Beautiful campus. Fun atmosphere. Perfect size and location. Excellent sports teams. Appropriate cost. When it comes to choosing a college that is a great fit, lots of criteria need to be considered and carefully weighed. One element that can be completely overlooked in the college search is the support each college provides to propel you toward your targeted career when college is over. When you visit the campus, take in all the bells and whistles of the college’s presentation, but don’t lose sight of one important fact—the real purpose of college.
Why does anyone go to college?
For more than ten years in our work supporting students and families prepare for college and career, we have asked students this question: “Why does anyone go to college?” It costs a lot, and there is no guarantee of success. Teens always reply that the reason they want to go to college is “to get a better job.” Going to college serves many other purposes as well, but fundamentally, getting a specific job that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to get is the primary reason for making such a large investment.
If the reason anyone goes to college is to get a job that they would not be able to get without that degree, then the college search must identify those schools which will provide the support and experiences (and have a strong major program) to help the student reach that targeted career.
Not thinking about a major and career in a college search is troublesome.
At some point, students will need to pick a major. Around half of the coursework in college will be specific to that major. A student does not want to be stuck taking a ton of classes they don’t enjoy!
Employers want to know what you studied in college. They’ll look to align a candidate to the jobs/roles they are hiring for, and they will use the major as a strong guide. Those first jobs are closely tied to major because the employer can predict something about the candidate. For a recent grad with limited work experience, the major can be the biggest indicator the employer has of what you might know. It’s important to recognize that some careers have a close relationship or direct pathway to the major chosen, like nursing. Some pathways are less direct, like an English major, with many potential career paths.
We believe that the most important criteria in your college search should be career related. Thinking this way is not often the natural thought process for families.
The strength of the major varies by college. What are you going to study? Is the program accredited (if required in the field)? Are the students being recruited into that field? How exactly does the school support the student with career-related activities like mock interviews and resume reviews? It’s better to ask these questions during the search than to be surprised a few years into college.
Entering college with no idea of a major is risky.
The four years of college go by quickly! Internships, co-ops, and the like are critical to building some work experiences and to landing that first full-time job. Job opportunities during college are commonly based on the student’s major, and students can begin to connect with employers as early as the first summer of college.
Colleges will happily tell you that their largest group of students are in their exploratory program (aka undecided.) If a student has no idea what they will major in, families must be realistic. The first year of college feels a lot like high school, with students typically taking mostly general education courses. What “magic event” do we hope will happen to help them decide? Can any of us afford to pay for 5 or 6 or even 7 years of college…for a four-year degree?
According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, the 6-year completion rate for students enrolling full-time or part-time at two-year or four-year institutions who began in fall 2016 was 62.3%. Yes, you read that right. After six years, about 4 out of every 10 students still have not graduated. This reality is tied to many factors including cost and other challenges, but students who struggle to choose and finish a major on time is one part of the problem.
How can my high school student be expected to pick a career now?
Very few people “know” what they want to do at a young age. And, today’s teens have a very limited knowledge set when it comes to real-world careers. No student should feel pressure to decide what they will do “for the rest of their life.”
What can a high school student do? Students can take important steps right now to commit to thinking and exploration to base future decisions upon to include what they know about themselves and careers that can be a great fit for them. Most new college students feel the clock ticking – they know they’re moving closer to that first job when they graduate. They want to do work they will love and that plays to their strengths and interests. This requires effort, and thankfully, there are many great resources to access.
Teens and the importance of self assessment
Teens can start to think about their strengths, struggles, values, goals, etc. while in high school. Many of those things do not change. Current interests are also good to explore. This knowledge about themselves also makes for an easier college search.
A teen who enjoys working on group projects and is a natural leader among their peers will likely continue to hone those skills and preferences later in life. A career that requires lots of solo work or doesn’t give them the chance to take on some leadership responsibilities may not be a good fit.
Students who want a lifestyle that requires a higher salary and a job role that involves a lot of travel may not be happy as an elementary educator with a traditionally lower starting salary in a fixed location.
These examples may be powerful for your student and demonstrate how identifying these personal traits and preferences during high school (even before a college search begins) is really important.
Most teens have not yet developed the ability to identify what they know about themselves.
Our experience with high school students tells us that they keep their heads down, going from class to class, completing their assignments, participating in their extracurriculars, and always checking those boxes of what they are supposed to do next. They hardly ever pause to lift their heads to look back on their experiences so they can reflect on who they are and what they want for themselves. This is a missed opportunity!
Good self assessment can start with completing sentences like these in a structured way:
- I’m really good at…
- I struggle with (or when)…
- I am very interested in…
- The place I would like to work in looks like…
- I prefer a day that is…
This thinking can be done by dedicating time to journaling, discussing with a parent or professional, or in whatever way suits the student’s style. They need to flesh out this thinking and probe deeply.
In fact, learning how to do this thinking sooner rather than later is an amazing skill that will serve them throughout their lives. Self assessment is a like a muscle which is strengthened through use.
Connecting what teens know about themselves and future careers
Once students have developed a sense of what they know about themselves, they can filter all career thinking, exposure, and exploration through that knowledge.
Some of our favorite career exploration resources include:
Students can also learn more about careers through mentorships, job shadowing, high school courses/electives, and part-time work. They can spend some time watching “day in the life of” videos on YouTube. Talk to professionals about what they do, how they got to where they are, what they like about their work, what they were surprised about, and more.
(Because we feel so strongly about the importance of self assessment and career exploration, we have built a powerful 1-on-1 interview-based service called Guided Self Assessment for students in grades 10 through early college.)
Tips on how to use a campus visit to learn about majors.
The same college major can vary a lot from campus to campus. The focus areas and options will not be the same. You want to understand how each college approaches the study of your intended major. Speak with an advisor for the department. Visit their facilities. Sit in on a class. Talk to students in the major. Check out a college’s career services department.
What career-related questions can you ask in your college search?
- What will you study? Get the details. Check out the course curriculum for that major.
- Do they offer additional minors or certifications of interest?
- What types of facilities (labs, etc.) support the major?
- What is special about that college’s program? Do they bring in outside speakers? Do they have a specific focus that other colleges do not?
- Who are the professors? What are the professors’ areas of interest? Colleges will often include this information on their website.
- How many students are in the program? Is it growing or shrinking?
- What is the program’s graduation rate?
- What are graduates doing now? What companies have hired them?
We all want our students to graduate college and be equipped with the skills for a career they will love.
Students with an understanding of their skills, interests, preferences, traits, challenges, etc. are better equipped to identify potential careers and the majors that can get them to that first job after graduation. The college search must include lots of research into each potential major and that program’s track record of supporting students toward their transition to the working world.
At the end of the day, the beauty of the campus, the size/layout of a sample dorm room, the record of the football/basketball team, the lazy river, or the yummy food will not help a student get a job after graduation. They are all nice to have, for sure, but they are just a bonus.
Make sure the college you select has a strong program in your major and can help drive you toward your career goals. Best of luck in your college search!