Career planning for high school students

Choosing your path starts with learning about yourself and figuring out what you love to do



I’ve always had a pretty clear idea of what I want to do,” says Megan Lovely, a high school senior who hopes to become a director someday. She’s already taking steps toward her career goal by interning with her school drama teacher, acting, and applying to colleges.

If you’re still in high school, you may not be as sure of your vocation as Lovely is of hers. But, like Lovely, you can start thinking about, and planning for, your future before graduation.

“Start exploring what you want to do when you’re a freshman,” says Mark Danaher, a career counselor at Newington High School in Newington, Conn. “The high school years go very quickly.”

Most people need some preparation before they’re ready for the workforce, and planning should begin long before it’s time to start a career. This could include taking technical courses during high school or, after graduating, attending a college or university to earn a certificate or a degree. Knowing what type of career preparation you need begins with thinking about what type of career you want.

Explore your interests

High school is a great time to start thinking about careers. “All your life you’ve been asked what you want to do when you grow up,” says Steve Schneider, a school counselor at Sheboygan South High School in Sheboygan, Wis. “In high school, you start to work towards making that happen.”

Many high-schoolers don’t know what they want to do. And school counselors say that’s perfectly fine. In fact, students are likely to change their minds multiple times, perhaps even after they enter the workforce. And some of tomorrow’s careers might not exist today.

Settling on just one occupation in high school isn’t necessary. But looking into the types of careers you might like can help set you up for success. “My feeling is that high school students don’t have to know the exact career they want,” says Danaher, “but they should know how to explore careers and put time into investigating them and learning about their skills and interests.”

Learn about yourself

Understanding what you enjoy, and what you’re good at, is the first step in exploring careers, say school counselors. “If you don’t know what you want to do, the question is, ‘What do you like to learn about?’” Schneider says. “If you really like science, what do you enjoy about it—the lab work, the research?”

Use the answers to those questions to identify careers that may have similar tasks. High school junior Kate Sours, for example, loves spending time with kids as a babysitter and enjoys helping people. So she focused on those two interests when she began considering potential careers.

Identify possible careers

Once you’ve thought about the subjects and activities you like best, the next step is to look for careers that put those interests to use. If you love sports, for example, you might consider a career as a gym teacher, recreational therapist, or coach. If you like math, a career as a cost estimator, accountant, or budget analyst might be a good fit.

But those aren’t the only options for people interested in sports or math. There are hundreds of occupations, and most of them involve more than one skill area. School counselors, teachers, and parents can help point you in the direction of occupations that match your interests and skills. School counselors, for example, often have tools that they use to link interests and skills with careers. Free online resources, such as My Next Move (www.mynextmove.org), also help with career exploration.

Do your research

After identifying possible occupations, you’ll want to learn more about them. Resources such as Career Outlook and the Occupational Outlook Handbook (both at www.bls.gov) can help you get started. Other sources of information include career-day programs, mentoring, and opportunities offered through your school to learn more about the world of work.

Talking directly to workers can help you get information about what they do. If you don’t know workers in occupations that interest you, ask people such as parents, friends, or teachers for their contacts. Some schools have business liaisons or coordinators who help put students in touch with employers—and school counselors can assist, too. These networking efforts might pay off later, even
if opportunities aren’t available now.

After you’ve found workers who are willing to help, talk to them on the phone, by email, or through online forums. Meet with them in person for informational interviews to learn more about what they do. Or ask if you can shadow them on the job to see what their daily work is like.

If job shadowing gives you a taste of what an occupation is like, imagine how helpful getting experience could be. Students can begin getting career-related experiences in high school through internships, employment, and other activities.

Internships and jobs

Completing an internship is an excellent way to get experience. Internships are temporary, supervised assignments designed to give students or recent graduates practical job training. Sometimes, internships or other experiential learning positions are built into educational programs, and students receive academic credit for completing them.

At Lovely’s school, for example, students have the option to fulfill an internship for credit during their junior or senior year. Lovely interned during her junior year for her high school theater director. “She gave us opportunities to do everything from contacting local newspapers for ads to writing program notes to directing the middle school production,” says Lovely. The experience gave Lovely a feel for a director’s work—and helped to cement her career goals.

At other schools, students seek out internships on their own. Academic credit may not be awarded, but gaining hands-on experience can still be worthwhile. Check with your school counselor to see if opportunities exist at your school.

Summer or part-time employment is another way to get experience. Paid jobs allow you to earn money, which can help you learn how to budget and save for future goals or expenses.

Other activities

You can participate in other activities in high school that may spark a career interest. Examples include yearbook committee, science club, and debate team. By joining groups that involve community service and leadership opportunities, such as student government or honor societies, you can hone work-related skills or interests.

Some student organizations aim to promote career readiness. SkillsUSA, DECA, and the Future Business Leaders of America are just a few of the national-level groups that might have student chapters at your high school.

Volunteering allows you to serve your community and bolster your experience. Religious institutions, local nonprofits, and government agencies are among the many organizations that use volunteers to fill a variety of roles.

These activities also show future employers and postsecondary schools that you are motivated and engaged. And the more you shape your thoughts about a career, the better you’ll know how to prepare for it.

Train for a career

Career preparation should start in high school, but it shouldn’t end with graduation: Most occupations require some type of training or education after high school. On-the-job training, apprenticeships, certificates, non-degree awards, and various levels of college degrees are typically required for entry-level jobs.

Which type of training you need depends on the career you want to pursue. Your high school may offer opportunities for getting career training or college credits before you graduate. And after graduation, your training options expand even more. The closer you get to entering the workforce, the more you’ll want to narrow your choices.

