How to Make College Worth the Money: Part 2

Career Direction 101

Continued from part 1 of “Is College Really Worth It?” article series.

Come senior year of high school, young people face one the most important decisions in their life—what to be when they grow up.   Most aren’t ready to answer this question, and it’s not their fault.

They are like Martians dropped on planet earth for the first time; they don’t quite understand how the world works.  They’ve spent their entire life in a classroom, doing what they’re supposed to, with little practice in making real world choices or facing real consequences.

is college really worth it?

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What do we do to help them make this decision? Not enough. Sure, we ask them what they want to be, but most can only muster up a “duh? I don’t have a clue.”   Unfortunately, the internal tension to answer this complex question is side stepped and replaced with an easier, sexier decision—what college to go to?

What students do know is that they want to be successful in life and make a very good living. They been told that the key to success is to get into the “right” college and everything will work itself out from there.

When it comes to picking their major, most follow their parent’s advice: doctor, lawyer, or business executive. Others take their best swing at the career piñata, hoping something exciting will fall in their lap.

Minimal effort and research goes into what college majors fit the students’ actual proclivities—the college train is leaving the station and there’s no time for that.  By the end of freshman and sophomore years, college students begin to realize they’re way off track. One by one, they start to freak out and even panic. Half change majors more than once, 40 percent stretch their stint to six years.  Nationwide, only half make it to the finish line, and within a few years of their graduation 75 percent say they did a lousy job of choosing their major.

Even in a good economy, only the clever ones land a somewhat suitable, not very interesting job. Suddenly they wake up and they’re 28 years old. A full decade has flown by and they’re not any clearer about what they really want. Their self-confidence is low and they’ve lost their way. Finding an exciting career direction eludes them. Now, add a monster recession to the mix.  Jobs are scarce in every field; the most desirable ones are grabbed by people who’ve got their act together.

Now what? Start a rock band? Create the next Facebook? Nah. A good number go to graduate school. They’re ready to find their “real” career; they take another crack at getting it right. By their mid-thirties they finally went all the way, they have JDs, MDs and PhDs, MBAs, MPAs, etc. The money is better; they’re married and have all the shiny good stuff.  Their 40th birthday is just around the corner, and guess what, their graduate degree isn’t panning out either.  The ugly truth is that most are making the same mistake twice—at mid-career they still don’t know what they want to be when they grow up.

So the story goes. I’ve heard it a thousand times over from very bright young professionals who went to the best schools in the world, and the same from good students who went to good schools. Only when you view the outcome of college education systemically, and over the career life span of thousands of professionals, does is it become apparent that we have been mis-educating and misemploying our young people and have been for some time.

If you’re expecting to get the tools and know-how for your college-bound student to choose the right studies that will lead to a meaningful, engaging career, don’t look to colleges. Colleges tacitly assume that students arrive on campus with a clear sense of direction.  Starry-eyed freshman think they have it figured out, too, but they don’t. It’s uncool to admit you’re unsure. Some defend the current approach: students are expected to experiment and change majors. Sure, if you can afford it. Others take the stand that college isn’t a job factory, the major isn’t that important, the real aim is to “get an education” to think critically about the world.  Sure, that’s part of it, but how come students are graduating without the critical ability to connect the dots on what they’ve studied and apply this knowledge to launch their careers successfully? Why are they looking for a ready-made formula to land a job and seem to be unable or unprepared to adapt to the current realities of the job market?

Why don’t colleges have a process in place to take freshman through a guided exploration to discover what they are best at and where they are likely to succeed? Why don’t they have a mentoring process in place to give students a realistic sense of the nuanced process required to sculpt a well-suited career path and navigate their chosen field? But colleges don’t see it this way, so students and their parents have to take the initiative.

A small percentage of students not only do well in college, they get excellent long-term value. They know what they’re best at (before they go) and have the confidence to seek mentors in the inner circle of the field they’re pursuing. Although they enjoy the social experience on campus, these students are future focused—they have a specific career path in mind. When young adults know where they’re headed, they can make better choices and proactively navigate the system to craft their education in their favor.

Here are some smart, unconventional steps to help college-bound high school seniors and college students get more out of their education.  If I were to design a new AP course for HS seniors, it would look something like this:

1.  See the documentary “Race to Nowhere”

This recent documentary is shocking audiences at many of the top high schools across the country. If you have college-bound high school students, they have to see it.

It’s like a coming-of-age teen flick with an unresolved, realistic ending. A good number of highly distraught, depressed teens and concerned parents (and their child psychologists) are questioning the value of the college admissions mania.   High school teachers openly admit that it’s all pretty much a sham, but feel trapped in a system rigged to help students carefully craft (if not outright fake) ivy-worthy portfolios.  One student had a nervous breakdown because she got a B in an AP class—in a subject that she hated.

