advice for high schoolers on what to do in college

A reader writes:

What advice do you have for high schoolers? I have a nephew who’s barely in the 9th grade – just started last August, in fact. Nevertheless, he’s already feeling the pressure from a million different sources to pick the right major that will lead to a relatively secure job. (And yes, I’m aware that “secure jobs” are a dying breed.) What do you think kids should focus on in college that will better employment chances? Lots of internships? Clubs? Double majors/minors? I’m not looking for a magic bullet, but rather some helpful tips that might steer my nephew and other teens in the right direction.

Oh jeez. He’s in 9th grade? Do what you can to get the people around him to back off about how he needs to pick the right major. He has four more years, at least!  And I’m not even convinced that freshman in college are equipped to pick the right major. So please point out to anyone you see pressuring him like this that very few people are well equipped to make good long-term career decisions for themselves when they’re 15 (were you? I certainly wasn’t) and that pushing him on to a definitive path now before he’s in a position to choose wisely could do him real long-term harm.

And please tell him the same thing — reassure him that these people are out of their minds and that he will figure out a career path when he actually needs to, which isn’t for quite some time. Right now his job is to do well in school, try things out, and figure out what he likes and is good at.  Period.

Once he’s actually in college, the very best thing that he can do is to work and/or intern, not just take classes. I receive way too many resumes from recent grads who have literally no work experience: nothing, not internships, not temp jobs, nothing at all. And since they’re competing against candidates who do have experience, they’re at an enormous disadvantage. So while he’s in college, he should get all the work experience that he can. It’s the single best thing he can do to make himself marketable.

Great extracurriculars and relevant coursework and summers abroad, while interesting, don’t make up for a lack of work experience. There’s a learning curve when you enter the working world, and it doesn’t matter how much you studied or how fantastic your thesis was — you don’t yet know how the work world works, and you only learn by joining it. So anyone who has spent time working has a leg up on anyone who hasn’t in that regard.

So, make sure that your nephew finds a way to get plenty of work experience before he leaves college (which again, doesn’t even start for four more years!). He should do internships every semester he can, so that he has that experience on his resume. Paid, unpaid, whatever it takes. If a part-time job of a few hours a week is all he has time for outside of his classes, that’s fine. If he has trouble finding work, he should get experience as a volunteer — that counts too.

But for now? Get people to leave that kid alone.

{ 81 comments… read them below }

  1. Kelly O*

    Speaking from personal experience, I wasn’t equipped at 15 or even 18 to make decisions about what I wanted to do with the REST OF MY NATURAL LIFE – which I put in all caps because it feels that big and dramatic at the time.

    I changed my major three times in junior college and was so burned out by the end of that second year I got married just to do something different (again, the sound logic of a 19 year old showing there.) A divorce, several moves, and umpteen hundred jobs later I’m just figuring out what really interests me, and wishing I could go back and tell 19 year old me a thing or two.

    The only advice I have is – definitely go to college. It’s hard getting a job doing much of anything without that piece of paper. And it’s harder to get it when you’re grown. Not impossible, just harder. Even if you’re not sure what you want to do. Even if you “just” want to be an English major or (god forbid) an Art History major. (I remember my adviser in college saying “Those who can, do. Those who cannot get Art History degrees.”) But that degree opens so many doors; that’s the thing you can’t make up for with hustle or drive or whatever intangible you want to throw out there. People will automatically dismiss you without it, whether that’s right or wrong.

    But he has my sympathies. At 15, I wanted to be a teacher more than anything, and a teacher told me that I was “too smart” to do that and pushed me into science and engineering fields that weren’t exactly down my alley. Don’t let people dismiss your dreams.

    1. Anonymous*

      Even with the “piece of paper” it is really hard to get a job… I was actually told by an interviewer that a bachelor degree means nothing now a day.. so yea… went to school, studied my butt off, only to be told that it still isnt good enough… bummer!

      But yea at the age of 15— he isn’t going to know what he wants to do. Just let him be a kid. I planned my whole enough life out when I was in high school and yet nothing went according to plan. I mean it is good to have a plan, but don’t stress over it.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Yeah, the degree basically lets you get in line outside the door. But it doesn’t get you inside the door; you need other stuff in order to do that.

    2. Heather B*

      (sorry if this double posts, something weird seems to be happening)

      Can I just put a plug in for English majors? ;) I have a BA and MA in English, and although my scientist parents were quite worried about the impact my decision would have on my career prospects, I think it was one of the best choices I could have made.

      Earning an English degree teaches you to think well and communicate clearly. It teaches you to construct an argument and make it persuasively. Those skills are important in almost any line of work. When I graduated, I felt capable of succeeding in almost any career I could have chosen. By far the best bang I could’ve gotten for my (parents’, heh) buck.

  2. Jennifer*

    Great advice, as per usual. My only addition (and it’s somewhat of a reiteration of what you said) is for him to figure out what he is good at and what he WANTS to do. Trying to pick a degree because it’s marketable is like accepting a job just because it pays well. For most people, that simply isn’t enough. You will burn out so fast doing a job you hate, or even doing work in a major you hate. I learned that lesson myself. I went to school for business because I thought it was marketable and was told a liberal arts degree would be worthless. I hated it. Changing my major to a “worthless” degree was the best choice I could have made. My grades went up, I had passion for and enjoyed what I was studying, and now I have a job where I feel the same way.

    You reiterate that an interview should be a two way street and you need to find the right fit for you in your career; I feel that is great advice for someone in school as well.

