For most families, it can be a difficult thing to narrow the list of colleges to apply to. But long before that decision is made, it is imperative to spend a great deal of time thinking about:
- how your student is wired (their personality, strengths, weaknesses, and risk tolerance)
- what the student wants to do with their life
- what they will actually study once they get to college
Only then, so we can find the best fit to teach your student skills inside and outside the classroom, should we begin to research colleges.
First, let’s talk about how your student is wired. An important aspect of this consideration is your child’s personality type, but other questions are important as well.
- Are they comfortable with ambiguity or do they need an authority giving them a to-do list and a clear pathway to success?
- Are they organized and dedicated or struggle with time management and unsure of themselves?
- Are they a visionary who sees further than most or are they at their best following a leader?
- Are they content to dream or do they have actual experience in the thing that interests them?
- Do they avoid failure or are they resilient and eager to try again?
The answers to these questions tell us a great deal about the type of career path our student might be comfortable in. Someone who needs a checklist will not be happy crafting a specialty major and pursuing an off-road career. They will do much better with clearly defined careers like accounting or teaching. Someone who is uncomfortable with failure will be miserable in a high stakes STEM degree where failure is expected and encouraged as a route to discovery.
We also need to give our kids as much experience in high school as possible. This will help them understand who they really are and what they really want to do. A student who has only dreams and no experience will often make poor decisions about college majors and career paths.
Helping our student figure out how they are wired can take a very long time. It requires honesty on our part as parents to see our child for who they really are and then use that information to help guide them to good decisions about their future. Once we’ve got a realistic idea, it is time to look at what your student wants to do with their life. This stage requires finding answers to their questions and we do that by job shadowing and career exploration.
Given what we’ve discovered in about our child, we need to help them determine if various careers fit their personality style. For those who do not like ambiguity, one of the most important things to determine is whether there is a clear route to success in this particular career. For example, probably one of the clearest pathways is medicine. While this is a terribly oversimplified explanation: you pursue a pre-med undergrad degree, take the MCAT, earn a medical degree in which you complete rotations in various fields, complete a residency program, obtain licensure, then find an opening in your specialty and go through interviews, etc. If your student is interested in software engineering, you get the appropriate degree, start as a junior engineer (maybe at a large company with the resources to train you and allow you to build your skill set), and then progress up the ranks. There is a clear path through college and after college graduation as well as a specific way to move up the ladder. There is very little that is random.
Then there are the students who embrace random. They are very self-confident and used to marching to a different drummer. These are the kids that create their own degrees, talk their way into internships that are usually reserved for older, more experienced kids, and later form startup companies and joyfully take huge risks. They may major in something really non-traditional, but if you watch carefully, they have been continually building skills since they were young in many areas that will allow them to survive and be employable in case their career path is not straightforward. They know they can’t depend on a college class to teach them everything they need to know when they go off-road.
I would encourage your student to talk to as many people as possible in very different careers. They should take notes and spend time debriefing with you as they make discoveries.
After really thinking about your child’s personality, their strengths and weaknesses, and then talking to many people in various careers that look interesting, it is time to look at actual colleges and the departments within them. We need to ask hard questions here, as well.
While any degree program from any university has its rock stars that have managed to do amazing things, you need to look at that “fact” pretty critically. A lone standout doesn’t tell us much about the program at a particular university. It is dangerous to look at the exception rather than the rule. What are the average English majors doing? What skills did that CEO build outside of English classes to make that interesting thing happen? While there is a great deal of variability in what most majors can do, we have to remember that it is based on skills learned in class, skills built outside class, internships or things learned in their early career that catapult a risk-taking kid into rock star status.
What we really want to know is how do the majority of students fare? What is the median income of graduates? What kind of jobs do most of them have?
Let’s just look at a wild example. There is a real degree that is entitled Pop Culture. While it is conceivable that a graduate of that program could work at a museum, how many museums are there in this country that are hiring something that specialized? Or, how likely is it that a student with that degree could start their own company? What skills would they have after four very expensive years at a university? How will they pay their student loans back?
Thus, some good questions to ask specific departments in the colleges you are researching would run something like this.
Of graduates last year in this particular program:
- How many were offered a job before graduation?
- How many got jobs within 3 months of graduation?
- What were those jobs?
- How many went on to grad school?
- What is the grad school acceptance rate for students of this program?
- What is the average salary of your graduates 5 years after graduation?
- What percentage of your graduates over the last 5 years are employed in the field they trained for?
As we look at any particular career path, we need to be honest about the probability of the next thing working out. Some fields are really limited when we look closely. Others have many more options and lots of jobs. Let’s look at one example. If your student wants to be a professor, we need to know how difficult it will be to get into grad school, into a post doc program, and then secure a teaching position. Each step requires being at the very, very top of their field. How many jobs are really out there for new PhDs in that discipline? Do people retire young or do they stay in their positions until they die? I am often told by a student, “I want to be a Supreme Court Judge.” That is lovely, but highly improbable. What are your student’s alternate plans if their ideal career doesn’t work out? Things like academia in general, sports, music, etc. are extremely competitive and you have to be the best. That is not the case in many fields where there are lots of jobs for those of all ability levels.
This way of approaching college (and what to study while you are there) will help your family make wiser decisions before investing thousands of dollars in training. We need to look beyond what they are interested in at sixteen. In fact, we need to look beyond college.
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