Postsecondary Decisions: Consulting Your Network

As a teen in high school, you are faced with more and more decisions about your future. Parents, friends, teachers and school counselors are all asking the same question: "What are you going to do after graduation?"

Every year since middle school, the question arose and you always had an answer: "I'm going to go to college and become... something." The occupation probably changed from year to year, but that did not matter too much because you had time to figure it out.

By junior year, the question becomes more difficult to answer. Your parents want to be sure that you've taken the right classes and are prepared to take the college entrance exams. Counselors are handing you lists of possible college choices.

Now, the choice of what to do after high school doesn't seem so clear. Which college or major would be right for you? Or, maybe college isn't going to be your next step.

If you haven't begun to do so already, it's a good time to seek people who can advise you in making these important decisions. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Who can give me good advice?
  • How can these people help me in the postsecondary decision-making process?
  • What role should these advisors play?
  • How much should their advice influence my decision?

Part of the answer to the first question is that there is already a network of people who are ready to help you make this important decision about your future. This network has been building since you were born. It's made up of your parents, relatives and their professional contacts.

These people are usually your first adult and professional role models. Whatever path they took in life -- whether they attended college, joined the military, became professionals or chose a vocational career -- their example helped you develop your understanding of the world of work and your own future options.

Gloria Lawson Sylvester is a college prep consultant in Atlanta, Georgia. As a parent, she guided her children's education through high school, taught them study techniques and encouraged good citizenship. Then, as they got older, she helped them explore college and career options.

"My son wanted to become an engineer -- I introduced him to a young engineer," she says. "When my son expressed a desire to visit a particular college, I sent him to visit. I told both my children that college was up to them. I knew that they had chosen good schools. Where they went was up to them. I trusted what they wanted."

Teachers, high school guidance counselors and career counselors are other vital links in the planning process. They are particularly well qualified to help teens think through their postsecondary options.

Nancy Oliver is a former director of student services at Glasgow Middle School in Virginia. She says that it's part of most educational systems to expose students to the various paths they can take after high school.

"Certainly, even before they enter public school, if they are in a pre-school program, there will have been visits from persons who have various roles in their community: firemen, policemen, mailmen, etc. As they progress through elementary school, that exposure broadens. ... [Exposure opportunities] will be threaded seamlessly into the units of study in every part of the curriculum. In this way, the teachers make a significant contribution to the postsecondary planning."

Different schools structure their college and planning assistance in different ways. Becky Rives is a retired counselor and former director of student services at a high school in Fairfax County, Virginia. She wanted to empower students to take charge of their own planning.

"I established a policy that kept the counselors and registrar in a support position. The students were responsible for completing the applications, including asking for and collecting letters of recommendation, and submitting them to the appropriate school personnel by the deadline we established."

She describes some of the other services that the school offered. "Our counselors also conducted group information sessions toward the end of the junior year and at the beginning of the senior year for all of their counselees and their parents. ... The career center specialist made individual appointments during the school day for students and parents, showing them the resources available in the career center and guiding them in their college search."

Beyond the home and school, there are other people who could give you useful information and insight about careers and education. Think about other professionals you know. There may be employers you've met through summer jobs, friends' parents in interesting careers, companies where you could do informational interviews, or internship opportunities where you could get work experience and ask questions.

There are also professionals who specialize in counseling related to postsecondary planning. For a fee, they can help guide individual students and their families through each step of the college application process.

Oliver says, "Some families find it helpful to actually hire specialists to privately advise them and coach them through the process of identifying strengths and weaknesses, and matching those with college or a postsecondary educational opportunity."

So you're not alone -- there are many people you can go to for advice about your postsecondary plans. But you will still have to weigh all the information and advice they give you against your own knowledge of your abilities and interests.

Rives says, "I like to see 'helpers' coach and guide. Ultimately, the decision should be the student's. If parents and others advise, urge or mandate that students attend a particular school that turns out to be an inappropriate fit, the student has learned nothing from the process, but can quickly lay blame on failure to those who advised, urged or mandated.

"On the other hand, it is helpful to students to consult with others who are knowledgeable and who care for them. In a partnership everyone pools information, judges the sources and facts, shares opinions and works toward an informed decision that will most likely ensure success and happiness for the student."