    Lastly, maybe he would benefit from hearing that many people end up with jobs that aren’t in the same field as their degree. Unless he has passion for a specialized field (medicine, law, engineering, etc), he might find some comfort in the fact that choosing a major isn’t the defining moment in his career, or in his life.

  3. Jen*

    I’m a liberal arts grad, or, as my husband’s technical co-workers like to joke, I majored in “unemployment” in college. Wouldn’t trade it for the world.

    Learn how to learn. Try a lot of stuff, and pay attention to what holds your attention. (The things you’re “good at” won’t necessarily be the things you want to do for the rest of your life. And the things that you get so into that you lose track of time won’t necessarily be the things you do well the first umpteen times you try them.)

    My only don’t would be not to make the mistake I did: spend high school trying to stack my resume so I could go to a ‘good college’. I succeeded, but the narrow focus kept me from making the most of those four years.

  4. Mephistopheles*

    I’m a liberal arts grad too (English, as you could probably guess by my name ;)), and I can completely relate to the “practical majors” thing. However, I want to give a personal anecdote.

    When I was a junior, I was a bit worried about the prospects of having an English degree post graduation. I didn’t choose English because it was “easy”, (which is a myth, mind you, it peeves me off to no end when people sneer at LA grads by saying they are easy, I worked damn hard for my degree) but rather because I loved it. I love reading, writing, thinking critically, and analyzing scenarios, and I truly enjoyed each class I had and the assignments we had to do. However, I heard that engineering was a high paying major, so I decided to flirt with it.

    Needless to say, it completely destroyed me. I just didn’t have an interest in the subject, and I just didn’t have the aptitude in it like I did in literature. Even with going to tutoring, completing every 10+ page study guide and always going to office hours, I was still struggling. I went to my dorm miserable, class miserable, and I just kept asking myself “what am I doing?”, and when I made the decision to drop out of the engineering program to save my sanity and GPA, I fell into a deep depression. I felt worthless because all those people writing online said I was studying something useless, and that since I wasn’t studying a “real” field, that I deserved to not have a job. But after some time, I got better, and my confidence went up when I went back to English, and I eventually graduated with my degree.

    At the risk of confirming your concern of not having a job, since graduating recently I still haven’t found a job yet. However, thanks to my past work experience and some help from this blog, I am getting interviews, and I feel it’s only a matter of time until I become employed. My advice to your nephew is to not force yourself into a major that you would rather have teeth pulled than study simply because it’s a “practical major.” Fact is, our economy and market fluctuates and constantly changes. What is in demand now can either burst or be outsourced four years from now. Major in something that you like, but prepare yourself while you’re in college.

    And, on a personal note, don’t read those bad comments from people who sneer or trash liberal arts students and graduates. My theory on that is that people like to act superior and snobby on the internet, and they get a little burst of superiority whenever they can trash someone. Reading those awful comments was what led me to my depression, and putting a halt on reading those helped immensely.

    1. Mike C.*

      As some one with a “practical major”, most of those folks could do with better writing skills or an understanding of how their studies and futures jobs affect the rest of society.

      Also, there are a ton of assholes on the internet with that chip on their shoulder and I hate seeing it every time it comes up. I just don’t get it. It’s not your fault that engineering schools come within an inch of crushing their students under giant piles of homework.

  5. arm2008*

    I’m going to go against the tide here. If he can’t go to college without incurring debt, don’t go to college. Degrees aren’t getting people jobs, but they are getting people debt. If he’s at all technically inclined, a good trade program would be a much better investment. CNC = computer programming+machine shop. I see demand for these. Look at what’s in demand that you can get 12-18 months of training and hit the ground running. Further college can be done part-time when he figures out what he really wants to do for the first part of his life (because it’ll change later anyway!).

      1. Anonymous*

        Truth. I work at a trade school, and it’s an excellent option for those who are technically inclined and career-minded. However, our waiting lists are 1-2 years out right now, but on the bright side, job placement and wages are holding steady.

    1. Kimberlee*

      I agree so completely with this. I’ve been reading articles lately about how there are tons of jobs out there that employers just can’t fill because people don’t have the skills for them. Vo-tech education has taken big hits over the last few years, because middle class people have this silly notion that students have to go to college to get jobs… people have to have SKILLS to get jobs. There’s surprisingly little overlap between those two. A college degree will (hopefully) get you decent writing skills, but that’s pretty much it.

      1. Mike C.*

        Frankly I find most of these articles to be a bunch of whining from business owners. It’s funny, during World War II when most of the working men were fighting overseas businesses somehow found a way to train large groups of people who previously had no work skills.

        I mean come on, Rosie the Riveter didn’t go to a trade school, she was trained on the job.

        1. Anonymous*

          I see it as a convenient excuse for why they’re not expanding, actually. Businesses know that part of their image is dictated by how often they can afford to hire–this is why many appear at job fairs even if they have no actual positions. It’s publicity. They whine about how hard it is to fill jobs in the hopes that their sluggish expansion will look like it’s someone else’s fault. Our fault.

          There are certain machinist jobs that I know are hard to fill because I know a guy who works in a machine shop…but they’re hard to fill because the company wants everyone to have at least 5 years experience. This is one of the skills that those unemployment training programs actually teaches, but you can’t magically come out of that with 5 years experience. It’s a catch-22. And it’s their own damn fault that instead of hiring “new grads” in these fields, they sit around waiting for that one person who has all the experience they want and will share it for $7.25 an hour.

