments/feedback from the interview. This entire student application evaluation process takes two months or more – and can be a trying period for Indian students applying to colleges and universities in the US.

This rigorous admissions procedure does, at least, three things which I believe benefits students: First, it opens up the student’s mind in terms of his/her self (who am I?), capabilities, education, purpose of selecting a specific course/programme to enrol in, and career choice. Second, it adds value to the classroom, the course/programme and the college/university (“We are looking to craft a class filled with ambitious, smart, talented and collaborative students.” – Amanda Carlson). And three, it builds a higher education system which is solid in terms of substance and merit.

Now, if only it were possible for Indian higher education to adopt this system of admission for Indian colleges and universities. It will not only raise Indian higher education from a cesspool of mediocrity that it is now, but will also (a) improve the quality of students in Indian colleges and universities, and (b) enrich student lives.

[Citation: Admission Director Q&A: Amanda Carlson of Columbia Business School, Clear Admit blog.]

College admissions are a breeze in India

College students who are studying Science, Arts, Commerce and Law at present tell me that getting into college wasn’t all that difficult for them. It depended on the marks they obtained in their school-leaving examinations. It had everything to do with how well (or badly) they had performed in school and in their final one-and-only school-leaving examination. Those who had scored marks upward of 90% secured admission into the best colleges. Others enrolled into colleges that would select them from the long list of students applying for admissions. The school-leaving exam mark sheet was the single qualifying criterion of their merit as a college/university applicant.

It also depended on the colleges/universities the students sought admissions in – with some prodding from their parents. The reputation of the college played an important part during application for admission. No one bothered to check the specific college/university faculty or department in terms of reputation of professors, facilities offered like labs or libraries, general college/university amenities, scholarships, or even what the fees were. No one went for a campus visit. It was simply the overall reputation of the college/university. And, in some cases, particularly for the girls, proximity to home.

Of course, there were tense moments for many of them – and their parents – running around and standing in long queues to collect and submit forms, and pay fees, within deadlines set by the colleges. Looking back, the students now feel that the college/university admissions procedure was a breeze. There were no public examinations (as there are for admissions to engineering and medical science courses), no SATs to sit through or essays to submit (as there are when seeking admission to colleges/universities in the United States), or any other test or interview to qualify in for admissions.

Leaving aside engineering and medical colleges, I’m not sure if this admissions procedure holds true for all colleges/universities in India at the moment. In 1978, in Calcutta, when I joined St Xavier’s College (affiliated to Calcutta University) and later moved to Jadavpur University, I had to qualify in written tests and interviews for admission. So, perhaps, specific colleges/universities in India have specific qualifying criteria or rules for admissions. Anyway, the point I’m making is that admission procedures to colleges/universities in India do not follow the kind of rigour or regimen that is standard practice for the best colleges/universities in the developed nations.

No doubt, this relatively easy college admissions procedure is a happy thing for students in India.

What is your main reason for applying to university?

I don’t remember anyone asking me this question when I left high school to join college. In Indian culture and society, everyone goes to college after leaving school. It’s an accepted fact – like accepting free air and gravitation. No one really questions it. Education is a right that most of us take for granted, moving on from primary school to high school to college and university.

That is true, of course, if you’re in the privileged lot. Because much of India is poor and education, especially higher education, is a distant cry for them when rights to food, safety, security, sanitation, healthcare, electricity, etc. are not honoured. But that’s another story.

For the rest of us, going to college or university after high school is a done deal. The question, therefore, is not “What is your main reason for applying to university?” Because the answer is pure and simple to everyone: to get a better education, leading to a job, money, more money, promotions, a career, a family, a better life, enjoyment or fulfilment, and a peaceful retirement.

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In short, the answer is a combination of improving our earning potential and career prospects.

However, questions are asked about selection of subjects to study; about colleges/universities or institutes which offer these subjects of study and are reputed in their fields; about college/university admissions; about public examinations for selection of students/candidates for specific courses and careers; about studying abroad, admissions procedures and costs; and about careers.

In most cases, the difficult questions hover around subjects of study, careers, and admissions to colleges/universities. Questions on studying abroad bring in additional worries about costs.

If you think the question “What is your main reason for applying to university?” will lead you to answers like “to seek knowledge” or “to make a difference in this world” or “to set up my own enterprise and create job opportunities for others”, then you are seriously mistaken. We aren’t that evolved yet.