Finding an Excellent Fit: Supporting Students in College and Career Planning

By Jeremy Goldman, School Counseling Department Chair, Pikesville High School, and National Certified Counselor

(Twitter: @PHSCouns and blog: http://PikesvilleHSCounseling.blogspot.com)

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As a counselor in a high school, I am frequently called upon to assist students in their pursuit of appropriate choices in life. We discuss personal choices, choices of an academic nature, and choices that may ultimately lead to satisfying careers.

I have noticed in recent years that students have become very knowledgeable about the “should’s” of college and career planning and that their efforts to do everything “right” can be stressful and can hinder their ultimate success. I suggest that we need to help them slow down their decision-making and seek more perspective on the issues.

Often, students choose colleges based on marketing. They choose some prestigious school and learn that, to be admitted, they must have the best test scores and get the highest grades in the most difficult classes. The next step is what troubles me: many believe that “If I am not perfect, I am nothing” or “If I don’t get admitted to that university, there’s no way I can achieve my dream career.”

Such an all-or-nothing approach can be avoided with a collective effort to support our students in making informed and appropriate decisions. We need to remember that students are best served by attending colleges and pursuing careers that are “good” for them, not just simply “good.”

This is where we, as a community, can help our students find peace and comfort by pursuing appropriate coursework, post-secondary education, and careers:

  • Give middle school students the opportunity to observe numerous work settings, drawing upon the interest inventories they complete in their career exploration units in school. The more these students can see people working, the more “real” their school subjects will become and the better they can understand the many different paths that the workers took to attain their current positions.
  • Interact with young people with specific, open-ended questions related to careers. Rather than asking, “What do you want to be when you grow up,” try “What do you think you would or wouldn’t enjoy about working in the [fill in the blank] field?”
  • Likewise, when talking to students about school and discussing options for electives, it is important to explore with them what they think they would or wouldn’t like about particular courses. The BCPS course registration guide and discussions with teachers can help in this process.
  • When we discuss academic rigor with students, we need to help them understand that, while Advanced Placement is generally a good thing for long-term academic success, taking more AP courses does not necessarily mean more long-term academic success. In most cases, just taking one or two AP courses is plenty.
  • Finally, it is very important to give students exposure to colleges. Please take your kids to see college campuses. You don’t need to drive hours away to see brand-name universities just yet. From middle school through Grade 10, if you can take your child to see a few local campuses, his or her high school counselor will be better able to identify the student’s priorities and values as they relate to college selection. Luckily, we have a diverse cross-section of colleges and universities in Baltimore County and within an hour’s drive of the county.

As for the idea of being the “best,” the more young people interact with their community, experience diverse work environments, and meet working professionals who share their backgrounds, the better they understand that there are many paths to achieve one’s dreams. It is important that we allot children the time and patience to explore and the freedom to fail if one approach ends up not working out. It should be much safer to fail as a child than as an adult, and it is imperative that we allow our kids the flexibility to make mistakes while those mistakes are still easily remedied.

It’s what they will learn from those mistakes that matters most.

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