          1. Mephistopheles*

            Good points to all above. Kimberlee, I think that the reason so many people want to go to college is because they don’t want to do blue-collar labor-intensive jobs. While there are skilled labor jobs (plumbing, auto mechanic) that can pay quite well, it doesn’t change the fact that they just may not be appealing. Personally, I would much rather work a white-collar job, and even though I love being physically active, I prefer to get dirty on the soccer and rugby field and at the gym, not at work. I admire people who do work in blue-collar positions, but it’s not something that I want to do.

            The NY Times had a great article from 2009 about how Job Retraining programs were becoming less and less effective primarily because those jobs that were available when these people started the training program became scarce by the time they got out. Even if you go to a trade school, there is no guarantee that the field you trained in will still be there by the time you get out. And if that happens, you have a skill but nowhere to use it.

            @Anonymous: Absolutely true on the experience front. While it is understandable that there are positions that do require experience, it seems that this job market has given some employers an incentive to require an absurd amount of experience for jobs that either require very little or can be learned through training.

            The article on job training is at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/06/us/06retrain.html

        2. arm2008*

          Believe me, this isn’t just happening in the trades – they do the same thing with professional positions. About a week ago a message was sent to one of my semi-exclusive networking groups about how they had 2 positions that had been out there for 2 months and with all the unemployed people they were surprised that they had so few qualified applicants. So I sent in my application with a decent cover letter showing how my experience translated to what they were looking for (I had very similar experience supporting internal customers, the position was supporting external customers) and I had experience in at least 80% of the areas they listed. In less than a day I got the standard “carefully reviewed your information and considered your experience, we are pursuing other individuals for this position. ” Far as I know they are still looking, while I or some other individual could be doing the job now and already learning on the job those few missing components. I just laugh and move on, because there is no way I will change their mind on the matter.

      2. Lillian Wight*

        In Alberta, where I live, they expect a shortfall of 75,000 trade jobs within five years. That’s just one Canadian province. Automotive mechanics, welders, carpenters – these are the wealthy people in this province right now.

    2. Natalie*

      I would edit your advice a little to say if you can’t go to college without taking private student loans (non-FAFSA), consider making some changes to avoid those private loans.

      There are numerous programs that help you repay FAFSA loans (income based repayment, Public Service Loan Forgiveness, Americorps, Peace Corps, VISTA, Teach for America, the military if you’re so inclined), but if you get in over your head with private loans there is literally nothing you can do. So stick with FAFSA, and if you don’t qualify for FAFSA do whatever you can to pay cash.

      In line with that, give small private colleges a look. In my experience (graduated 3 years ago, bf graduated in June) most state schools aren’t giving out any money, and with budget cuts their tuition is on par with small private colleges. Private colleges are often cheaper when scholarships and grants are factored in.

  6. Josh S*

    In 9th grade, this kid should be focusing on schoolwork and extra-curriculars, not picking a hypothetical major from an unknown school for an unknowable career path. (I’ve heard it said that most kids going into Kindergarten this year will work in an industry that does not yet exist upon their graduation from college.)

    That being said, I’d give this advice:
    -Like AAM says, get a couple summer jobs. Even if this is mowing the grass of people in the neighborhood, or working a concession stand at the local pool–do something that gets you experience in the shlub of work. You may find you love something (though that’s unlikely in a non-skill position). But more than likely, it will ingrain the value of work (and the money it earns) while instilling motivation to go to college and get a job that’s better than minimum wage.

    -See if you can get High School credit for working a part time job in a career-oriented internship. I did this my Senior year of high school and discovered that my prospective field of Psychology/Counseling was horrible for my personality–I just don’t like listening to peoples’ problems all day long. This saved me from targeting that as a career choice and discovering my mistake after so many years of college.

    -Consider working for a year between high school and college. You can take all the standardized college placement tests your Junior year (11th grade), and apply for colleges just like all your friends. But upon acceptance into your college of choice, you can almost certainly defer enrollment for a year. This is a great alternative if you can’t do a High School internship.

    -When you’re looking at colleges, try to figure out if you’ll get the bang-for-your-buck. A nice private college can be great, but being saddled with $100,000 in student loans can be a back-breaker for the next decade or three. Especially if you’re choosing “Liberal Arts” or “Art History” as your major. (Disclosure: I have a BA in Psychology & Business from a mid-size private liberal arts college. Liberal Arts is a FANTASTIC sort of way to go, but you have to be extra-intentional about focusing that “I can learn ANYTHING” atmosphere into a “I learned EVERYTHING I could about _____”.)

    -Realize that college is a fantastic way to earn a credential, but that credentials matter less than experience and ability-to-execute. Consider Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Richard Branson, etc. Note: This is NOT an excuse to not go to college. But realizing that if you stumble on a great business that has the potential to give you all the experience you need, the college degree doesn’t matter so much.

    -As AAM said, even while you’re in college, find a part time job or an internship. If you’re not sure what you want to do, pick any job at the career center, and do your best to stick with the same place throughout your college years. Best-case scenario: After 4 years, you’ll have been promoted a few times, and will have a bunch of people who can vouch for your abilities. If it’s a career-related internship, pretend you’re in a multi-month interview. Because you are.

    But, for right now, you’re in 9th grade. You can’t even drive a car. The decisions about the rest of your life can change. And they probably will–a great number of times! Enjoy High School. Work hard at your school work. Build friendships. Daydream about what your life might look like someday. Think about what you might need to do to make that happen. Write down your goals (which will be useful in tracking how they’re progressing, or at least be entertaining when you look back at them someday).

    Oh, and always wear sunscreen. Baz Luhrmann told me that.

