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Preparing for your career during high school

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

Key points

  • People's career plans often change. It's generally not a good idea to structure your high school activities around a single career possibility. Do as much as you can to keep your options open.
  • Focusing on technical subjects such as math, programming and science generally opens up more opportunities than focusing on non-technical subjects such as English and social studies.
  • Take advantage of opportunities to learn more about careers that interest you by doing internships.
  • The prestige of the college that you attend can substantially alter your career prospects.

People's career plans frequently change

A crucial point to keep in mind is that people's career plans often change:

  • People frequently change college majors. The available statistics don't paint a completely cohesive picture, but estimates (e.g. 1, 2, 3, 4) for various populations range from 40% to 80%.
  • Many people don't use their college major for 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 only 45.2%.
  • Many people with law degrees don't become lawyers or judges. In 2012, only 55% of recent law graduates were underemployed 9 months after graduation. It could be that these people will become lawyers later on, but the data still suggests that it's not uncommon for people who plan to become lawyers to change careers.

Rather than focusing on preparing for one career exclusively, you should try to keep your options open.

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 evidence that majoring in a technical subject generally increases people's expected earnings. 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), earn between 24% and 46% more than high school graduates.

KEEP IN MIND: Technical subjects have the advantage of having objective standards. For example, either a computer program performs a given task within a given time window, or it doesn't. The objective standards in technical subjects can keep you honest: it's generally less easy to fool yourself into thinking that you understand something that you don't than it is in the humanities. You can judge your progress better in technical subjects, which enables you to correct course if you're headed in the wrong direction. So studying a technical subject often has a disproportionately positive impact on your development as a thinker.

You should give special consideration to taking math, science and computer programming electives during high school. On our page on the importance of learning math well, we argue in favor of giving special attention to math while in high school.

Consider doing internships to learn more about different careers

By doing internships (whether during the school year, or during the summers), you can get first hand exposure to what work various careers involve, helping you narrow down your search space.

KEEP IN MIND: 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. Your internship experiences won't be decisive portraits of what a career is like.

Consider exerting effort to get into a prestigious college

Going to a prestigious college can substantially improve your career prospects. We give a case for this on our page about college selection.