Deciding What to Do With Your Life & Career in High School: Stop The Absurdity & 6 Tips

While high school students are still trying to figure out who they are, society has placed a heavy burden on them to make some big decisions about what they will do with the rest of their lives.

Not only is this a lot of pressure for a teenager, but an unrealistic one, too.

During the teen years, there is constant growth and development taking place.

If you are a teenager, you probably spend a lot of time thinking about getting through school, hanging out with friends, playing sports or other activities, and future goals.

When you think about the future, you may have several ideas for what career you want to go into, what you envision yourself doing, and what your life could potentially look like.

Maybe you’re someone who gets a bit overwhelmed when you think about these things. You feel unsure and unclear about which direction you want to go.

These are normal thoughts and feelings to have at this stage in your life.

By taking pause to consider alternatives, parents can support their children in making well informed decisions during their final years of high school.

The future is bright, but it can be even brighter if we offer our students a little more time and guidance in deciding their next steps beyond high school.

As you approach the next phase along your journey, consider the following thoughts for how you can proceed in a way that serves a better suited plan and more meaningful purpose.

Take a Gap Year and Travel

career paths in high school

Rather than heading straight into college after high school, traveling can be an excellent way to gain perspective and help you figure out what career path may be the best choice for you.

As the mother of a teenager who decided to bypass college and instead take a solo trip to Europe, I can say that this decision proved to be an unforgettable and enriching experience that opened her eyes in new ways.

When you explore different countries and cultures, you have the opportunity to learn more about yourself and others, which can be helpful in deciding on a career path.

I have heard dozens of brand stories whose companies were launched after being inspired by an experience they had during their world travels.

You just never know.

Traveling also provides a unique chance for self-discovery and reflection. If you decide to travel alone, this time will be especially enlightening.

Whatever destination you choose, you can look forward to gaining new knowledge and insights, which will further help to define your path.

If you want to get a head start, check for opportunities to travel while still in high school. Many schools offer a chance to travel abroad, usually through the Foreign Language department.

These trips are not cheap. However, there may be scholarships available, and there is always the opportunity to raise funds to help cover some of the costs.

Sign Up for an Internship

Internships are an excellent way to gain professional experience and get a feel for different work environments.

Sadly, our teenagers face many pressures to enter an unfair system where they’re expected to make a decision before they have enough knowledge or experience to do so.

Naturally, this places them at a disadvantage.

It limits their options and excludes valuable life experiences that could shape their decisions down the line.

Since internships are temporary positions, they can be the perfect way to sample a job field without having to make any long term commitments.

One major perk is that these opportunities allow you to work and learn alongside experienced professionals who may even serve as mentors if you develop an interest in pursuing that job field.

By putting yourself in a formal work environment, you can establish valuable relationships with others who can help you in many ways.

If you excel at your job and demonstrate a good work ethic, you never know what opportunities may come your way.

One principle I’ve always encouraged my own children to adopt is to work with an attitude of excellence, no matter what. By showing up and doing your best, you will be rewarded in many ways.

Not only can an internship lead to unexpected opportunities, but you will also acquire important skills that you can apply in other positions and career fields.

Internships are a great way to grow, develop, and sharpen your business acumen.

Volunteering Opportunities

Many high school students have served as a volunteer in some capacity.

Whether it is for community service, class credit, or a family affair, volunteering can offer many benefits and rewards.

While much of the focus in high school tends to be on academic achievement, there is a great need to foster personal growth by providing students with real-world skills and experiences that will serve them well later in life.

Volunteering is an amazing way to achieve this.

If you are craving more clarity and direction about your future, this can be a great way to check out different work environments and job fields to see what type of work is fulfilling to you.

Unlike internships, volunteering is unpaid, more flexible, and self-guided. You can serve as much or as little as you want to accomplish your goals.

Maybe you have an idea for the career you want to pursue and find an opportunity to volunteer within that industry, only to discover it is nothing like you expected.

This can be another benefit of volunteering. While the act of volunteering is a positive and worthwhile decision, it can also help to rule out and refine career ideas.

