Counseling Today, Member Insights

Unprepared, undecided and unfulfilled

By Adriana V. Cornell January 28, 2015

A client said to me: “I wish someone would just fill in all the answers.”
Caroline is a bright, motivated and seemingly confident college senior, yet she is terrified of graduation and bewildered in the face of her future. She wants “variety” and options, but she does not want to choose one. She wants a “gratifying and engaging” career, but she does not want responsibility or leadership. She wants a higher degree, but she does not want to spend more time in school.

The flood of graduation and the “real world” is slowly but ruthlessly rising, and Caroline and her peers find themselves neck-deep. Predictability and familiarity have never been so simultaneously Branding-Box-undecidedprecious and deficient. Gone are the days of acceptable denial and excusable procrastination: In roughly three months, college seniors will need to make a decision.

For many of these students, determining the next step will be the biggest and most weighted decision of their lives. They must negotiate not only practical necessities such as housing and a salary but also a personal resolution. Being a student is both an occupation and an identity; transitioning from college to career demands a resignation of the role college seniors know and do best. They have mastered the duties of a student, navigated the nuances of the educational system and understood what to expect and how to succeed within it. As students, they are in control.

Paul Sites, author of Control: The Basis of Social Order (1973), identified eight basic human needs: consistency of response, stimulation, security, recognition, justice, meaning, rationality and control. If these needs are not met, Sites claimed, one cannot exhibit “normal” or nondeviant individual behavior. School, it seems, is the model of this theory. To facilitate optimal learning, creativity and intellectual development, college campuses are designed to meet all of Sites’ fundamental needs.

Grading satisfies justice, recognition and consistency of response. When students complete an assignment, they receive a grade, representing (high or low) achievement. Presumably, professors and other faculty allow students equal opportunity to succeed by providing clear instructions (a rubric) and evaluating the student without bias or comparative measures. Fair and reliable feedback is not only a norm on college campuses but also an enforced requirement.

Students generally feel valued and safe in college. Admissions tours boast of high security on campus, emphasizing the emergency phones sprinkled throughout, 24/7 campus police patrol, convenient transportation and campus alerts sent via text and email. Last spring, University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann responded to an alarming number of student deaths by suicide by forming a task force and informing students that “now is the time to review our work and to ensure that we have in place the best practices in outreach, education, intervention and treatment.” In college, students’ security and safety are the school’s priorities.

But college is perhaps most extraordinary for its pure mission to educate and stimulate. Learning is the primary occupation of students, and through learning, students find meaning and inspiration. Students are in an environment that encourages only growth. The sole purpose of that environment is helping students succeed.

Graduating from college means the loss of a comfortable identity and introduction to a host of empty needs. Syllabi, protection and unconditional (free) support are no longer available. In the workplace, recent college graduates expect recognition and compensation that may not arrive. They expect to be motivated and gratified in an entry-level position. And they expect their co-workers to look after them like their classmates and professors did. Although these employed graduates are left deflated with disappointment, their unemployed classmates are left inflated with anxiety.

In the weeks and months preceding graduation, college seniors anticipate with increasing urgency the imminent loss of resources. Some students begin to feel lonely, abandoned and unable to progress independently. These students typically feel unprepared to face adulthood and career. Others, like Caroline, are undecided. They feel overburdened by the responsibility of making a choice and instead choose nothing. Still others find vulnerability and exploration so threatening that they remain steadfast in their long-standing habits and routines. These students are often guided by their parents’ goals and are ultimately unfulfilled when they find their own wants, needs and identities unexplored and unexpressed.

How can counselors help?

Given the typically last-minute nature of these students’ concerns, counseling interventions should be purposeful and productive. Regardless of the duration of the therapeutic relationship, counselors must be considerate of the treatment deadline: graduation. Fortunately, the college-to-career transition is foreseeable and has precedent. No student is surprised by the end of his or her educational career or unaware of the general expectations that follow. Challenges arise when students interpret or react to these expectations in an irrational or maladaptive manner.

An important distinction should be made at this point: Mental health counselors are neither trained for nor responsible for securing a position of employment for students. Résumé building, networking, job searching and other related logistics fall more within the duties of the career counselor or campus career services. In my view, a mental health counselor’s role is to ready students emotionally and mentally so that they may perform at their best in their next pursuit.

Counseling the unprepared student

In my experience, normalizing fears of the undetermined future is the first step toward helping the student who feels unprepared for graduation. Though basic, this intervention can be powerful for students who reach that much-anticipated “finish line” only to feel disoriented, incomplete and submerged in unfamiliar demands. Celebration and congratulations are flung at them, while they want nothing more than to turn back time. Often, students find themselves in this category due in part to the regular yet empty votes of support and confidence they receive. Throughout the course of their youth, they have been told — and therefore believe — that they have ability, options and, best of all, time. But the rosy fog of encouragement is accompanied by far too few truths.

Typically, students in this category were rarely challenged to follow a course of practicality, and no one ever earnestly asked them what they planned to do after senior year. Although these dreamers fuel the very purpose of education — learning for the love of learning — they find themselves at a startling awakening come graduation. The chilling truths that ability may not be enough, options may not be plentiful and time is not endless are crushing. As counselors, we must first meet these students there, in that emotion. Joining the client is essential to developing a strong therapeutic rapport efficiently, and this is especially critical if time is limited.

