The college admissions process is stressful in so many different ways. One of the biggest challenges for many college students is the sudden pressure to decide what they're going to pursue as a career. After all, students are quick to point out, I haven't really had a chance to try many things -- or maybe anything at all!  Why are schools asking me in supplemental essays what I want to study, and what I want to do with my life?  Is this some kind of test?

No, it's not a test. And no, you do NOT have to have, at age eighteen, a clear and firm idea of what kind of work you want to do after graduating. That said, for certain disciplines, it can be very helpful to have a general sense of what interests you, and which direction you want to take your career. 

But it's important to remember that nothing is final!  Just because you write about something in an admissions essay, or talk about it to an admissions officer, doesn't mean you're 'locked in' -- you always have the right to change your mind!


Here are a few common career paths we encounter at Forster-Thomas, including our advice on each.

IF YOU PLAN TO BE A DOCTOR, you need to start laying the groundwork even before applying to college. Medical school is unbelievably competitive, and most successful candidates are already shadowing and taking relevant coursework at sixteen or seventeen years old. If you're in this camp and applying to college, it's a good idea to let your school know what you're planning to do.

IF YOU PLAN TO BE A LAWYER, don't go into too much detail about it during your undergraduate application process. Express a general interest in law and justice, but leave it at that. And don't pursue pre-law as a major, it generally works against you, rather than for you. Philosophy, engineering and various liberal arts degrees are the most common feeders into law school.

IF YOU PLAN TO GO INTO BUSINESS, again, you don't need to go into very much detail while applying, nor do you need to write about what kind of business you want to pursue. It might be a good idea to join relevant clubs and fraternities shortly after getting on campus, though, since networks make business careers.

IF YOU ARE INTERESTED IN THE ARTS, study whatever you like, BA or BFA, but create lots of really good work while you're in college, and take internships as a way to shake hands and start meeting people in your target industry. For classical musicians and theater types, there is some advantage to pursuing relevant BFA programs, although it is not decisive, and certain film BFA programs also confer professional advantages.

IF YOU ARE INTERESTED IN STEM, the proof will largely be in your academic prowess and the history of things you have created and made, competitions entered, et cetera. These are very hierarchical, grade-focused fields, and so it helps to specialize early.

IF YOU ARE INTERESTED IN A TRADE, such as ELECTRICIAN, PLUMBER or AUTO REPAIRMAN, your career path may not involve college at all. In that case, you definitely want to have a pretty clear idea of which trade you'd like to pursue and why you'll be good at it, since you'll probably have to spend a decent chunk of money on training, and it won't be transferable to any other profession.

IF YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT YOU WANT TO DO AT ALL, you should start to try and figure it out. Undecided is OK, clueless is not. Narrow it down to three or four possible paths, without attempting to eliminate any, prioritize any, or choose between them.

IF YOU ARE INTERESTED IN ANY OTHER CAREER, write briefly about it while applying, and indicate a relevant major preference if you have one. But don't get too specific, and be open to other possibilities that may arise along the way.

Need help crafting great college essays?  Let us know!


"Harvard is my top choice, but I have decided I'm willing to settle for U.Penn."
AKA, how to create a college application list that doesn't suck.

So, you've begun the college application process! Congratulations!

You're thrilled with your grades, proud of your SAT/ACT score, satisfied with your complement of extracurriculars. And now, you're hunting for a school that offers a good complement to your skills and temperament. Of course, your parents are 100 percent behind you -- they don't care about the status symbol of a brand-name on their bumper sticker. Why, just the other day Mom said, "Wherever you think you're going to thrive, honey, we're behind you all the way. Even if it's community college." 

After extensive research, carefully comparing schools, weighing the professors and extracurriculars they offer, refusing to get distracted by celebrity alumni or vague rumors of 'networks', you are ready -- not to choose, but to apply. You know, of course, that the final choice will come further down the line, but you're confident that you will have good options to choose from, since you have applied to a wide range of programs. Now, everything is taken care of. There's nothing to do but fill out the applications and wait, calmly and patiently, for your answers.

Sounds great, doesn't it?  The above is a perfectly accurate description of ZERO PEOPLE'S COLLEGE APPLICATION PROCESS. In fact, here's what you're going through right now --

* You're behind on everything. Not just on your applications themselves. Everything. You haven't showered in a week. You're eating takeout and you're not even sure what week it's from.
* Every campus tour is turning into a pitched battle. This one has a bad location. That one just didn't seem very accommodating. The other one doesn't have good 'career options'.
* People you haven't spoken to in years are coming out of the woodwork to jam their oars into the process. "You know, you should really think about Cornell. It's so easy to get in there. What do you mean it's changed since I applied 30 years ago?"
* You can't seem to get a handle on the basic facts and differences between schools. How are you supposed to know what's marketing and what's real?

Welcome to your personal Hell -- college applications.

On this site, we have covered many aspects of the college application process in detail, but one thing we haven't written much about is creating a school list. This is your master list of places you will apply, and everybody needs one (even you!).

The reason we haven't written much about it is that it is (or should be) a very personal, non-cookie-cutter process. It is impossible to come up with a great school list without carefully analyzing who you're creating it for. That said, there are a few rules of thumb we can share to help you avoid the nightmare scenario -- not getting in anywhere you actually want to go.

RULE ONE: Spend 4x as much time researching and applying to safeties as reaches, and apply to at least three THAT YOU WOULD ACTUALLY WANT TO ATTEND.  People hate this rule. Nobody likes thinking about their third, fifth or seventh choice school. But a great safety list = a great school list. And the fact is, everybody already knows about your reaches, including you. They're the same as everybody else's reaches. But no two applicants' safety lists are identical, because different 'safety' schools are strong in different areas. Safety schools force you to sort out your priorities. Posit that you can't have everything -- what's the one thing you can't live without?  Location, school size, academic rigor?

RULE TWO: Apply to AT LEAST 10 schools. You only go through this process once, and the entire point is to give yourself options. Research until you come up with at least ten schools that excite you.

RULE THREE: Understand what differentiates the schools on your list from one another. No two schools have the same strengths or weaknesses. If you follow the above instructions, you're going to have options. So plan out how you would spend four years at each school you're considering. How would you fulfill your academic needs? What social opportunities on campus look promising?

RULE FOUR: Avoid early decision unless you're SURE that's the school you want. There are strategic advantages to ED at most schools -- but that is completely useless unless you're completely certain that your ED school is the one you want to attend, AND that money is no object, since you're sacrificing a shot at scholarships at other schools.

RULE FIVE: Apply early action everywhere you can, and always apply in the first week of a rolling deadline. If your target school has a rolling application, don't wait -- apply as soon as it opens. You'll get a leg up on the competition, and it doesn't cost you a cent, unlike ED. Early action, which is not binding, offers the same advantages.

RULE SIX: No procrastination. Alongside magical thinking, procrastination is the biggest college candidacy killer. The moment you know what work you need to do, create a calendar and start getting it done. No excuses. Nothing is higher priority right now for you than this process. Your future depends on it.


Obviously, this list just barely scratches the surface, and feel free to contact us if you have more questions. But hopefully this can get you started on your path to the ideal college fit!