Belinda M. Gonzalez-Leon, Ed.D., MBA
High school seniors are in the full thrust of college preparations right now. The Common Application opened August 1st, the FAFSA opens October 1st, and if you are applying to college via an early application option, the deadline could be as early as November 1st. What is the first thing you need to know before you start the process? Well, what do you want to study – what do you want to be when you graduate?
Recently, a student answered that question by telling me that she wasn’t sure and was going to explore her options by taking different courses when she got to college. That sounds like a wonderful and fun option for students. However, in today’s reality- it is not feasible. College is expensive. You want to get into college, get as much credit for your advanced courses in high school (such as AP, IB, AICE, Dual Enrollment) and graduate in four years or less so that you can start working or pursue a graduate degree. Therefore, you need to know exactly what courses to take when you start college. You simply can’t afford to “explore” when you get to college. Keep in mind, student financial aid only pays for those courses that are directly related to your major or that can count as electives.
When I have students who are simply unsure of what they want to do- I refer the student to a vocational assessment advisor. My colleague Margherita Laudi, is a psychologist who focuses on vocational assessment for high school students provides students a detailed assessment of their interests, abilities, limitations, personality traits, and even takes into consideration the family’s financial status to then provide a comparative analysis of the career options that best fits the student. She explains to the student what the particular field of work is all about, labor demand, salaries, colleges that offer the major, and other key pieces of information. The evaluation is done in 2 hours and the results are delivered immediately. Laudi explains that choosing a career is one of the most important decisions a student can make and yet it occurs when a young person begins to have important physical, social and emotional change. Students begin to develop the ability to choose – their sexual identity, their group of friends, hobbies, what career they are going to study – but many of them do not know what their skills are or like so many different things, or worse – they do not like anything in particular.
Laudi believes that preparing to enter college is a complex job which goes beyond choosing the educational institution and that after 27 years of experience in the education, that the most important step you can take is to identify the area you will like best based on your skill and personality traits to then determine which university to apply to. Once a desired career is identified, it is easier to guide a student on what kind of courses to choose in high school or what type of volunteering will help their college application. She indicates that while it is true that studying in a good school is important, it is much more important to choose that career is best suited for you so that you will get the job success that you have worked so hard for.
Once student has a least an idea of what they would like to study in college, then at that point we can determine what colleges to look into. In the United States there are college that are recognized for their business, medical, education, science, or law programs. If you know what field you want to study- well, now you can make a list of schools. Part of the decision on which schools to put on the list also includes if you want to attend a college in or out of state; big or small campus; warm or cold climate; near a big city or not; extracurricular activities such as sports or clubs; and also the curriculum of their program.
Then, the list can be made shorter by visiting the actual campuses and deciding if you as the student really feel that you will fit in and be happy at that particular school for four years. The final list is now based on how well you can meet admissions requirements. Review specifically the GPA and test score requirements. If you meet those numbers or believe that you can by the admissions deadline, then apply to those schools. If you cannot- then you need to be realistic and eliminate them. But the process begins with knowing what you want to study in college. You don’t need to be as specific as, “I want to be a pediatric neurosurgeon” but if you can narrow it down to “medicine…maybe working with children”, then your task of picking colleges is much easier.
If you don’t want to use a vocational advisor, then encourage your student to do their “exploring” during their high school years. They can try to pick up different electives; explore careers through part-time jobs or summer internships; try a variety of extra-curricular activities; and they can speak to as many people as possible about careers they have chosen. As parents, you can point out to them the activities that you see that they enjoy and help them research how to pursue their interests as a college major.
In high school I had a friend who was a very gifted artist. We were always amazed at the drawings and paintings she would display at school. However, she also loved science – specifically biology. With the help of her parents she was able to go to college and become a Medical Illustrator. She was able to join both of her passions into a career that she loves. Her drawings can now be found in medical books or you’ll see her in court explaining how something happened in a victim’s body via her illustrations. Remember, invest in an education that you truly enjoy because it will pay off for the rest of your life.