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!

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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.

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Photo by FADY HABIB. Article by FORSTER-THOMAS, INC.