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Counseling Can Help Veterans Choose A College Major

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It's a hard truth: Nearly half of recent veterans who use their GI Bill benefits to further their post-secondary education are failing to obtain a diploma or certificate within a decade, says a study released this year. And according to an analysis by The Resume Place, a major cause of this shortfall is veteran students' uninformed choice of college majors, which leads to underemployment, unemployment or just plain dissatisfaction.

The details of the study: Some 51.7 percent of post-9/11 veterans using GI Bill education benefits completed an associates, bachelors or graduate degree or a vocational certificate program within 10 years, according to a 2014 report by Student Veterans of America and partner organizations. This compares to a four-year graduation rate of 59 percent for young non-veterans in 2011, says a USA Today analysis of data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

But there is plenty of hope for better outcomes, especially for veterans who seek advice early on in their college careers. "If we can get student veterans talking early on in college, they can avoid mistakes in the choice of a major – and a career," says Lisa Andrews, Ph.D., director of The Office of Career Services at University of Maryland University College. "It's ideal to make a career choice before you choose your major."

Career Counseling Should Help Steer Veterans' Path Through College

Veterans are wise to choose a college major carefully and early, so that they get the maximum return on the GI Bill money and all the hard work they put into their higher education. Career counseling can enable that.

"Veteran students should select courses, projects, professors and internships that will support their post-graduation careers," says Kathryn Troutman, author of Military to Federal Career Guide, Second Edition and president of The Resume Place.

Student Veterans Face Barriers to Making Good Career Choices

Student veterans need advice because many don't know enough about which college majors will be the most marketable when they graduate. Nor do they necessarily understand how their military experience can help them build a civilian career.

"Veterans are a little reluctant about choosing what they want to do," says Andrews. "In the military, they were always just told what their work assignments would be." So Andrews and her colleagues endeavor to help students express or discover what they like to do.

Here are six steps that veteran students can take to steer their post-secondary studies toward a successful and rewarding career.

Step 1: Examine How Military Experience Can Translate to a Civilian Career

"Student veterans who have done a certain job in the military need to analyze how it can translate to the world of civilian work," says Troutman. A college career counselor can translate military occupational jargon into language that will make sense to civilian hiring managers and human resources departments.

As they begin their higher education, veterans should also find out if they can "CLEP" any of their military training or experience, which gives them a head start on the course credits they will need for graduation.

Step 2: Take Assessments for Aptitudes and Interests

Veteran students can ask their college career counselors for testing to help them understand their own personality types, interests and skills. Assessments such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and the Strong Interest Inventory are commonly given to college students. "Assessments give you information about yourself that can help you make a career decision — but they don't make that decision for you," says Andrews.

Step 3: Explore Other Personal and Labor-Market Factors in the Career Decision

Veteran students should also look at their own talents, skills, experience and interests – beyond their military service – to see what careers might be a good match. College career counselors can help veteran students research the marketability of various majors and the projected demand for the corresponding career fields. "While earning potential is a critical consideration for most college students, it shouldn't be the sole basis for a career choice," says Troutman.

Step 4: Choose a College Major As Soon As Possible

Next, student veterans should work with their counselors – as early in their post-secondary education as possible – to settle on the optimal college major, given their choice of careers. The earlier veterans elect a major, the sooner they'll be able to graduate and get on with their careers, family life, and other aspirations.

Step 5: Find Student Internships Relevant to College Major and Choice of Occupation

With their numerous connections to employers and alumni, college career counselors can help veteran students line up internships, which are so often the best launch pad for the desired career. Counselors can help students write the resumes that may be required for internship applications.

Step 6: Start Early on the Search for That First Post-Graduation  Career Position

Early in the final year of their post-secondary education, veteran students should begin working with their counselors to line up a well-chosen post-graduation job. Career counselors can help with resume, interview and job-fair preparation. They can also point soon-to-be-grads to the people, jobs databases and other resources that will be critical to finding an employment opportunity that aligns with their college major and career choice.

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Lisa Andrews has over 19 years of experience in higher education. As the Director of Career Services, her office services the over 93,000 students enrolled at University of Maryland University Center (UMUC), 50% of which are veterans. In 2012, she was selected as a Fulbright Scholar in Germany as a part of the International Education Administrators Program, where she created connections with higher education systems around the world.

During her career, she has serviced students at The George Washington University, University of Arizona, and Stetson University in addition to her work at UMUC. She earned a PhD in Higher Education at the University of Arizona, a Master's in Counseling and Human Relations at Villanova University, and Bachelor's in Psychology at Elizabethtown College.

Ms. Andrews' passion is guiding and coaching students at all stages in their education to choose and succeed in the right career. She is also currently the President-Elect for the Maryland Career Consortium and is a member of the Maryland Career Development Association, the Mid-Atlantic Career Counseling Association, and National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE).

Kathryn Troutman is the producer of the www.vetfedjobs.org website and is dedicated EVERY day to helping veterans write great resumes - federal and private industry - so that you can start a new career! She is also author of Military to Federal Career Guide, Second Edition and president of The Resume Place.

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GI Bill® is a registered trademark of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). More information about education benefits offered by VA is available at the official U.S. government Web site at www.benefits.va.gov/gibill
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