The college admissions rat race has narrowed parents’ and students’ focus on the process of “getting in” to college, rather than guiding the student to figure out who they are and what they’re best at.  I recommend limiting AP classes to subjects that you really enjoy learning. Everything else is a distraction and leads to “teenage burnout on the high school treadmill.”

2. Get professional career aptitude testing

When kids don’t know what they’re good at, they can’t make smart choices. Most are making shortsighted choices, following the herd mentality. They focus on the name brand of the school or the hot new major, rather than figuring out what their natural talents are.

Neither high schools or colleges are giving students the tools and help they need to choose a field of study that will put them on a well-suited career path. Few students are paying attention to what they are naturally cut out for.  The best formula for career excellence is to engage your “natural” talents, abilities and personality traits at something you’re intrinsically motivated to learn.   Professional aptitude testing can help students get clear about their strengths and save years of trail and error and tens of thousands of misspent tuition dollars.

3.  Read the newspaper, find a problem to solve

By senior year of high school, students should be reading major newspapers, such as the New York Times and Washington Post, on a daily basis, especially the Sunday paper. The standard newspaper sections, business, science, arts, technology, food, health, etc., track how society and the world of work is organized. The aim is to get students to notice what grabs their attention consistently, over a period of time.

Keep track of good clues to the real world problems and situations students care most about, create a file of articles that stand out.  In a few months they’ll be able to make a running list of real world activities, needs, issues, problems and challenges that they may want to tackle—anything from solving the world’s energy problems to building a better mousetrap.  

People who are fulfilled and excel in their careers have a sharp focus; they’re playing to their strengths and are committed to meeting a real need or solving a problem they consider important and worthwhile.  It takes time to find this level of clarity; the sooner students start thinking about what they’re best at and how their career will contribute to their community or larger world, the better their choices will be in the short-run.

4.  Pick a field of study, not the college name brand

Despite the evidence that long-term career success has little to do with where you go to college, naïve high students don’t know any better. They are still trying to game the system to land a name-brand school (it’s almost impossible not to be snookered by the status seeking game when you’re a teenager).

Few students get the real value in college: access to the inner circle of the field they want to be in. Finding mentors to court and build lasting relationships with happens if you’re in your talent ballpark, you have the sparkle in your eye, and you’re excelling at what you do because you’re genuinely into the subject matter. Drive for good grades isn’t enough; blind ambition and credentials might make you look good, but it won’t give you clarity about what to do with your life.

Before people do a home improvement project, they sketch out a plan, and then they go to the tool shed to select the right tools to get the job done. College is a knowledge tool shed. Most students are trying to pick the subject matter tools before they know what real world projects they want to do!

Once you become aware of a real world “need, problem or project” out there to apply your abilities toward (from step 3), “think backwards in time” to determine what knowledge tools you want to learn in college to begin building the appropriate mastery. Do thorough research to select programs and the professors (rather than schools) that align with your temperament, talents, values and learning style.

5. Test-drive your top 3 career ideas

Choosing a career path requires the same exploration as choosing your life mate, you couldn’t confidently marry someone without dating him or her first. Many people date their potential spouse for years before committing. Making a solid career choice requires an equal level of effort, much more than most people give it. On average, high school seniors say they spend no more than 30 minutes, in total, thinking seriously about what to major in.

If you’re thinking about going into the sciences, what specialties are you cut out for? Are you cut out for the social sciences or physical sciences? If it’s social sciences, which branch specifically: sociology, economics or psychology?  Are you naturally more qualitative or quantitative, applied or theoretical? No matter what field you’re considering, if you wait to figure out the details in college, you’re already behind the power curve. You have to know before you go. Otherwise, you’re taking a big risk. Most of us have limited resources; it’s smart to get the most out of your family’s life savings.

What typically happens to college graduates who lack clarity on career direction? Many fall into a frustrating trial and error job-hopping escapade (cleverly disguised as a planned adventure, including overseas trips and graduate school) that sets them back a decade or more before they find a career they’re cut out for. Frankly, most never quite get there and just give up; they’re spent. The workplace is full of mid-career people who have never realized their potential, and once they have kids, raising a family takes over and leaves them with little energy left to reinvent their career.

Choosing a career path is full of uncertainty; however, you can dramatically increase your odds of landing in the right career by interviewing professionals in fields that are well suited to your natural talents. Ask good questions about what kind of natural talents and personality traits are needed to excel on the job, etc. You’d be surprised at how many very unhappy young doctors and lawyers didn’t do this step; career-wise they literally married a blind date.

Don’t cheat yourself, do what it takes to know yourself fully before you go to college, even if it means taking a gap year or two. When it comes to making complex life and career decisions, the well-planned, careful tortoise beats the hurried hare over the long-run, consistently.

Anthony Spadafore is the senior career consultant at and co-author of “Now What?: The Young Person’s Guide to Choosing the Perfect Career.”

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