by Jason M. Smith
Know what you want out of college
Start your research into prospective careers early in high school. Don’t hesitate to invest a little money on reputable aptitude assessments and career placement tests; it is far less costly to begin with a career placement test than to end up switching majors. Try to determine, as best you can, what it is you want to be doing five years after school; then, find out what it takes to obtain a job doing that. Work backwards from there to identify your program of study and the schools that offer it.
Not only will careful research and planning simplify your college decisions and save you potential frustration, it will excite you and provide you the motivation you’ll need to get through tough assignments and classes. Didn’t start the research process early enough? Then put on the brakes. Going straight to a four-year school right after high school because you don’t know what else to do or because “that’s what everyone does” is an expensive, inefficient, and often dissatisfying way to figure out why you’re getting a degree. You need to have a reason in hand before you set foot on campus.
Take advantage of your community college
The best-kept secret of higher education is the community college, where you can earn fully transferable credits, professional certificates, or even an associate’s degree, all before you graduate from high school. If you then transfer to a four-year school to complete your bachelor’s degree, you’ll have saved yourself a significant amount of both time and money―in tuition as well as room and board.
Community college courses have a variety of scheduling options to accommodate the needs of a more diverse student body. This makes them perfect to help prepare you for the unique challenges of college academics. If you’re not sure yet what you want to major in, this plan is definitely for you. You can satisfy core requirements and earn elective credit while exploring fields that interest you, all for a lower cost and under less pressure than you’d incur doing the same thing at a four-year school.
Creative strategizing and a careful eye to your four-year school’s transfer credit program are the keys.
[Although community college can provide great opportunities, parents need to know that their children will face social pressures that come with being in an adult environment and should be available to guide them as they maneuver through their classes. – HEAV]
Know if you should go to college
Maybe you should say “no” to a four-year school. There are plenty of careers for which it makes very little sense to get a liberal arts degree before you start. People who pursue technical degrees or professional certifications in specific skills valued by their chosen field are often eligible for hiring and are able to begin their careers sooner and more smoothly than their counterparts at liberal arts colleges and universities. Again, the key here is research: know what you want to do and what education and experience are necessary to make you qualified to do it.
But, before you decide against getting a bachelor’s degree, make sure your chosen field is growing and likely to be hiring by the time you’re ready to send out your resumé. Liberal arts degree holders may not be as well-prepared for work in any one specific field, but their credentials do have the advantage of being much more flexible and applicable to a wider array of career choices than vocational degrees. Sometimes just having a degree is a job requirement even if it is not in the same field. It also often gives you better pay for the same work.
Know how to supplement your education
Always look for ways to supplement your education. The awareness of slipping high school grading standards has driven college admissions officers to rely more heavily on other factors like test scores and extracurricular involvement in making admissions decisions. Likewise,
recruiters have had to rely more heavily on industry-relevant coursework and real-world business experience obtained along with the bachelor’s degree in making hiring decisions.
You need to understand this: by itself, your bachelor’s degree might not be enough to get you the job you want, especially right out of school. You should find internships that are relevant to your career choice during the summers after your sophomore and junior years. It’s great if you can get yourself hired short-term by a company that does business in your chosen field, but work for free if you have to; take a semester off if you have to. Be resourceful, and make it happen. Relevant internships and work experience go light years beyond your bachelor’s degree in getting you noticed and hired.
Do something extra while you are applying for jobs. On average, it takes six months of steady job-hunting before new college grads get hired. That’s enough time to pursue continuing education in your chosen field. Attend seminars and conferences or earn a professional certificate. Don’t just sit back and wait for the phone to ring. Pursue ways to make yourself stand out among your peers.
Get know at least three of your professors
Participate (intelligently) in their classes, go to their office hours, e-mail them questions about how other things you’re studying or reading relate to their subject and talk to them outside of class. If they host students for dinner, arrange for the class to meet at a restaurant, or offer
additional lectures or events not on the class syllabus, go! Not only will it improve your grades in their classes and give you a better grasp of the subject, you’ll make some good friends and earn willing references for jobs or grad school applications later.
Don’t discount graduate school
Maybe you were sick of high school and maybe you’ll be sick of college, too. You may think you’ll never want to see another textbook or the inside of another classroom, and you may be right. But, you may become excited about going on for more education. You may determine that a graduate degree will give you a competitive edge in the job market. You may realize you want to go back to school after working a few years. While most job interviewers won’t ask or care about your undergraduate GPA, you need a B-average (3.0) or better to be considered for grad school. Don’t accept anything less from yourself while you’re in college, lest you find you’ve shot yourself in the foot. Give your class assignments the attention they need so you can put them to work for you later.
Higher education alone can’t be expected to ferry passive students all the way to a good job, but with a creative and proactive approach to college, students can disembark prepared for real life.
Former homeschooler Jason M. Smith graduated from the College of William & Mary. He is a technical writer and also publishes works of fiction and poetry under the pen name J. Aleksandr Wootton. Though he and his wife currently live in Houston, they still ascribe to the humorous well-known creed, “To be a Virginian either by birth, marriage, adoption, or even on one’s mother’s side, is an introduction to any state in the union, a passport to any foreign country, and a benediction from above.” This article first appeared in The Virginia Home Educator, 2016.