Unpacking the Hidden Curriculum of Career Services: The Cornell Career Development Toolkit
By Jessamyn Perlus and Erica Kryst
Recognizing that students and alumni sometimes find career services intimidating or inaccessible due to time constraints, Cornell Career Services sought to create a comprehensive digital career development resource available 24/7 in the institution’s learning management system, Canvas (Cornell Career Service, 2023a).
The career services team wanted a tool beyond a website to deliver engaging content that did not require users to know exactly what questions to ask or where to look, which scholars often conceptually call the hidden curriculum of post-secondary career success and the world of work (Rossouw & Frick, 2023). Cornell career services staff developed the Career Development Toolkit to offer step-by-step guidance with interactive activities in 29 different modules, covering career exploration, resumes and what to do after being hired. Scaling allowed 29,000 students and alumni access to the Toolkit. The content steadily grew to 325+ pages, including 100+ custom-built interactive activities. The career services office used gamification to make the modules unique and facilitate confidence-building (Reish, 2022). The modules served as a starting point to enhance career conversations during individual appointments or workshops. Many students engaged with the platform prior to their appointment, and staff routinely assigned modules after their conversations with students.
Goals of the Toolkit
There were multiple aims for creating this kind of centralized career tool. Staff could make decisions about content, priorities, and scope seamlessly because they established objectives early.
- Create a high-quality resource explaining career content in an approachable way. Cornell’s career development framework emphasized understanding self, exploring options, and taking action. Along each domain, staff incorporated evidence-based techniques and theory to enhance the quality (e.g., Holland’s theory in the Self-Assessment module; Holland, 1997).
- Establish one source of information to maintain quality and provide equitable access. By harnessing an existing learning-management system that students used daily, staff removed barriers and normalized the concept of career education as part of the university experience, regardless of academic unit.
- Build custom interactive tools and worksheets, including real student stories. Staff deconstructed and introduced concepts step-by-step in an engaging and interactive manner. The career tips became concrete and achievable by sharing recent, real stories from students.
- Infuse diversity, equity, and inclusion elements. Multiple individuals reviewed each page to ensure clear, inclusive language and representation of students from various backgrounds and career paths. Staff created a resource page for multiple identities (e.g., veterans, LGBTQ individuals) and a page highlighting the NACE Equity and Inclusion competency (National Association of Colleges & Employers, 2000). After being trained on web accessibility best practices, staff made accessibility considerations key in designing the course and its interactive activities.
Content Built for the Needs of Users
Students began their engagement with the Toolkit with a career readiness module, including university-specific tips to build each competency from the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE, 2000). Foundational modules include career exploration, networking, resumes, cover letters, job/internship searching, virtual career fairs, and interviewing.
The career services office expanded upon the career readiness module to cover job offers (including negotiation scripts) and what happens after hiring (e.g., the first day, professional working relationships). Content experts contributed to broad modules on portfolios, pre-law, pre-graduate activities, international work experiences, entrepreneurship, and research. Industry-specific modules were built in response to student requests and based on Cornell’s first destination data of top industries (e.g., finance, consulting).
Career services professionals also created pages in response to questions such as “How do I find inclusive employers?” and “How do I interact with recruiters?” Users can access sensitive topics such as issues specific to undocumented students, criminal records, and workplace accommodations.
The Toolkit stands out from other Canvas courses or online career resources because of the real student examples and stories woven throughout. Examples include anonymous yet real information in the following modules:
- Job Offers –successes and challenges with negotiation and the options students request (e.g., relocation, start date)
- Portfolios –architecture, fashion, and more
- Networking –LinkedIn headlines and summaries, which students report are often the most challenging part of the profile to write
- Industry –tips from alumni emphasizing the importance of certain skill sets
A video tour is available, which showcases the modules (Cornell Career Service, 2023b).
Career staff also custom-built more than 100 interactive activities using a tool called H5P.com.