In high school

Getting a solid education is an important foundation for any career. Workers in many occupations use problem-solving, communication, research, and other skills that they first learned in high school. By doing well in classes and taking part in career-training or college-preparation programs, you demonstrate that you’re ready to put these skills into action.

Plan and achieve. Make sure your high school course plan prepares you for entering the next phase of training or education in your desired career. To enter an electrician apprenticeship, for example, you may need a year of high school algebra. Your school counselor can help you plan your schedule to ensure that you take the required classes.

Employers and postsecondary schools often look to your high school record to gauge how you might perform on the job or in an educational program. And finishing high school shows that you can set goals and follow through. “Starting freshman year, do the absolute best you can in your classes,” says Laura Inscoe, dean of counseling and student services at Wakefield High School in Raleigh, N.C. “Start strong and stay strong.”

Career programs. Your high school may offer options for exploring careers while earning credit toward graduation. Some of these options also allow you to earn industry certifications, licensure, or college credit.

In her high school, for example, Sours attends a career academy for health and medical sciences. She is learning about healthcare careers and will have a chance to apply some of her skills and knowledge as she continues in the program. By graduation, she’ll have earned both certifications and credits toward an applied nursing degree program at the local community college.

Career academies and other types of technical education are available in many schools to provide hands-on career training. Classes in fields such as business and finance, culinary arts, and information technology are designed to prepare you for work or postsecondary school.

College prep. If you know your goal is college, counselors usually recommend taking the most rigorous academic classes your school offers—and those that you can successfully handle. Doing so helps bolster both your college application credentials and your readiness for college-level study.

Some college-prep programs, such as Advanced Placement and dual enrollment, may help you get a head start on earning a postsecondary degree. Taking classes in these programs may allow you to waive some college course requirements, either by achieving a high score on exams or by completing a course for both high school and college credit.

After high school

About two-thirds of high school graduates from the class of 2013 enrolled in college that fall, according to BLS: 42 percent in baccalaureate (four-year) colleges and 24 percent in two-year schools. Of the remaining one-third of 2013 graduates, who opted not to go to college, 74 percent entered the labor force.

Associate’s and bachelor’s degree programs range from accounting to zoology. But job training and vocational school programs may offer the type of career preparation you need for the occupation that interests you.

Job training. If you get a job or enter the military directly out of high school, you’ll receive training specific to the job. Some employers may even pay for you to get related credentials, such as industry certification.

The type and length of on-the-job training you get depends on the occupation. For example, community health workers typically need one month or less of experience on the job and informal training, in addition to a high school diploma, to become competent in the occupation.

Apprenticeships are a form of job training in which a sponsor, such as an employer, pays a trainee to learn and work in a particular occupation. Some jobs in the military include apprenticeship training, but others involve different types of hands-on learning.

Vocational school. Also known as trade or technical schools, vocational schools have programs designed to give you hands-on training in a specific field. Many of these programs lead to non-degree credentials, such as a certificate or diploma. Occupations that you can prepare for at these types of schools include automotive mechanic and emergency medical technician (EMT).

Some vocational schools specialize in a certain occupation or career field, such as truck driving, culinary arts, or cosmetology. Others provide a diverse range of programs, such as medical assisting and precision production.

Earning a certificate allows you to prepare for a career in a relatively short amount of time: Nearly all certificate programs take fewer than two years to complete. For example, you may earn a nursing assistant certificate in less than one year.

Associate’s degree. Associate’s degrees, which may qualify you for occupations such as dental hygienist and funeral services manager, are available through public community colleges and other two-year schools. But some four-year schools also offer associate degrees that complement or lead into their bachelor’s degree programs.

Earning an associate’s degree and then transferring to a bachelor’s degree program might make sense if you’re unsure of what you want to study. It also allows you to save money on tuition, because community colleges are usually less expensive than baccalaureate colleges and universities.

Bachelor’s degree. If you plan to get a bachelor’s degree, your school counselor can help you with the application processes for colleges and financial aid. But you should also have a plan for why you’re pursuing a degree.

A good initial step is to think about what you might like to major in. If you’ve been considering your career interests throughout high school, declaring a major won’t be difficult. “Your initial undergraduate program should be an outgrowth of your academic strengths in high school,” says Carter.

Still not sure what you want to study? Look at some studies. For example, job opportunities and starting salaries vary by college major. Data may be helpful in narrowing your choices, but they shouldn’t be the sole determinant of your future. “Don’t let your decision be based on money alone,” said Julie Hartline, a school counseling consultant at Cobb County public schools in Smyrna, Ga. “Find something you’re going to love to do.”

To keep your options open, school counselors suggest entering a liberal arts program. Take classes in a broad range of subjects to help you figure out what you like best, and where that might lead in your future.

Everyone’s career path is different, and there is no “right” way to start a career. For example, if you want to postpone your studies to discover your passion, you might decide to take a “gap year” after high school. A gap year gives you a chance to pursue meaningful volunteer, work, or travel experiences. But school counselors recommend that you have a plan to ensure that your time off is productive.

Whatever career path you choose, says Schneider, remember that you can change your mind at any time. “There’s always the flexibility to shift course,” he says. “A career is not a life sentence. If at some point you realize, ‘I don’t want to do this,’ back up and ask yourself the same questions again: ‘What am I good at? What do I like to do?’”

Courtesy of The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), U.S. Department of Labor, January 2015

More from NH Next, your post-high school guide

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