Although death and taxes are said to be the only two certainties in life, there is a third. One question will always challenge students entering college: Should they they get a general liberal arts education or focus on majors which could lead to a well-paying career? Shakespeare and drama? Monet and art appreciation? Or perhaps the career of a dentist drilling teeth or a petrochemical engineer drilling through the earth’s crust?
Surprisingly, only a few lucky students can even ask the question above. Few students know (or think they know) what they want. The sad fact is that parents and schools seldom prepare students for the choices they must make when entering college.
What should college guidance counselors (GC) tell students? No one way is right. But perhaps a discussion somewhat as follows might help.
STUDENT: Should I get a liberal arts education or prepare for a well-paying career?
GC: In college, about a third of your courses are in the major you choose. For instance, if you are an English major, you may still take classes in history, psychology, philosophy, geology, graphic arts, and even computer science.
STUDENT: In other words, it’s not an “either/or” choice.
GC: That’s right. The key is to have more than one interest. Always have something to fall back on if you can’t pursue your dream.
STUDENT: I love drama. I know I can make it in the theatre.
GC: Have you heard the expression: “Many are called, few are chosen.”
GC: Unfortunately, the saying is especially true in some fields. No matter how well you can act, play music, paint, write, or philosophize, there may be one job for every forty people who want it.
STUDENT: I understand. I can be that one.
GC: Do you think the best actors get hired?
STUDENT: Of course. The producers want to make the best movie and put on the best stage productions.
GC: Life and work, in and out of the theatre, may depend on the contacts you have. You can be a great unemployed actor, simply because lesser actors have better connections.
STUDENT: I know I can make it.
GC: Following your passion is a good thing. As a wise person once said, if you do what you like, you’ll never work a day in your life.
STUDENT: So, you agree I should pursue a career in the theatre?
GC: When you graduate, will you have student loan debt?
STUDENT: Yes, a lot.
GC: About how much will your rent, utilities, car expenses, food, and other monthly expenses be?
STUDENT: I’ve never really figured it out.
GC: You should. After you graduate, you will spend about 2000 hours a year at your job – if you have one. You will have about 6000 hours a year after work to live your life – if you can afford it.
STUDENT: I’m not sure I’m following.
GC: Your career choice is not just about your job. It’s about whether you can enjoy life after work. Career choices will decide how much you can afford. Liberal arts classes will determine how broad your interests are.
STUDENT: I don’t think I could enjoy life if it’s not in the theatre!
GC: I have a news flash for you. I was young once. I never expected it to happen, but I got older. Not that I’m complaining. To make your choices, you need to be realistic. You will get older. You will probably have a family, which will double or triple your expenses. You will have medical expenses. You will need money to retire on.
STUDENT: So you’re saying: “Play it safe. Give up my dream. Do something that pays well.”
GC: Let’s talk about eight rules that might help you. Rule 1. Be realistic. Early in your first year of college, come to the college placement office. Ask three questions. How likely is it I will get a job after I graduate with a specific major? How much will the job pay, now and in the future? What non-economic benefits will the job provide? Look at the binders we have listing the jobs employers offer.
STUDENT: I thought the placement office was for seniors.
GC: Unfortunately, most students wait until their senior year to use our services. Waiting till senior year might get you a job. But it won’t help you choose the best major and elective courses while you are with us for four years. Better to correct course early than to sink or swim later.
STUDENT: Are you saying play the odds? Take only the most employable and well-paying professions?
GC: No. Your life “happiness” quotient will depend on several factors. How much you make. Whether you can find the job you want. On the non-economic benefits you get from your job. For instance, the joy that some teachers get from teaching or the satisfaction that social workers get from helping people. On your ability to keep learning new things on the job.
GC: Rule 2: Think Clint Eastwood. You’ve got to know your limitations. Match your skills and interests to the major and career you choose. Nothing will make you unhappier quicker than a well- paying job that you’re not equipped to handle.
STUDENT: I’ve already told you, my interest and skills lie in the theatre.
GC: Rule 3: Be open. Few students have been exposed to most courses that colleges offer. However much you love the theatre, you might love other things equally well. Give yourself the chance to surprise yourself.
STUDENT: How do I do that?
GC: Rule 4: Life is what you make it. Opportunities seldom come to you. You have to go get them. Don’t be a hermit. Talk to your fellow students. Ask what their parents do. Ask what their parents love and hate about their jobs. Take your professors out for coffee. Ask them the same questions. You may be surprised at both their answers and their willingness to help you.
STUDENT: Ok. Let’s start now. What do you love and hate about your job as a teacher and counselor?
GC: My biggest hurdle is mindset. I don’t mean that in a judgmental way. The young have a mindset almost impossible to change. I had the same mindset. My kids will have the same mindset. So will yours. Young people think they are indestructible; that faith will overcome all. In many ways, those are good qualities. Failure in life is normal, even expected. What is important is resilience. The ability to get up and try again. Most successful business people have failed several times first.
STUDENT: And what do you love?
GC: Every once in a while I will get a letter from a student five, ten, or fifteen years out of school thanking me for my help. Sometimes the wording of the letter is especially interesting. For instance, one student said something like: “Your class was harder than anything I have come up against in life. Thank you.”
STUDENT: Rule 5?
GC: Rule 5. Try to intern at a company during your summers and even during the school year. There is no better way to learn about a profession than to see it up close and personal. If you like the job and do well, the internship may also give you a leg up on getting hired when you graduate. You may even see a way to stay in the same field but in a different way.
STUDENT: Like becoming a writer or camera operator or movie editor.
GC: Rule 6. Don’t sell yourself short. Don’t have tunnel vision. You probably have skills and interests you don’t even recognize yet. Rule 7. Getting a job, keeping a job, enjoying a job involves more than technical skills. You need those. But just as important is your ability to work with people. Nobody likes a grandstander. Or someone who won’t pitch in. Or complainers.
STUDENT: And Rule 8?
GC: College is just the beginning. One of the most important qualities you can have is curiosity. In your job. In your interests. You can learn things and enjoy things your entire life. Just put yourself in the right position. Make sure your education enriches, not impoverishes you. Decide what is more important to you. But make sure you can live with the consequences of your choices.
STUDENT: I hope I can write you one of those letters in a few years.