    1. Kimberlee*

      I think this “get a job in high school and college” advice is definitely good, it’s not entirely practical right now. Teen unemployment is pretty much as high as it’s ever been. The shit jobs that high schoolers used to be able to get easy are now going to machinists, nurses, and people who started working those jobs 10 years ago, before the recession hit, and are now stuck in the service industry. I did hiring at a fast food place, and we had very few teens working there after 2009… if you can get someone with years of work experience who can work any time of day, why would you hire a student? It’s actually going to be a big problem years from now, because more and more people are going to be spilling onto the labor market after college who have never had a job, and not because of lack of trying.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I don’t really care if someone worked in high school, but I do think they need to work in college, which includes internships (which in many cases are only open to college students) or volunteer work. If someone can’t find even a volunteer job, there’s a problem.

        1. Kimberlee*

          Yeah, I can agree with that. Even if the person is the type where they need to not work a real job in order to concentrate on school work (which, to a large extent, I was, so I can sympathize), occasional volunteering is an easy way to gain experience and get used to how the work world operates.

        2. Lacey*

          Having graduated fairly recently, I second the need for internships and/or volunteer work, ideally related to a field you want to work in. I had work experience from college (of the pay the bills kind, mostly waitressing) and it was very hard for me to find professional work after I finished grad school even! And I’m still not able to break into the sector where I want to be and where my education is almost 3 years later (it’s very competitive) and have only found something somewhat-related.

          Also, given the high cost of tuition it’s very unrealistic for most students to not work to support themselves while in school. If you are lucky enough to have parents able to support you, use it to your advantage to intern/volunteer in a relevant area.

          Finally, from what I have personally observed, students who are working (ie busier) are drinking less in college and actually wind up doing better.

          1. Anonymous*

            Finally, from what I have personally observed, students who are working (ie busier) are drinking less in college and actually wind up doing better.

            Funnily enough, one of my biggest regrets from university is not spending more time in the bar. I’d have made more friends, and it wouldn’t have affected what the degree certificate wound up saying.

        3. Anon.*

          Idealist.org is a great source for finding volunteer jobs (as well as jobs/resources/people in non-profit worldwide).

    2. Bob G*

      I pretty much agree with everything you stated in your comment except for “Consider working for a year between high school and college”. I completely disagree with that.

      I came out of high school (many years ago…) and didn’t know what I wanted to do and my dad was unemployed at that time. I thought the same thing, I’ll work for a year and earn some money and then decide what I want to do. It didn’t work out that way. You start to earn money, and as an 18 year old you think “I don’t need school”. Before you realize it that “1 year” turns into more. In my case during that 1 year I met a girl and ended up having a child. Obviously not everyone is going to make the same “wonderful” choices I made but I think you have to keep that forward momentum going even if you don’t know what your major is going to be. Go to school, take a stab at a major and hopefully it works if not adjust on the fly but don’t stay home and think about it.

      I’m lucky that I’ve managed to do ok with all my choices early on but trust me it made life considerably more difficult.

  7. Anonymous*

    It’s good for him to have a goal in mind, but not having an idea yet, that’s okay too. Where I went to college, you had to finally declare at the end of your sophomore year if you had not done so already – and then of course, you could change afterwards (which might’ve meant more years).

    Your nephew should strive to do well in high school. Keep the grades up as best as possible, and start achieving his best now! Colleges will keep an eye on all of the grades throughout a student’s entire high school career. That way, his doors will be open to many colleges of his choosing, and he can wonder about what to major in when he gets closer to college. And make sure he doesn’t get senioritis!

  8. Anonymous*

    I was/am one of the few people who knew exactly what they wanted from a young age. Worked my butt off and here I am today! (doing well) So yes, we are out there.

    Anyways, I look for staff who worked in college. I’m not interested in teaching how to multi-task equal priorities. It’s one of the few things I take out in my first pass at resumes.

    1. Kimberlee*

      Anon: I think this is an interesting idea, but I worry that you’re weeding out good people without realizing it. I did a whole comment about this above, but unemployment rates for young people, including teens, are at record highs. It’s hard to even get a fast food job as a teenager (or college student) now. You’re basically like the employers I hear about who refuse to even consider people who have been unemployed for 6 months or more… you have no idea what you’re weeding out when there are tons of great people who can’t get jobs through no fault of their own.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I’m not buying the idea that college students couldn’t get any job in four years of school, even volunteer work. Surely they could at least get a volunteer job, so I don’t think it’s accurate to say “through no fault of their own.” But regardless of that, I do think it’s reasonable for an employer to not want to hire someone who has ZERO work history, who will need more training than their (plentiful) competition will need. Employers hire the most qualified person they can and people with zero work experience are inherently less qualified than other candidates.

        1. Kimberlee*

          Yeah, OK, I can get that. One really should leave college (and ideally high school) with SOMETHING to put on a resume.

      2. Anonymous*

        True, but there is always student work: work-study, internships, departmentally funded student positions. I worked in student positions for most of undergrad and it gave me a huge advantage when I went out to get my first job. It didn’t hurt to have a dean and university VP as references because of these jobs.

  9. Professional Yak*

    I’d like to emphasize the part of AAM’s post that I think is the most important.

    You need an internship. You also need clubs, organizations, and as many friends as you can make.

    The choice of major is expressive of what your interests are and what field you’d like to go into. However, without experience on your resume and a network of people who know the right people, you’re going to find it very hard to break in.

    I made the mistake of focusing too much on coursework and non-marketable extracurriculars and didn’t realize the importance of internships and networks until after I’d graduated.

    It’s not impossible to bounce back from, but it’s one of those things that makes your life a lot easier if you get it right the first time around. It’s too early to worry now, but in 3-4 years, he could probably use the advice.

