by Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D.
Believe it or not, if you're in high school right now, you're at a great point in your life. You have your whole life in front of you. And now is a good time to start thinking about your future, to make some initial plans; just remember that plans can be easily changed.
Remember too, that experts predict that the average person will change careers -- not just jobs -- more than five times in his or her lifetime.
And as you start thinking about one or more potential educational and career paths, here are 10 things to remember in the days ahead.
1. Take time to think about what you like to do, and dream and imagine ideal careers.
There are so many opportunities, so many different types of jobs and careers in a wide variety of industries -- and there are also other career paths that are just emerging.
Even if you are fairly sure of a career choice, take the time in high school to explore similar (or even vastly different) careers. Explore all your options. Examine your likes and dislikes and take a few career-assessment tests.
Answer the question: if you could have any job right now, what would it be -- and why? Don't let any barriers hold you back from finding the perfect career.
Example: Take the time for some career assessment and career exploration to expand your vision of potential majors and career paths.
2. Challenge yourself in high school, but don't overwhelm yourself.
Do get the most out of high school as possible. When you can, take the tough and challenging schedule of classes; you'll learn more -- and it will look good to the college admissions staff.
Obviously, you need to stay focused on getting good grades, but don't overload your schedule -- or yourself -- so that it makes you sick or burnt out. Be sure to include at least one fun course in your schedule.
Example: If you have a passion for something, such as photography, find a way to schedule a photography course along with your other tougher college-prep courses.
3. Work, volunteer, or otherwise gain some experience.
As with your education, the more you are exposed to, the more options will open to you as you search out careers.
There are even a growing number of internship opportunities for high-school students. Seek work and volunteer experiences in and out of school. And from a practical standpoint, work experience looks good on college applications -- and on future job applications and resumes.
And one other benefit if you are working in a paid position: spending money! Just remember that school and grades have to come first, so only work if you can balance your schedule, manage your time.
Example: If you're interested in a career in journalism, start writing for your school newspaper and look into a part-time job at a local newspaper.
4. Get as much education as you can.
We are now a society in which many jobs and careers require additional education or training beyond high school. Some careers even require a graduate degree before you can work in the field.
Take advantage of all educational opportunities that come your way, such as summer educational opportunities and educational trips abroad. If financially possible -- and there are many ways to help make it so -- attend college; college graduates make a much higher salary, on average, than high-school graduates.
5. Talk with as many adults as possible about careers and colleges.
The best way to find out about different careers is to ask people -- family, neighbors, friends, teachers, counselors -- and get them to tell you about their career and college experiences.
If you have not already, begin to build a network of adults who know you and are willing to assist you in your educational and career endeavors. And for careers that truly interest you, consider asking each person if you can shadow him/her at work.
You could also consider conducting informational interviews at the same time as the shadowing, or as a less intrusive method of learning more about jobs and careers.
Example: If you have a passion for history and are considering a career as a college history professor, contact a local college and ask one or more of the history professors if you can shadow them or conduct an informational interview.
6. Remember that everyone must follow his or her own path in life.
Don't spend too much time worrying what other people in your high school are doing -- or letting their opinions about your dreams and ambitions affect your decision.
And don't worry if you leave high school with no clear career path -- that's partly what college is all about, discovering who you are and what you want to do in life. Everyone develops/matures/grows at their own pace, so don't feel the need to rush to make a decision now. But don't use the fact that you have plenty of time to make a decision as an excuse not to at least start learning and researching potential career options!
Example: Many colleges offer special "discovery" programs for entering first-year students who have no real idea of majors and careers. These programs expose you to a wide variety of classes, events, and speakers to help lead you onto a path of career discovery.
7. People change; don't feel locked into any college or career now.
It's great to have an ideal plan for your life, but remember that things happen, and your plans may need to change... so keep an open mind -- and keep your options open.
Some of your friends -- or perhaps you -- already know, or think you know, what you want to do in life. If so, that's fantastic, but don't become so myopic that you lose sight of other interesting opportunities. There are career paths that have not even started today that may be big in five or more years.
Example: One of my college students, whose parents are both lawyers, is certain his fate is to be a corporate attorney, and his plans currently include law school after his undergraduate education. However, he is also taking a full set of business courses, as well as some interesting electives, in case "things change" by the time he graduates.
8. Don't let anyone control your dreams and ambitions.
You will be horribly miserable at best if you let a parent or other family member dictate your major or your career.
Students often feel pressure to follow in an adult family member's career path, especially if s/he is footing the bill for college, but the worst thing you can do is choose a career to please someone else.
Example: A former student of mine came from "a family of accountants," and everyone was supposed to join the family CPA firm. The problem, however, was that she had no aptitude for numbers and hated accounting -- yet could not summon the courage to tell her family. When she finally did confess her dislike, the world did not end, and her parents actually encouraged her to follow her passion.
9. It's never too early nor too late to get organized and begin making plans.
No matter where you are in high school, now is the time to plan the remainder of your high-school years -- as well as your plans after high school.
Research your options for after graduation -- technical schools, community colleges, four-year universities, etc. Start or continue your preparation for the various standardized tests (such as the SAT and ACT). Start thinking about teachers who might be willing to write letters of recommendation for you -- and approach them when the time is near.
Finally, make plans to fill any gaps in your plans -- such as striving for better grades, taking tougher courses, gaining experience, or earning community-service hours.
Example: Many teachers get swamped with last-minute requests for letters of recommendation for college admission, so the earlier you approach the teachers who can write the best recommendations for you, the better off you'll be. Read more in our article, Four Steps To Getting Perfect College Recommendations.
10. Never stop learning: read, grow, and expand your mind.
Don't pass-up opportunities to learn and experience new things. Many teachers offer or assign summer and supplemental reading lists -- look at these as opportunities for growth rather than a drag on your summer. The more you read, the more you'll know. It's a cliche, but knowledge is power.
Example: One high-school student of mine was sure he wanted to be a teacher, but the more he read about cutbacks in educational spending and the decline in the educational experiences in many parts of the country, he decided he would be better off becoming a political activist for educational reform than as a teacher stuck in what he saw as a decaying system.
Final Thoughts About High School
High school is a real transition time for teens, as you move into adulthood and the more adult issues of work, careers, and college. It should be a time of growth as well as a time of challenge. Have fun, but get the best education you can so that you are positioned to take advantage of further educational opportunities. And no matter where you go after high school, never stop learning and growing.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker's Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.