Assisting College Students with Career Planning After Denial of Admission to Their Pre-Professional Programs

By Meghan Huyghe Veltri

A growing proportion of incoming college freshmen is seeking admission to competitive pre-professional programs such as those in healthcare, business, and engineering. These programs are becoming increasingly popular as a result of occupational exposure in the K-12 educational system, the potential for financial security, and the apparent employment stability in the current job market. While these jobs are highly marketable and needed in today’s workforce, the academic preparation is rigorous and the admission requirements are selective. Increased interest in pre-professional programs, combined with selective admission requirements, has forced some students to re-evaluate their career plans when they are denied acceptance into their desired programs.

Students who have been denied admission to their pre-professional programs often struggle with transitioning to a new career. Their academic pursuits have often been focused on one specific occupation and now they must be open to new or adjusted career plans. This can be an emotional and stressful time in students’ lives. The process of grieving one’s past career plans and accepting a new educational and career situation is a significant life event and can be compared to Kubler-Ross’s Stages of Grief (1969). Career advisors may observe students experiencing some or all of these phases when forced to change career paths.

1. Denial— Competitive pre-professional programs can have a combination of requirements which may include grade point average, service hours, interviews, and writing samples. Students may acknowledge the program requirements, but struggle to fully reflect, compare, and connect their interests, skills, and abilities to the requirements.
2. Anger— When students are declined from a program or realize they may not be competitive candidates, they may experience feelings of anger and begin to assign blame. Blame could be placed upon close inner circles (faculty, educational administrators, family, and peer groups) or societal influences (industry demands, the economy, socio-economic challenges, etc.). The blame often focuses more on extrinsic factors than intrinsic factors.
3. Bargaining— Students may explore ways to move forward in their pre-professional programs despite the decreasing chances of successful admission. They may meet with faculty and advisors seeking support and guidance. They may contemplate what changes or improvements to make to their future application. These changes can come with some risk to the students as their actions may include re-taking classes, extending time to graduation, applying for more student loans, or changing schools.
4. Depression— The drastic change to students’ academic and occupational plans can lead to feelings of regret and hopelessness. Reactions that result in uncertainty and lack of motivation can interfere with the self-efficacy and career advancement of students.
5. Acceptance— While some students do attempt to re-apply to their programs, others begin to accept their current occupational/life situation and re-imagine their career journey.

Assisting Students in Career Transition
Redefining one’s career path can be overwhelming for a college student. In many cases, the decision to transition one’s career path may be emotionally charged and time-sensitive. Fortunately, career advisors can play an important role in helping students navigate their journey. Students should know that while they have had to make a significant life adjustment, the transition can bring new opportunities for personal growth, professional advancement, and self-fulfillment.

Career advisors can assist students by:

  • Allowing time for grief. Career transitions can be unexpected and unwanted. When working with a student in career crisis, allow a safe space for them to express their frustration and disappointment.
  • Engaging students in career exploration early in their college careers. Self-exploration and exposure to a variety of careers encourages students to challenge themselves and expand their vocational knowledge. Career exploration can also help students create a back-up plan if their original career goals do not work out according to the plan.
  • Acknowledging previous accomplishments. Students may have a variety of course work and hands-on experiences which can be transferable to new careers. Be sure to highlight their successes and how these can be applied to their future.
  • Exploring how majors can connect to careers. Students may feel they can no longer do what they love because of a change in their major, but often they are not aware of how majors can connect to a variety of careers. Explore the opportunities available to them with different majors.
  • Referring to support resources that encourage career development. On-campus resources such as financial aid and academic advising can help students persist through the higher education barriers that often come with career transitions. In addition, off-campus support from community partners can be beneficial. Connecting with professionals in new areas of study may offer students hope, encouragement, and new career mentors.

While these interventions are commonly used when working with students with career concerns, it is likely that professional advisors will see more students in a heightened state of career crisis as a result of increased competition for pre-professional programs. Grieving is a natural process that can occur after a major life event. Career advisors have the unique opportunity to guide students through the process and help them shape their new journey towards career satisfaction.

Kübler-Ross, E. (1969). On death and dying. New York: Macmillan.

Meghan Huyghe VeltriMeghan Huyghe Veltri is a certified Global Career Development Facilitator and currently works as a Career Development Specialist at the University Counseling Center at Grand Valley State University (MI). In her current role as the Coordinator of Career Parallel Planning, she works with students pursuing pre-professional programs and helps them to identify potential alternative career pathways. Meghan has a Bachelor of Science in Behavioral Science and a Master of Education in College Student Affairs Leadership from Grand Valley State University. She may be contacted at veltrim@gvsu.edu

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Mary E. Ghilani   on Tuesday 06/02/2015 at 06:54 AM

Thank you for writing this important article. Being denied entry into major can indeed be very traumatic experience for students. I've found that the students who have the most difficulty considering another career path are those that have their identity closely tied to their future career, are shouldering the expectations of their families (first person in family to attend college, father was a doctor/engineer, etc.), and those who think that there is only "one right" major for them.

Lashay Taylor   on Thursday 06/04/2015 at 09:57 AM

Very nicely stated Meghan. I too thought of student's denial from a stages perspective which helps me know how to approach their presenting concerns. I've also noticed that having the discussion about career options for any major available at the school takes some of the "edge" off of the loss of admission into their original program of choice. Just knowing that multiple options exist for any given major may go a long way to ease fears and doubts.

Meghan Huyghe Veltri   on Wednesday 06/17/2015 at 10:57 AM

Mary and Lashay, thank you for your comments! I think you both bring up crucial factors in the student's decision making process. It's helpful to know how other professionals are handling these unique situations.

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