  10. Suzanne Lucas*

    I just want to relate a little story. My husband started a new job and worked with an obnoxious woman with the same title he had. She introduced herself in the following manner:

    My name is Mary. I have a bachelor’s degree from Princeton and an MBA from Stern (NYU’s MBA program).

    My husband (and this is only one of the reasons why I love him), replied dryly, “I went to SUNY Buffalo and I make the same amount of money as you do.”

    She walked off! Ha!

    My point is, that even though I pressure my offspring to do well in school, is that what college you attend is not that important. Honestly and truly. Yes, Princeton is more prestigious than Buffalo, but once you get that first job, it’s how you perform on the job that matters.

    1. fposte*

      There’s that interesting study, noted in one of the Gladwell books, demonstrating that Nobel Prize winners went to a wide variety of colleges–it seemed to be important to go to a decent college (lots of state schools included), but there was no extra boost from top-rank school vs. solid, capable school. It just had to be good enough not to sink you.

      (And between this and the crazy commuter lady, I have to wonder if NYU is managing to give its graduates an inflated sense of its stature anyway.)

      1. Suzanne Lucas*

        You know, one of the advantages of attending a less prestigious school is that you have more of a chance of classes being taught by an actual professor instead of a grad student. Also, you may have the opportunity to work closely with a professor.

        My husband’s college roommate did tons of research with professors and was published before graduating and going onto Stanford in an MD/PhD program–on a full scholarship. He now works part time at Harvard in addition to his medical practice.

        He says he wouldn’t have gotten all the good experience if he’d been battling people for 5 minutes with a professor at an Ivy.

    2. Anonymous*

      I know of high schools that are like that too. There’s one near me – while it’s considered to be a public high school and you don’t have to pay tuition to go to it, you have to test to get in. It’s mostly for gifted and talented students as its graduates will tell you. The school is supposed to have a 90-100% rate of going to a 4-year college and graduating. Well, I have already found a ton of people from it who have either: 1. Didn’t go to college, 2. Went to college and dropped out, or 3. Went to college, dropped out, and attends a community college.

      Granted, money can be an issue for some, but since I know these people a little more, I don’t see it being a money issue.

  11. Mephistopheles*

    ….wow. That was awesome. I am honestly speechless.

    Evil HR Lady brings up an excellent point. With all these news stories of students getting into more and more debt, don’t brush aside suggesting that your child enroll in a state school. In-State tuition is very reasonable, even with the tuition hikes that seem to have been ubiquitous in the past half-decade.

    1. Mike C.*

      On the other hand, the expensive private school I went too was cheaper because they offered a lot more in financial aid. Maybe three people on campus paid the list price.

  12. Eric Woodard*

    3 things to tell your nephew…

    1) For so many people, what you major in doesn’t necessarily relate to what you end up doing. So might as well study something that interests him just for the sake of interest.

    2) A lot of times people tell students they should explore their options in college, find out who they are. Here is better advice: he should take some time to decide what he wants his identity to be. It’s much more empowering and faster. He should take some time to decide what he wants to be the best in the world at. He shouldn’t try to be a generalist. He should cut off some options. Then, he should dominate that area, be the best in the world at it. Trick is, it’s got to be something he REALLY likes, or he won’t have the gas to do it all.

    No reason to do that second thing now – but he’s got about 5 years to think about it. If he can make that decision sooner, all the better.

    1. fposte*

      I agree with the notion of being prepared to cut off some options, but I’d actually make a converse point–which is that that youthful direction and identity aren’t lifetime commitments. Lots of rich, full lives are filled with second and third careers (I’m in a big second-career field). So yes, do develop some focus, but realize that you don’t have to say goodbye to other options forever.

  13. El Jorge*

    I get the impression that the people who tend to pressure children/teenagers most about their futures and how to do it all The Right Way also tend to be the most out of touch with reality. I had something of a breakdown when I entered high school after being home-schooled from grades 6 through 8. I was a smart kid, blew away the dean of students on my placement testing, and promptly got placed in every AP/Honors-level course available. The phrase “crash and burn” comes to mind. My report cards were all over the map – some As, some Ds and everything in between – though, thankfully, no Fs. I may have been smart enough for the classes, but I had no motivation – something my parents and teachers certainly noticed. While I admit that I’m ultimately responsible for my own performance, the simple truth is that I suddenly had a large amount of pressure placed on me that I couldn’t handle. Instead of trying to help me figure out what I wanted, they just put more pressure on me to, well, be motivated. That just made things worse.
    I think people expect teenagers and young adults to know themselves, but it’s an age when we are really coming to explore the idea that we have our own distinct identities. Lighting a fire underneath someone that young and telling them they need to decide who they are, what they want to do, and that they need to succeed in everything is not a recipe for success. There is no wisdom in making major life decisions hastily, and frankly, adults who place that kind of pressure on a 14-year-old really should know better.
    I supposed if I had any advice for the student it would be this: Explore. Explore who you are in different situations. Get a job. Volunteer. Play sports, or music, or both. Get involved in extracurriculars. Do stuff, and learn about yourself. You’ll be more likely to succeed if you know your strengths and your passions. I won’t guarantee it’ll make you happy, but it’ll certainly give you a better shot.

    1. K.A.*

      I had a similar experience. Entering high school I tested off the charts, but my freshman year was a disaster and I dropped out a few weeks into my sophomore year. The best thing my parents did was let me free fall and do my own thing. I spent a year and a half wandering the proverbial teenage desert and then when I was 17 I got my act together, enrolled in a community college and transfered to a well respected four year school a year later. Now I’m finishing my Ph.D. in engineering at a top tiered school and have a nice job lined up. The experiences I had while I was a ‘failed’ teenager shaped who I am today and have given me perspective and insights that have served me well professionally and personally.