- Documentation tools allow users to type answers to prompts and generate a downloadable Word document, functioning as an interactive worksheet.
- Spot the Errors is a visual tool for users to click to identify areas for improvement on a resume or profile photo.
- Click the Words lets users read a job description and identify key transferable skills.
- Multiple Choice is used to select appropriate cover letters openings and closings and receive instant feedback.
- True/False Quizzes are fun ways to test students understanding and bust career myths (e.g., cost of living in different US cities).
Getting Buy-in and Marketing
Usage increased each year since it launch. This was due to a coordinated effort to gain campus buy-in from key partners. Staff presented to dozens of stakeholders in departments, administration, student services, academic advising, and career specialists. They now invite all incoming undergraduate students to use the Toolkit. Faculty have assigned modules as part of their coursework, and university staff have used it for their career development. It won the 2023 Technology Innovation award from NACE (Gray, 2023)
Staff now dedicate substantial time to marketing and updating the modules. New staff and peer career advisors complete the activities as a part of their onboarding, which has enhanced their ability to refer students to the resource and access a centralized set of information and philosophy of the center’s approach. Staff reported that the modules serve as a structured starting point and a powerful supplement to advising conversations.
Tips for Getting Started at Your Institution
This project leveraged existing resources such as free training, university tools, and staff time to build a centralized and comprehensive resource. The costs were minimal, and most institution could create a similar model. Professionals who aspire to create a similar resource at their institutions should gather their existing resources and start small with two to four modules. Next, they should meet with information technology staff to learn about their learning management system's capabilities and set up a career account.
There are many accessibility and web design best practices resources available. If others want to implement this strategy, they should consider acquiring interactive tool software and find campus champions, such as faculty and alumni. As they build the system, they can gain student feedback every step of the way.
With input from 70+ individuals, including alumni, employers, faculty, students, and subject-matter experts, the Toolkit exemplifies collaboration across a decentralized system. It is a testament to the excellence of the end product that the career community now considers the Toolkit the source of career development content at Cornell.
Cornell Career Services. (2023a). About the toolkit at Cornell. https://scl.cornell.edu/get-involved/career-services/resources/canvas
Cornell Career Services. (2023b). Video tour of the toolkit. https://scl.cornell.edu/get-involved/career-services/presentations/career-development-toolkit-brief-tour
Gray, K. (2023, June 01). Cornell career services delivers career development toolkit through online academic platform. NACE. https://www.naceweb.org/career-development/best-practices/cornell-career-services-delivers-career-development-toolkit-through-online-academic-platform/
Holland, J. L. (1997). Making vocational choices: A theory of vocational personalities and work environments. Psychological Assessment Resources.
National Association of Colleges and Employers. (2000). What is career readiness? https://www.naceweb.org/career-readiness/competencies/career-readiness-defined
Reisch, N. O. (2022). Can gamification improve higher education students’ learning outcome, flow, confidence and motivation in inquiry learning systems? [Unpublished thesis]. University of Twente.
Rossouw, N., & Frick, L. (2023). A conceptual framework for uncovering the hidden curriculum in private higher education. Cogent Education, 10(1), 2191409.
Jessamyn Perlus, Ph.D. is the Senior Associate Director and Manager of the Career Exploration Unit at Cornell University’s Career Services. As a counseling psychologist, Jessamyn is enthusiastic about integrating theory, research, and practice. She is particularly interested in the intersection of career and mental health. Her research investigates how the impostor phenomenon ("imposter syndrome") impacts career and education outcomes. She enjoys helping college students define and achieve their career goals. Jessamyn can be reached at email@example.com.
Erica Kryst, Ph.D., is the Executive Director of Cornell Career Services. Erica loves working with college students and is constantly seeking new and innovative ideas to support students’ career and professional growth. Her works seeks to ensure equity is at the forefront of career education and opportunities for college students. Her research focuses on the college experiences of rural and first-generation college students. Erica can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.