1. Challenge yourself
One counselor we spoke to urges high school students to "figure out where you can challenge yourself and pursue it." This might mean taking advanced and honors classes in high school, instead of just sticking with the standard requirements. Without question, the most important factors on college applications are high school curriculum and grades. Combining the two is more art than science. "It's better to have a B in an advanced class, than an A in a standard one," explains one source. However, counselors do warn against over-challenging yourself: "Take the toughest curriculum that you can handle," but "don't take AP classes that you're going to get a C in."
2. Get involved
But challenging classes and good grades are only part of the equation. College admission officers also place a lot of importance on extra curricular activities. When choosing between two applicants, says one counselor, colleges will often pick the one with more extra curricular involvement, even if his or her grades are slightly lower than the other's. Sign up for sports, clubs or other activities that you enjoy, but "don't try to do everything and not do it well," warns one contact. Think "depth, not breadth."
3. Determine your skills and interests
Not only will extra curricular activities make you well rounded, but they can also help you discover where your interests lie. One advisor recommends that students determine what they like about certain activities, and how they might translate that into a career. "You have to know yourself before you know what you want to do," explains an advisor. Personality tests such as the Myers-Briggs can also give you an idea about the types of occupations that you might enjoy.
~4. Explore career opportunities
Once you have a list of some possible career options, you should research them to find out exactly what they entail. Is a master's degree required? Will you need strong computer, writing or math skills? What's the outlook for this particular job or industry? What kind of salary can you expect? To help you answer these and other related questions, take a look the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Occupational Outlook Handbook (www.bls.gov). One of our contacts also recommends the Department of Labor's O*NET, or Occupational Information Network (online.onetcenter.org), for snapshots of various occupations. (You can also check out Vault.com for extensive snapshots of careers and industries.)
5. Research colleges
Most high school students start thinking seriously about where they want to go college during their junior years, if not sooner. But with thousands of colleges and universities to choose from, students often don't know where to begin their search. One advisor recommends the National Association for College Admission Counseling (www.nacac.com), which conducts an annual survey of colleges, including a look at admissions trends. Once you have a few colleges in mind, it's a good idea to visit them. And when applying to colleges, don't wait until the last minute. Says one advisor, "Be aware of deadlines. The sooner you start, the better in terms of making your senior year easier and less stressful."
6. Use your resources
High school guidance and career counselors can be your most valuable resources. Unfortunately, many students don?t take full advantage of them. Notes one counselor, "We have amazing resources that often go untapped, such as computer programs that give up-to-date information on different careers, and interest inventories [for students] to find out what their interests are." But your advisor isn't your only resource. A wealth of data about colleges and careers can be found on the Internet. One counselor encourages students to talk to their older siblings, or their older siblings' friends for tips and advice. And another says her school advises high school seniors to share their college and career search experiences to juniors.
~7. Prepare for college entrance exams
Says one advisor, "We don't want to make kids any more anxious than they already are, but these tests are important." Indeed, whether you like them or not, standardized entrance exams are important. Ideally, your scores on these exams should be consistent with your grades. If you have good grades in your classes but have low exam scores, colleges might think the classes you're taking aren't challenging enough. And this will work against you in the admission process. However, while many college admissions offices look closely at test scores, the counselors we spoke to say they're not as important as your grades or the classes you take. In fact, some colleges don't even require such tests because they believe they're flawed or unfair. A group that's addressing this issue is The National Center for Fair & Open Testing (fairtest.org).
8. Keep your options open
"It's rare for students to walk in and say, "I want to do this when I grow up," notes one source. Says another, "They really don't know, even the ones that think they do." One counselor even discourages students from figuring out what they want to do, "because they are going to have a variety of careers when they grow up." To be sure, it's important to keep as many doors open as you can. One way to do this is to get a strong liberal arts background, which is a good base for many careers. Says one advisor, "If you're open and willing to explore and take risks, you may discover a passion that you never knew you had."
9. Don't slack off
Some high school students think their freshmen year and the second part of their senior year don't count. But, as one source warns, slacking off is a "huge mistake." For example, students who have already been accepted to college are at risk of "being dumped" if their performance deteriorates during their senior year. This practice is becoming increasingly common now that more students than ever before are applying to college.
10. Formulate a game plan
Now that you have some sound advice, you need to map out a game plan to bring it all together. With the help of your guidance counselor, make a list of goals, as well as timelines in which to reach them. Figure out the steps you need to take to reach these goals. And revisit your plan often to check your progress and to make any necessary changes. With the proper planning, you'll be able to handle the inevitable twists and turns that occur along the way to a career.
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