Finding a Future: 5 Tips for High School Students and Parents (September 2013)
By Karen Litzinger, MA, LPC

"What do you want to be when you grow up" is a question many of us are still asking ourselves, and one that can make high school students pull the covers over their heads, argue with parents, or worse.
Why would we expect 17 and 18 year olds to be able to make reasonable decisions without sufficient guidance? True, no one is typically doing work that they decided on in high school. However, if a grounded choice is not made, there is a greater risk for years of wandering through random choices, tens of thousands of dollars of extra debt, ample heartache and crushed self-esteem.


1. Plan rather than “end up”

– There really is a way to thoughtfully choose education and career plans rather than simply falling into something. Some people are lucky and seem to be clear about goals, though many of those folks express regret later. Why would anyone naturally know how to make a good decision? It's not like weíre born knowing how to do this, just like we arenít born knowing how to make good financial decisions. A basic model for education and career decision-making is assessing oneself (interests, skills, values, and personality) and researching related options (written, networking, shadowing, coursework, volunteering, and internships, more or less in that order). Sometimes a parent wants to jump into arranging shadowing options too fast before options are initially explored and grounded.

2. Watch out for a quick fix

– Sometimes a student will come up with an answer to the “what do you want to be” question just so they have one and donít feel so uncomfortable. Often it might be influenced by hearing what a friend or relative does. Sometimes itís an answer in response to parent pressure. Or perhaps a student picks a quick answer so that a guidance counselor can help with educational planning or because they need to fill out an application. Hopefully someone is asking why or how did you choose that. Career counseling can facilitate the education and career exploration model noted above so it is a grounded decision. Perhaps the high school guidance counselor will have time, but often this kind of work is done on a computer or in groups, or more attention is given to high school scheduling or the college application process. School counselors can be equipped to help, but simply may not have the time for the assistance needed. The American School Counselor Association standards are for a ratio of one counselor to 250 students, but the national average is actually one counselor to 471 students!

3. Re-evaluate the ticket to success

– So many times parents think the only ticket to success is a four year bachelor’s degree. You may be surprised to learn that according to 2010 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics the median income for a two year associates degree is just $2,000 less than a bachelor’s degree and actually higher than the median income for the master’s degree level. Another important statistic is that only 58% of students who enter a four year college graduate with a bachelors degree within SIX years. Yes, some type of training after high school is necessary! Just choose carefully to reduce heartache, time and debt.

4. Remember money canít buy happiness

– Sure you want your sons or daughters to be able to put a roof over their head and food on the table. Yes, they may need to earn enough to pay back loans. And perhaps you see they’ve gotten used to a standard of living based on your own income. But realize that a high salary career choice won’t be possible if they don’t get the good grades perhaps because it’s not their natural talent, or it won’t be worth it if they are so unhappy that there are mental health concerns. Yes, a person needs to research income and outlook as part of the education and career decision-making process, but remember that interests, skills, personality and other values are important too.

5. Take a Time Out

– The time out may be for you or for your child. Maybe you need to take a time out on pushing your son or daughter toward a specific career, or even toward a decision. Try not to impose your own values and history. Think “facilitate” rather than guide or advise. Encouraging them to get neutral help through a school counselor or career counselor may increase the chances of a good decision and decrease the arguing. Your son or daughter may need a time out before deciding on an educational and career path. Many youth take a year off and then are more motivated to apply themselves. Motivation and experience can come from a job going nowhere, a service project, or just a couple courses at a community college for exploration. Those activities should be done in conjunction with thorough education and career planning experiences, or it just delays the indecision.

While there are not exact right or wrong choices, some choices are better than others. If I had a hundred dollars for each client that sat in the chair across from me and said,"I wish I did this in high school or college,"I might be a rich counselor! Even college can be too late to explore. A recent client of mine went to college simply because it was expected, chose a major at the end of the sophomore year since it let him logistically finish in four years, and now realizes (with inklings much earlier) that it was a bad choice. He is weighing spending another $60,000-$80,000 for a better choice. Itís almost never too early to explore education and career decisions. The goal for a high school student isnít necessarily to have the final decision; actually being too narrow too soon can be a problem. Ideally a student would have two to three choices grounded in self-awareness and career research that all could fit for a successful and satisfying future. Then choosing any one of them could be a good choice!

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Karen Litzinger, MA, LPC, owner of Litzinger Career Consulting, provides career counseling, job search advising, outplacement consulting, and business etiquette training. More information is available at