      There’s no correct path. Teens need space to develop their own interests and personalities. Being charming and interesting will get you a lot farther in life than a few extra AP classes and an internship.

  14. AS*

    What I learned is that in high school, you should concentrate on extracurricular activites and good grades which will help you get into a good/decent college.

    And yes good grades in college do matter because that will help you get internships. Most employers want someone with a cetain GPA and the best internships take students from the best colleges.

    What you do in college and what you study will help you land your first job.

    Your first job helps shape your career path.

    1. Anonymous*

      The only time I’ve ever been asked for my GPA was when I applied to grad school. I’m not sure which employers are demanding certain GPA levels because I have yet to encounter one.

      Also, my first job was in a completely unrelated field to the one I am in now.

      I don’t understand why younger people seem to think of careers in adulthood as being so inflexible. Changing careers, working outside of your major, etc., are more common than not.

      1. Anonymous*

        Most Fortune 500 companies hire interns with at least a 3.0 GPA. Who would want to hire someone with a 1.5?

        1. fposte*

          Sure, but most people’s path to employment isn’t an internship at a Fortune 500 company. And some of those who started there now run restaurants, or have become nurses, or whatever. A high GPA means that you have some options in the first couple of years out of college that you wouldn’t otherwise have had, but 1) those options aren’t meaningful for everybody and 2) there are ways to be okay without them.

  15. Vicki*

    I grew up in a College town. Nearly every HS graduate went to the local University, where, btw, freshmen were not allowed to officially declare a major.
    I loved Science as a kid (still do) and figured I’d be a scientist, so in HS I took every science class I could. I also took various AP classes because my grades were good enough.
    I started College in Biochem. Added Computer Science classes. Switched to Microbiology. Got my BS. Tried a Masters program in Forensic Science (hated it). Switched to Microb. because I knew it. Did a statistical thesis. Got a “data analysis” job. Moved into programming.
    The little girl who loved Science as a kid and got a BS Micrb. has been working as a programmer and a technical writer and currently does technical support.
    It’s rare for someone to be able to make life decisions in HS. Take classes you find interesting and learn to learn.

  16. v*

    Is there something ironic about a blog that emphasizes the difficulties about a job search, to tell young people to “get” jobs. Because, after all that we’ve learned so far, it is that just easy.

    I do appreciate all the advice seen here. But the notion that the less-valued jobs would be a matter of just sending an application and being in, just rubbed me the wrong way.

    1. Anonymous*

      I’m sorry, but it isn’t that hard to find a retail job, an internship, etc. This blog seems to focus on more advanced positions where the search is harder. You won’t get a position as a corporate executive as a student, but you should be able to find something if you try. I graduated just a few years ago and heard the “there are no jobs for me” whine way too much. There are jobs for students…you just don’t want to do those jobs.

      1. Anonymous*

        I’m confused on a couple points. In the first place, yes it is hard to get a retail/food job. For each open position they get several hundred applications, and if you list college at all they toss your application in the trash. Usually the only way to get in is if you know someone currently working there, but that doesn’t always work–I know someone who’s a manager at Starbucks and he still hasn’t been able to get me in there part time. Internships? Extremely competitive and possibly non-existent if you live in a college town in the middle of nowhere.

        Second, people with advanced work experience are having trouble getting jobs, so why would you think that a college kid who worked at McDonald’s is going to be better off for having work experience? I’m not saying not to get a job, but even if it were just a matter of showing up and getting hired, most students know that they have to get some kind of “real” job for it to actually matter on their resume. So what they’re lamenting is that “there are no jobs for me…that won’t get me laughed out of the place if I apply for something better later, or that will pay my living expenses and student loans in the meantime.” It’s not that they won’t do it, it’s that they’re terrified they’ll end up homeless and the hiring manager at the “real” job they apply for when things are a little better will scoff at their McDonald’s job.

        1. Perfectshinist*

          Excellent point. Even if you do get a low-level job, does it really aid in your development that much? I was working as a telemarketer while in College and now am in the finance field and that experience did not help me one bit. I just did it because God forbid some hiring manager see that all I was doing in college was working hard to get good grades. Looking back, I wish that instead of trying to convince people to get another credit card I had just read books on a variety of subjects or learned another language-would have been way more useful.

          1. JT*

            If a student is very disciplined, perhaps through competing at a high level in a sport or playing a major role in a student organization, then a low-level job might not provide much “useful” experience. But in most cases, yes, even a low-level job helps young people better understand how to work hard, do things that they don’t want to, work on another person/organization’s schedule, etc. These things are important. And they should be able to talk about that in an interview.

            1. Perfectshinist*

              I don’t understand why hard work, time management, doing things you don’t want,etc are considered exclusive to the “real-world”. I worked 10x as hard in school than I did at my first job, I had constant deadlines to meet for projects, every semester I had to do group projects with students I had never met.As mentioned before, I was a telemarketer before entering the finance field. I hated it, didn’t want to do it, but I knew that society had set up yet another arbitrary rule without thinking it through so I went along with it. Did that experience help me one bit with regards to my current financial career?Nope. Well, at least I wasted a lot of time and annoyed a lot of people.

        2. Anonymous*

          I had friends in high school who became managers at McDonalds. That is probably better on their resume as a leadership position rather than just flipping burgers. I guess it just depends on what you are in the company. But as a first job, the fast food industry isn’t too bad. It’s money in your pockets and still a responsibility the teen should take seriously.

