Career Planning and College Choice (for teens)
"What do you want to be when you grow up?" Adults have asked you that question all your life. When you were five, relatives smiled affectionately when you answered "an astronaut" or "a rock star." But now that you're looking at colleges, that familiar question takes on more meaning. What college you attend and what academic major you choose often determine your career path. On the other hand, few high school students know for sure what career they would like to pursue. How should career planning influence your college choice?
"Two of three college students change fields of study at least once before graduation," says Michael Dessimoz, associate vice president for enrollment services at Roosevelt University (IL).
So even if you have a particular major or career in mind now, your interests are likely to change in the next few years. And "undecided" is a perfectly acceptable "major" for an incoming freshman.
For the Undecided Student
Despite the probability that you'll change majors once or twice during your college years, you still have some idea of what types of majors interest or bore you. For example, if your favorite subjects are math and computers, you probably won't suddenly want to switch to an English major. You'll want to look for colleges that have strong programs in fields that use mathematics (physics, engineering, astronomy, etc.) and technology (computer science).
"I tell [high school students] to have three or four areas in mind that they would like to explore at college," says John Yaegel, school counselor at Tenafly High School (NJ).
Look for colleges that have good programs in all of these areas of interest.
Plan to spend the first year or two at college exploring these possible career interests. Don't limit yourself to taking classes; check out the college's career center, look into summer jobs or internships in your fields of interest, and try to connect with people who work in the career(s) you're considering. In fact, you may want to take some time to explore your career interests while you're still in high school. The more experience and knowledge you have about possible careers, the easier it will be to make good decisions.
"Career planning involves three steps: learning about yourself (strengths, weaknesses, values, interests, goals), learning about careers (education required, career ladders, salaries, working conditions), and learning how to make decisions," says Yaegel. "You can only learn these things over time and not one day before you declare your major at college."
For the Focused Student
Of course, some students have a very clear idea of what career they wish to pursue. Everyone knows at least a few people who seem destined to be engineers, teachers, forest rangers, etc. If you already have specific career goals, make sure they are based on knowing about both yourself and your chosen career.
"A student who says he or she wants to go into business or forestry but who has never done anything like it would be well advised to consider schools where there is a broad range of options including these programs," says Scott White, counselor at Montclair High School (NJ). "[Someone] who lives and breathes the classics or architecture or car repair might be well served by a more specific kind of program."
How do you know a particular area of study or type of career is right for you?
"Students should be good at what they do, enjoy what they do, and feel they are a kindred spirit with others who do that kind of thing," White says.
Some majors require students to decide on them early. Competitive engineering, architecture, nursing, fine arts, and other programs may be difficult to transfer into later in your college career. If you're interested in one of these types of majors, make sure to find out the requirements to get into the specific program (not just the college).
The Rest of Your Life
As you think about how your career interests intersect with your college choices, remember that college is about more than career training. In fact, many adults change careers at least once––and often several times throughout their lifetimes. College is about preparing yourself for the rest of your life, so choose a college that will help you grow as a person, as well as train you for a career.
"The most beneficial product of the educational experience is not how many more dollars an individual will earn in a lifetime," says Dessimoz. "Rather, it is in the quality of life that the individual will have, both in and out of the work place."
Reprinted with the permission of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. © 2008 National Association for College Admission Counseling.
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