How soon is too soon for students to start thinking about college majors and the careers that (hopefully) follow?

Guest author Jo Leonard, college admissions consultant and career coach, sheds some light on tackling the college major and career conversation in the first two years of high school. The goal is to invite curiosity and exploration from an early age without placing students under undue pressure.

It’s my belief that for some students, a conversation with parents as early as freshman or sophomore year can be appropriate, productive, and even interesting. However, the discussion has to be approached carefully, particularly on the part of the parent, if it’s going to be beneficial.

College is an Investment

Here’s the cold hard truth: college is expensive. For many U.S. families, college is no longer viewed as a four-year stretch for students to discover themselves and dabble in a variety of pursuits. The cost is simply prohibitive, and parents instead are placed in the position of viewing college as an investment in their children’s future.

From this perspective, leaving college without a clear direction or specific industry-related skills is not a good return on parents’ investment. So whether it’s ideal or not, the fact is that students are being asked to consider potential areas of study that interest them well before they arrive on a university campus.

Starting the Major and Career Conversation

Parents play a key role in this conversation. Ideally, it is an ongoing dialogue that builds trust and rapport, and gets students thinking about two main questions:

  • What are you interested in studying on a deeper, richer level?
  • What jobs or career paths might come out of that field of study?

Let’s look at two possible ways this conversation could unfold:

Scenario A:

Parent: So, have you thought about what you might be interested in studying in college?

Student: Well, math is definitely my favorite subject. Maybe I’ll be a math major?

Parent: Hmmm, math. And what are you going to do with that?

Student: ...

Parent: Well, I guess you could be a math teacher or go into economics. Maybe engineering?

Many well-meaning parents inadvertently make this mistake: they respond in a way that makes the student doubt himself or herself. This usually leads to the student clamming up when it comes to talking about the future.

Interestingly, parents often respond in this doubtful, questioning tone due to lack of information: they simply don’t know enough about what careers come from certain fields of study.

Let’s back things up. Here’s how this conversation could have gone differently to encourage the student and invite further dialogue.

Scenario B:

Parent: So, have you thought about what you might be interested in studying in college?

Student: Well, math is definitely my favorite subject. Maybe I’ll be a math major?

Parent: Math, of course! I love that idea. You’ve always gotten excellent grades in math and you really enjoy helping your little sister with her math homework. That’s a great fit for you.

A parent’s only job in this moment is to provide the student with positive reinforcement. Support a student’s ideas and avoid saying anything negative whatsoever.

Then, you should go out and do some research! Come up with a list of 10 different jobs or fields that are appropriate for (in this case) math majors: analytics, econometrics, statistical analysis, supply chain management….and, yes, math teacher.

Armed with this information, parents can help students translate their interest in a particular subject to possible career paths in the real world. From there students and parents can learn more about what different jobs actually look like on a day-to-day basis.

The beauty of this process is that it doesn’t require a student to commit to any one career. Rather, it encourages him or her to explore the options that are available. Students may change their mind 100 times about what job they want after college, and that’s okay. They will still benefit from associating the hard work they’re doing in their classes to a very real career outcome down the road.

Managing Challenges Around the Career Conversation

It’s important to keep in mind that this assumes parents and students are able to have a meaningful and productive conversation about a student’s interests and possible careers. For some families, this isn’t the case. If a student is not open to discussing his or her future as a freshman in high school, parents should do their best to let the conversation go, at least for a while. By junior year, students are making important decisions about where to apply to college, and it’s reasonable for parents to expect their teens to engage in this sort of discussion.

If a student is struggling to determine what they want to do, or if the family dynamics make this conversation impossible, that’s when a career coach like myself may need to step in. Career coaches can act as neutral third parties to mediate between parents and students; they also have access to tools and resources that may broaden a student’s horizons about his or her career possibilities.

When approached the right way, starting a thoughtful, open-ended career conversation early on in high school can be incredibly valuable for both students and parents. It helps parents learn more about their students’ interests and passions, and helps students feel excited as they begin to contemplate the future.

Jo Leonard is a college admissions consultant and career coach for teens at Jo Leonard & Company. When asked about her passion, Jo will tell you that she loves working with young adults. She believes that young adults need to feel in control of their education and career planning and be given the autonomy to make their own decisions. Jo has been asked to train and coach Fulbright Scholars, TED speakers, university business students, high school student leaders, and professionals in transition. She speaks on the power of personal branding, the pitfalls and value of social media, advanced job search skills, and many other topics relevant to 20-somethings as they try to launch careers.

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