      2. A. Nonymous*

        To Anonymous at 2:49 on 9/3:

        I’m sorry, but you are quite delusional. You are making statements of life in the United States pre-2008. To the contrary, it is difficult to find a retail job, and internships are very competitive. Students constantly try to get jobs, but if you listen to what is around you, you wouldn’t have made the erroneous statement that “you should be able to find something if you try.” The jobs are going to people who have been bounced out of corporate America. So yes, people are whining because they can’t find the jobs they DO WANT!

        Wake up there sweetie and take a real look at what’s really going on. Ask people how they are getting through this. Then perhaps you’ll change your tune that there really aren’t retail jobs and that there are students who are sincerely trying.

        1. Anonymous*

          I had a student internship position open for over a month before it was filled. Several applicants were chosen but ended up turning it down because they didn’t want to work on Saturdays.

          1. A. Nonymous*

            At least you gave a specific example, but just remember that’s not all students and that is not all of America. I would take a look at how you are advertising the internship and/or take a look at the internship in general to see why these students are being discouraged from it. I know students who take classes on Saturdays (I was one of them). If they know ahead of time and still choose to do it, then great. It almost sounds like you’re springing it on them last minute. Not sure since I don’t know what’s going on, but all I can say is, it doesn’t represent all of the students and all of the working world within the USA.

            1. Anonymous*

              It was advertised on the university career board (student intranet) and the requirement for Saturday work was metioned in the first line. It’s just that many students just were not interested in having to work on a weekend day. A colleague in another office noted that they had the same issue with a position they had trouble filling. You can’t blame the economy for everything.

  17. Anonymous*

    I used to work at a law school and on occasion I would recieve a call from a helicopter parent intent on bringing their high schooler in for a tour in anticipation of “when” they would apply later in life. We obviously had a policy against this for two reasons: it was a waste of staff time and no parent should be dictating what a child does for any degree, let alone a professional/graduate degree. Forcing a child to major in a certain field or even to focus only on lucrative career options frequently leads to burn out. I’ve seen it so many times. Let the child breathe and find out who he really wants to be and not who others want him to be. He will be much more motivated and successful if you take that route.

    And, for the record, I have a liberal arts degree and a more enjoyable and lucrative career than many of my peers who were forced into majors they didn’t really have an interest in.

  18. ModernHypatia*

    Having worked with high school students for the past 10 years – I definitely agree that not focusing too soon is sensible.

    The big advice I give people is that *playing* with a bunch of core skills rarely hurts. The person who’s really comfortable picking up a new piece of software, or exploring something they don’t know a lot about, or solving a “Hey, I don’t have this thing I need to do this task, what else can I use…” is going to have a lot more options, long-term, than someone who’s less flexible in their thinking. But it’s play and exploration that really build that comfort, rather than “do this project using this specific tool” type assignments or tightly controlled settings.

    Varied volunteer work (different kinds of tasks, not just one thing), jobs that encourage a range of skills can all help – but so can having time to play around on the computer/design a website/learn to program to create a game. Some kinds of school extracurrics do wonderfully, too – robotics programs, projects with really clear goals (like planning an event, ongoing community service, etc.). Theatre, especially technical theatre (lighting, design, etc.) builds a lot of those skills, too.

    And of course, learning to write and present material clearly is never going to hurt. (Right now, that includes typing skills, so learning how to type accurately and fast will save him time and frustration the sooner he learns how to do it, for at least the immediate future.)

  19. Suz*

    In addition to doing a lot of exploration to determine what you like, I’d also recommend not completely ruling out something you didn’t like in high school. When I took biology in high school, I had a pretty poor teacher and I hated every minute of that class. I swore I’d never take another biology class. Then in college, my roommate talked me into giving it another try. I loved it and ended up getting my degree in biology.

  20. dradis contact*

    I didn’t declare a major in college until I absolutely had to. And I now work in a field totally unrelated to my degree. What I did, however, was to take all the core courses (science, math, languages, etc.) my freshman and sophomore years. Come junior and senior years I was talking mostly courses in my majors, and didn’t have to worry about not being able to graduate on time because I was missing a core course.

  21. AG*

    First thing’s first. Take as many AP Courses as you can, but don’t take the actual AP exam. Unless you plan to double-major or graduate early, or even do a bachelors/masters program, all you’re doing is denying yourself the easy-As. Trust me, you’re going to want every chance to boost your GPA because if its not at least 3.0, you’re not going to get an internship.

    Last but not least, do not let anyone stand in the way of your success, because you will someday find that there are people who care more about what you can give them then who you are. Even if you’re the giving type, your school/work performance could suffer, and you will resent them.

  22. Karl Sakas*

    Yes, go to a college that doesn’t require you to declare a major immediately. I was pretty sure I knew, but didn’t have to declare until the end of my sophomore year. Friends who went to schools that required on-admission declarations went through a huge hassle to change majors, which often meant adding an extra semester or even a year to their time in college.

    Yes, absolutely do internships before you graduate from college. I won’t hire a new grad without at least one internship, and the standout candidates are the ones who’ve done three or more, and who can articulate why working at my company is a good match, based on what they did and didn’t like about their work experience thus far. And if you don’t do internships in high school, at least do some job-shadowing (externships). After shadowing a lawyer for two days in high school, I knew for sure that I didn’t want to become a lawyer.

    Those “secure jobs” probably aren’t. At the beginning of high school, I was sure I’d work for a dot-com startup after college. By the time I graduated in June 2000, the bubble had burst. At 29, my broad training (and, more importantly, my experience in and passion for business) means I should always be able to find a match, even as industries change.

