Column: Head to the career office before you pick a college

CHICAGO (Reuters) - (The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.)

Graduates look at the screen during a commencement for Medgar Evers College in the Brooklyn borough of New York City, New York, U.S., June 8, 2017. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Unlike his friends who are living at home three years after college graduation, John Kelly has paid off his student loan balance of $60,000 and is thriving as a real estate broker. The 25-year-old is on his way to turning his own Boston property management company into a multi-million dollar business.

Kelly attributes his success to carefully picking the right college for himself - Northeastern University in Boston – because it had a strong focus on career development.

That focus on future earnings is unusual considering next year’s college freshmen will do little to scrutinize the career help available from the schools on their list before making a final selection by the May 1 deadline.

Not many students who go to “accepted student” weekends stop by the career center when they are on campus. That is a mistake, said Robert Franek, author of The Princeton Review’s “Colleges that Create Futures.”

Although college admissions offices often laud their institutions’ career help, in a Gallup Poll only 16 percent of college students said their college career center was very helpful.

And students really need the help. Despite a sharp upturn in the nation’s employment in the last few years, the New York Federal Reserve reported this year that 43 percent of recent college graduates were “underemployed” in jobs that did not require their college educations. That is a harsh reality when four years at a public university can cost over $100,000 and when the average student with loans has been leaving college with over $30,000 in debt.

To improve the odds of better career outcomes, experts provide this advice.

* Scrutinize the career center

If you find the career office tucked into a corner, manned by a single person and a self-serve computer, that is not a good sign. Instead, look for a school with a serious commitment to career development, such as the University of Florida, which has 25 full-time employees to help students think about careers and link to internships and recruiters, said Franek.

* Start early

Kelly was introduced to his first internship in technology sales as a freshman and found it boring. After he spoke with an adviser, his next internship was with a real estate sales company. It was a hit. After two more internships, Kelly had confidence and a business network. “I now have clients I met at 18,” Kelly said.

In a survey of employers, the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that internships are the top criteria employers use when comparing job candidates - even more important than your major and twice as important as the college attended.

* Get the data

Pushed by government policy and parent demand, colleges are in the early phases of gathering data on jobs obtained by their graduates. They will have rates of employment and early career pay for the average graduate, but that may not be relevant. You may have to go to a department head to find out about internships and the long-term outlook for your career. If there is no data, that is a bad sign.

* Think creatively

Although fields such as engineering or business connect easily to related internships, students with liberal arts degrees must be more creative and get more help spotting relevant internships.

Even with some job experience, those in majors such as English or political science can struggle to find jobs after graduating.

Editing by Beth Pinsker and Phil Berlowitz