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Preparing for a career during high school and college

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What you do during high school and college will substantially impact your career prospects. On this page, we highlight some important considerations relevant to career preparation that you should keep in mind while in high school and college.

People's career plans frequently change

A crucial point to keep in mind is that people's career plans often change, so that rather than focusing on preparing for one career exclusively, you should try to keep your options open.

  • People frequently change college majors. The available statistics don't paint a completely cohesive picture, but estimates a NY Times article 1, 2, 3, 4 for various populations range from 40% to 80%.
  • Many people don't use their college major in their job. According to the US Bureau of the Census, only 27.5% of people have a job that's strictly related to their choice of college major. Not using your college major in your job doesn't necessarily indicate a career change — some people never intend to use their college major in their job, but it's still evidence that career change is not uncommon. Note that some of the 27.3% who do use their college major may also have changed careers.
  • Many pre-medical students don't go to medical school. The overall acceptance rate to medical school for applicants between 2008 and 2010 was [45.2%](
  • Many people with law degrees don't become lawyers or judges. In 2012, only 28% of recent law graduates were underemployed 9 months after graduation. It could be that they'll become lawyers later on, but the data is still suggestive.

Give special consideration to studying technical subjects

Jobs in science, technology, engineering and programming often require extensive prior subject matter knowledge. This contrasts with many other types of jobs, where employees aren't expected to have subject matter knowledge going in, and learn most of what they need to know on the job. For this reason, majoring in technical subjects such as computer science, engineering, science, statistics or mathematics usually opens up more career options to you than majoring in nontechnical subjects in the humanities or social sciences does. It's easier to move from a technical background to a non-technical job than it is to move in the other direction.

There's also strong evidence that majoring in a technical subject generally increases people's expected earnings. For example, economist Bryan Caplan did an analysis arguing that after controlling for the fact that some majors attract more able people than others, people who major in technical subjects earn between 48% and 72% more than high school graduates, whereas people who major in nontechnical subjects (other than nursing, which could be considered a technical subject earn between 24% and 46% more than high school graduates.

With this in mind, you should give special consideration to taking math, science and computer programming electives during high school and early on in college. Elsewhere, we argue in favor of giving special attention to math while in high school. People sometimes try to force themselves to study technical subjects when they really don't like them, and this often doesn't work very well in the long run, but it's worth exploring, especially if you've never thought of doing it.

Consider doing internships to learn more

By doing internships during high school and college, you can get first hand exposure to what work various careers involve, helping you narrow down your search space.

It's important to be aware that what you observe during an internship may be unrepresentative of what the career path would look like for you personally. Many different kinds of jobs are lumped under the same umbrella: for example, "computer programmer" can mean very different things depending on the context. Workplaces vary in their culture – the one where you do an internship might be unrepresentatively pleasant or unpleasant. But internships still give you more information about careers than you have otherwise.

Consider exerting effort to get into a prestigious college

We give the case for this on our page about college selection.