These days, there is ever-increasing pressure on high school students to know what they want to be when they grow up. This comes from society at large, but parents and even friends may contribute to it as well, knowingly or unconsciously. This can leave students who don’t have a certain path forward feeling lost, anxious, and overwhelmed.

Why It’s Hard to Know What You Want

Despite what the rumors of the high school whirlpool may indicate, it is quite difficult for many—if not most—students to commit to a course of study and/or a career in a way that’s not narrow-minded or short-sighted. Making choices too early can put you on a track that doesn’t suit you, and may lead to switching majors or even careers later on; this isn’t necessarily bad, but it can require additional time and effort to get back on track.

Here are some key reasons that choosing what to study is such a challenge:

    • Limited exposure to information and possibilities. Part of this is just the number of years you’ve been on this planet—not that many in the grand scheme of things! For most children and even teens, your learning has been mediated by a small number of people, primarily parents and teachers. You haven’t been exposed to a broad range of viewpoints, and specific experiences may color your opinions significantly. For example, if you love your economics teacher, you might be more likely to pursue economics in college, while a student who doesn’t get along with their teacher might not consider economics at all, regardless of aptitude or skill.
    • Jumping the gun on linking major to career path. Just as you have limited exposure to possible avenues of study before entering college, you probably also have little real understanding of career options, especially the huge range of possibilities that open up given more indirect connections between a course of study and career. For example, I bet you wouldn’t expect a comparative religions major to end up running a tutoring company (ahem). In other words, the path between your major and your career is often circuitous; trying to make that path into a straight line may mean your perspective is overly limiting.
    • Still learning what’s meaningful to you. Over the course of high school you are beginning to understand, embrace, and/or wrestle with the complexity of who you are, but this is a lifelong process. Even by the end of high school, you probably still haven’t had enough opportunities and experiences to fully understand what drives you and what will make you happy. Likewise, you are very much still exploring and developing the skills and talents you bring to the world.

Given these factors, it’s the exception rather than the rule for high school students to make a well-informed choice about committing themselves to a course of study and a particular career. In fact, we think it’s wonderful to enter college uncommitted to what you want to be when you grow up.

Staying Open to Possibilities

The act of figuring out what you want to do should be a true exploration. First and foremost, stay open to the many available options, letting yourself be guided by your interests. When something clicks, start to explore it more deeply. If something isn’t the right fit, reflect and use that information to refine your exploration.

This process of reflection and revision will allow you to thoughtfully construct a path that not only helps determine your college major and career, but becomes part of the process of building a meaningful life. (As a side note, this is partly why we advocate a similar process for choosing and engaging in extracurricular activities in high school; in fact, extracurriculars can help inform college and professional choices.)

Staying open is much easier said than done. On a practical level, the burden of paying for college and/or student loans is a heavy one, and you may feel pressure to choose a course of study that guarantees a measure of financial stability. Students and parents will need to work together to make choices that are appropriate for the family as a whole, particularly when it comes to finances. For example, a school with lower tuition might offer you a greater degree of freedom and exploration than a more expensive college, where the pressure to pay back loans will be high.

The vulnerability of letting the future remain uncertain can invite choosing a path that feels safe or familiar, without truly examining whether that choice feels fulfilling. But we encourage you to step away from false certainty, relieve yourself of undue pressure, and lean into the process of exploring majors and careers as a vehicle for building meaning in your life.

This is not the same thing as saying that choosing a college major doesn’t really matter—we aren’t suggesting that you drift aimlessly through your college years, or blindly follow an unrealistic childhood dream! We recommend that all students think strategically about their obligations as well as their aspirations. But we also encourage you to recognize that you probably don’t yet know what will create the most meaningful life for you, and that identifying and pursuing those things is an important part of the post-high-school experience. This is messy and uncertain, but it is also an incredibly valuable way to learn that you are responsible for shaping the course of your own life.

Above all, we recommend engaging with the idea that what you study and what you do for a career can and should make a contribution to the world at large. The beauty of not knowing what you want to do is that you’re open to discovering what it is you were meant to do.

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