Next, a counselor might explore and emphasize the student’s support system. Often, unprepared students feel as though they must approach the real world on their own. Many imagine that immediately following graduation, they no longer qualify as students and, thus, may no longer enjoy the resources a college campus provides. Helping students understand the possibilities and benefits of ongoing relationships with professors, classmates and coaches and how to establish those connections even at the end of senior spring can allow for greater confidence, comfort and a sense of control. Scheduling as few as one meeting with an adviser or professor to discuss career goals can set a platform for regular updates, communication and advice after graduation.

In this context, unprepared students are often good students. Lack of preparation for graduation does not always imply a lack of motivation. Rather, these students are typically unprepared because they are more invested in their education than in their careers. But realizing that this focus, although lauded in college, will be obsolete in a matter of months is disheartening. Counselors might utilize strengths-based counseling and positive psychology to help these students recall their skills and understand how to apply these skills to the professional domain. For example, a student who writes for the school newspaper might emphasize writing skills, an ability to meet deadlines and word limits, community outreach opportunities, creativity and team-oriented skills. By drawing a connection between education and career, counselors might empower these students to embrace life after college as an opportunity rather than as an end to self-directed possibility.

Counseling the undecided student

Whereas the unprepared student is fearful, the undecided student is apathetic. For these students, success is more of a societal guideline than a personal passion or drive. Caroline, for example, hopes to proceed to a doctoral degree for the associated prestige it offers rather than out of a genuine personal interest or purpose. When asked the “miracle question” of her ideal present or future scenario, Caroline replied flatly: “I don’t know.” Students such as Caroline typically seek counseling in hopes that “someone will just fill in all the answers” for them.

Several studies have found that choice leads to greater satisfaction and sense of control. Even the appearance of choice, regardless of the desirability or authenticity of each option, can create increased self-efficacy and superior performance. With this theory in mind, it seems counselors would most effectively help graduating students by presenting them with options (false or genuine): get a job, continue on to graduate school, take a year off, volunteer — or even do nothing at all.

Not only are these “options” vague or unrealistic for many college seniors, but they are also unhelpful. Although choice may offer control and power, too many choices produce confusion and dissatisfaction. Research conducted by Sheena Iyengar in 2011 shows that presenting consumers with multiple variations of a single product (in her study, different flavors of jam) attracts more attention but results in fewer purchases.

The miracle question is futile for undecided students because they see too many choices and “buy” none. For students to understand the differences between choices, they have to be able to understand the consequences associated with each one. Counselors may illuminate these consequences by asking students more specific questions, particularly regarding motivation and everyday realities. For example, a counselor might refer to John Holland’s hexagonal Self-Directed Search model to prompt questions such as whether a student is more comfortable working alone or in groups, with routine or spontaneously, and with his or her mind or hands. Pointed questions may help to eliminate unlikely or distracting options, force the student to think beyond external factors such as salary, prestige and location, and consider internal factors such as gratification, generativity and pride.

Counseling the unfulfilled student

Whereas the undecided student is apathetic, the unfulfilled student is baffled. The unfulfilled student — or, more likely, the student’s parents — declares an ultimate professional goal and explores few alternatives thereafter. The goal often provides the student a direct course to follow and a set of boundaries to stay within. While the student’s peers may have struggled to define their paths during adolescence and early college, the unfulfilled student seems to have found comfort in the step-by-step requirements of an esteemed career. Therefore, it is plausible that, over time, the career comes to represent a majority of the student’s identity. To refuse or abandon that career would be a betrayal of the student’s sense of self.

Although this student may not present with or even report career-related issues, symptoms of anxiety and stress often exist as graduation nears. After years of determination, this student may arrive in session on the eve of senior spring wondering if she or he made the right decision. With constant focus on the ultimate goal and the future, this student largely ignored the process and the present moment. These students may feel that although they have achieved their goal, they have learned very little about themselves and their environment. Stress and anxiety result when this realization occurs.

Research conducted by Nathan J. White and Terence J. G. Tracey in 2011 suggests that students who score higher on self-awareness and authenticity measures are more decisive about career and less likely to be fearful and anxious or to have difficulty believing in their problem-solving abilities. To orient unfulfilled students to their extracurricular identities and to develop their self-awareness, counselors might begin by facilitating exploration around fundamental identity ingredients: likes and dislikes, various roles played, strengths and weaknesses, and accomplishments, failures and goals (for example, starting a family). Next, counselors might focus on the student’s relationships and how she or he exists among others. Examining healthy and unhealthy, positive and negative relationships — particularly with parents in this case — may inform the old patterns and inspire new dynamics in the future.

Conclusion

One important commonality exists among the unprepared, undecided and unfulfilled student alike: All feel that in making a career decision, they must mourn the loss of potential selves. Since elementary school, possibility seemed endless. Parents and teachers promised that they could be anything they wanted to be. But suddenly the music stops, and everyone wants an answer to the dreaded question: What are you going to do now? Being captain of the soccer team, president of the arts and crafts club or editor of the school newspaper seems to pale next to the blank line where a shining career is meant to be — the career that one supposedly spent all this time working toward.

As counselors, we must help students transform their nostalgia for yesterday into enthusiasm for tomorrow. Choosing a career is not a single event but rather an ongoing, lifelong process. Encourage students to see not an end to but a beginning of possibility, and help them find energy in their new independence. For the first time, their lives are entirely in their control. Emphasize not the burden of choice but the freedom.

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Adriana V. Cornell earned two master’s degrees from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and now works as a college counselor for high school students. Through private practice, she assists high school students with each step of the college application process, including self-conceptualization, college list development, essay writing and application completion. She lives in Center City Philadelphia with her husband. To contact her, visit adrianacornell.com.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

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