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The Key to Choosing Your College Path

Identifying your route to a satisfying career is a lofty concept. College? Vocational school? Starting your own business? (To learn more about your educational options, visit our series here .) You’ll face it as you contemplate your direction after graduating high school, when you select your career or start a family, and possibly down the road if you’re considering a job change. Your direction may change due to life circumstances, and detours are inevitable. However, with the right preparation, tools, and mindset, you can make an informed decision to set you on the right path.

If you’re uncertain where to start, we’ve outlined the major steps you should take before choosing your post-secondary school path.

1. Identify your life goals. Woah, we know, that sounds like a big step. But hear us out. The key to having a challenging, rewarding, profitable work life is understanding what gives YOU satisfaction. To do that, you need to ask yourself some questions. When are you most happy? Grab a pen and notebook and write down past experiences in volunteering, travel, clubs, hobbies and school that made you feel content, accomplished, or proud.

Reflect on what “success” means to you, and what you hope to accomplish in your life and work. Jot down memorable moments in your life where you worked hard for something, and what made that work so important to you.

2. Consider relevant careers. As you brainstorm, you’ll likely begin to notice a theme. Do many of your most satisfying experiences involve caring for people or animals? Or building something with your hands? How about creating detailed ideas that were then brought to fruition, or manipulating technology? If there is more than one skill or talent that repeats, include each of them in your list.

Now, reviewing this list of strengths and interests, consider how they might translate into an occupation. If you’re not sure what options there are, try perusing a list like this one of occupations from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics or this list of job titles from Indeed.com for inspiration.

This experience should help you start to form an idea of the types of careers your talents and interests are best suited to.

3. Ask around. Choosing a career from a list may be enough for some people, but if you still find yourself intimidated at the number of choices, don’t worry. Talking your decision through with a school advisor, parent, older sibling or other family member, clergyman, or career counselor is well worth the energy. Discussing your strengths, interests and goals with others is a great way to clarify and inform your decision.

4. Research your training/schooling options. Now that you’ve identified a few likely career paths, you can begin learning more about them, and your educational options for each. Your earning potential is a huge consideration, as well as the amount of schooling or training that is required to get a job in your chosen field. The best sources of information will be those who are already working in the industry—so look for opportunities to chat with people you know who have the job you desire. You may also find forums online where you can ask others questions, including what school they recommend, things to seek out or avoid, and what their daily work life is like.

5. Evaluate the costs. Make sure that you factor in the cost of college or training for each job you’re considering. This is a huge consideration, and not one to take lightly. As we discussed in our previous series , there are affordable avenues for gaining highly marketable skills and experience outside of the traditional university setting.

If the job you want won’t provide the salary to pay off your student debt quickly after graduation, that should weigh heavily on your decision.

Now that you have collected this pertinent data, you should be able to make an informed decision about which job is the best fit for you. That decision made (or at least narrowed down), you can begin identifying colleges, universities, or vocational programs that will provide you the skills and knowledge to excel in your chosen career.