Volunteering can also open pathways to professional development and advancement, which are added benefits to your long term growth.

This is a great way to enhance your college applications well before your first campus visit, grow and develop your skills and open doors to future opportunities.

Consider Entrepreneurship

Students with a strong drive & desire to succeed on their own terms may be well-suited for starting a business either while they’re still in school or upon graduation.

There’s much to be said about the need for schools to encourage student entrepreneurship earlier in a child’s life. Most high school students are only or primarily exposed to the traditional “college -> employment” career track.

There’s just not a ton of business education in schools (yet).

Granted, not every student will be a fit for entrepreneurship. Far from it.

But your high school junior doesn’t need to start the next Apple.

And this doesn’t need to be a forever business.

Reliable, hard-working kids can carve out a great business or side-hustle by mowing lawns, babysitting, cleaning windows and gutters, and performing other household tasks for families around your neighborhood.

By starting and running a simple service business, students forge important life skills that will serve them well later in life – no matter what long-term career they ultimately pursue.

As the business grows, a longer runway develops for the student to “figure out” their next steps. The “make a decision NOW” pressure valve is effectively released.

Do you want to continue growing your business? Start a new venture? Go to college?

You have an income = You have time.

Trade School and Junior College

Trade schools and junior colleges can be great options to explore as you decide what you’d like your future to look like.

Maybe you want to learn a new skill or enhance an existing one. By taking your time to develop your strengths and areas of interest, you may be inspired to choose your path with more clarity.

Although there is some level of commitment with each of these options, including time and money, they are usually more cost effective and require less time to complete than a traditional university route.

Another bonus, particularly of junior college, is that it can provide a solid foundation before transferring credits to pursue a 4-year degree if that is the direction you decide to go.

It’s a good idea to consult with guidance counselors as well as trusted family members who can offer more insight into each of these options.

While others may have their own ideas about the timeline and details of deciding your future while still in high school, it’s important to be selective in who you will solicit advice from.

Unfortunately, some people may look down at anything other than a 4- year university option and may try to discourage you from attending a trade school or junior college.

While there are some key differences in each of these options, the main ingredient for success is YOU.

Ultimately, you have to listen to your inner wisdom and decide the path that makes the most sense right now.

Nothing is permanent and there is always the option to change paths or switch direction along the way.

However you decide to invest in continuing education after high school, you can take comfort knowing that you will come out on the other side more equipped, developed, and prepared for the future ahead of you.

The Power of Networking

As a high school student, you probably know a lot of people. Especially with the use of social media, your personal network may be fairly large.

While each of these connections may not be so personal, they do matter and they offer great potential.

My Gen Z entrepreneurial son has leveraged his (small) social media networks to launch several e-commerce businesses and has had great success (he’s made a few bucks anyway – great for a teenager!).

Even if you do not have a large network or are not looking to start a business in high school (or even once you’re in college), you still have the opportunity to connect with others in meaningful ways.

Think of all the places you show up at regularly: school, sports, activities, church, etc. You also have friends, family, and acquaintances who serve as part of your network.

Tip: Look into summer programs for high school students to not only develop leadership and future career skills, but also network like-minded peers.

Networking with others is powerful and offers many windows of opportunity. You can network with your inner circle as mentioned above or find a group to connect with.

By coming together and forming relationships with others, you can learn more about your passion and desires through conversations and other people’s experiences.

As you start to refine your path, the people in your networking circles can support you in many ways.

If you become a familiar presence and build relationships in these groups, you can easily share your goals and/or desires and you will be surprised at the eagerness of others to help you.

A key component of many networking communities is giving back. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself offering tips and suggestions to others in need.

Your young age can be a huge advantage in many regards.

A helpful thought to keep on hand: you are always one person or one meeting away from your next big opportunity.

As you’ll come to learn in life, it’s not always the how but rather the who that will propel you forward.

As you focus on finishing out your high school years, surround yourself with the wisdom and guidance of others who have your best interest at heart.

Allow yourself the time and space needed to make the best decisions as you go along.

Most of all, trust yourself.

You have an amazing future ahead of you.

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