    I’m all for preparation, but at the beginning of 9th grade? Give him some guidelines and then leave him alone for a couple years.

  23. Intern*

    I’m just going to point out how it can be surprisingly difficult to get internships while in college. I applied to countless ones each and every summer, and I only got accepted for an internship after I graduated. I learned there they preferred people who are recent graduates because that means they will dedicate themselves entirely to the internship because they don’t have academic obligations.

    The inability to get an internship even while in college doesn’t mean there aren’t alternative routes to gain experience. I did volunteering, externships, and temporary, summer jobs.

    I read the NY Times article when it came out, and it is still depressing. I’ve done a string of consecutive internships since graduating, and most entry-level jobs continue to inform me that they prefer more experienced candidates.

  24. TT*

    In my opinion, significantly weighting summer internships and work experience straight out of college will be an unfair bias toward kids with affluent backgrounds.

    Priviledged kids are generally the ones with the family connections and networking opportunities, (not to mention being able to afford to take an unpaid internship for work experience, while his poorer counterpart have to work at Denny’s for minimum wage during the summer), to receive primary consideration for internship opportunities. By favouring previous relevant work experience over relevant courseload for recent graduates, you merely perpetuate this cycle of giving favortism to someone who has the better family network over the someone who could be better qualified yet simply don’t have the means to travel in the same social circles.

    1. JT*

      What you say about the system of internships helping affluent kids is true. My organization hosts a number of interns but we can’t afford to pay them, so the participants tend to have money. We generally don’t ask them to be with us more than a couple days a week if they need the other time for school or paid work. But no one needs family connections to get an internship with us – we look seriously at every inquiry and I’ve had plenty of interns who just came to us cold.

  25. Dawn*

    I agree with some people that have said college isn’t a necessity, or at least not right away. I went right to work while still in high school. After graduation I got a job as a bank teller and worked my way up. Today I’m a VP. No college degree; however, I am in the process of getting an Associates in Business Management. I don’t feel I need it; it’s more for personal satisfaction. I’m glad I waited so long. I never would have known what major to pick back then and would have wasted a lot of money figuring it out.

    I would suggest the OP’s nephew attend come classes at a community college. It’s much less expensive and he can dabble a little once he fulfills the english requirement. Way too early to think about that now, though.

  26. fposte*

    I’m really delighted by the diversity of responses here. It suggests to me that 1) no matter what you do, somebody will think you’re wrong, so don’t make plans just to avoid somebody thinking that and 2) people have thrived taking a bunch of different paths.

  27. Vicki*

    An anecdote from my years in College. A girl in my HS graduating class entered the University when I did, thinking she would major in Nuclear Engineering. She graduated with a degreee in Journalism.
    Things change a lot in 4 years. Take classes. Learn what you like.

  28. lexy*

    If I had a dime for every person I know who graduated in the same major they started in I’d have like… 50 cents. Let alone what they thought they’d study in college while still in HIGH SCHOOL. Take as many advanced classes as you can… it will come in handy if you decide to change direction midstream if you’ve had a solid introduction to the field.

  29. Natalie*

    A couple of things that haven’t been covered:

    Build relationships with “real” adults (bosses, professors, etc). Aside from being valuable personal relationships, they will also be helpful as references, advisors, and people to network with.

    Look at the total cost of attendance with financial aid (either government or institutional). A lot of schools that seem expensive to the public are actually cheaper for most students because of institutional aid.

    Get an on-campus job through your colleges work-study program. They are usually easier to get than fast food or retail jobs, easier to schedule around your classes, and you can build relationships with other students and staff at your college. In smaller colleges, you may be working closely with administrators or faculty.

    Enjoy your time at college. You don’t have to make every decision the first day you arrive. And none of the decisions you make in college are 100% irreversible, so don’t be too hard on yourself if you later you decide you wish you’d done this or that differently.

  30. Jim*

    That’s way to young to be worried about a career and what to study. I would estimate that this person’s future job hasn’t been invented yet! Just study hard in the hard courses (no matter what they are). Get a job or volunteer for real world experience. Enjoy being a kid – there will be way to much stress and working in the future.

    By the way, at 18 when I entered college, I had no idea what to study. Luckily for me, my school had a combined, five year program in engineering and the liberal arts, where two degrees were granted. This is the best decision I ever made.

    1. Kathy*

      Jim – I totally agree. It’s funny that it took around 80 comments for someone to finally say what I had been thinking all along: just enjoy being a kid. Now, that’s not to say, of course, that you should just goof off and then get serious when you hit college. I have been working since I was 14. I’m 30 now. I didn’t have any internships and I wasn’t overly involved in extracurriculars. I mostly worked in high school and college and was very focused on one extracurricular organization that I loved. I changed my major about 3 or 4 times in my first year of college – and I’m someone who had typically known my own interests very well. But your world explodes and possibilites open up when you get to college.

      So, I’d tell him that as a high school freshmen, he should enjoy being a kid and take this time to explore interests. Get involved in different types of activities/clubs; get to know yourself really well and find out what you are passionate about. Go to a career center and take some of their aptitude tests or interest tests. Talk to a guidance counselor. Basically, gather information so that when you do really no-kidding have to make a decision you have really spent time thinking about it.

  31. Lillian Wight*

    What a great entry, and what great comments! I wish I’d read something like this in high school/university … and that’s why I’ve sent it to my 14-year-old nephews. I’m hoping they read it a few times over the next few years so they understand they don’t have to decide their whole lives now or ever.

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