7 Reasons It’s Vital to Know a Good Career Before Entering College

Find something you’re passionate about and keep tremendously interested in it.

— Julia Child

The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.

— Steve Jobs

What should I major in? Reasons to know your career and college major before starting college.

Statistics determined by Gallup show that only about 30% of college graduates (Group A) get jobs they are engaged in, good at, and happy with throughout their career. They also will have the greatest opportunity to be recognized as being exceptional therefore first in line for career promotions.

Another 30% of college graduates will get jobs that require a degree, but oftentimes not in the area of their major. This is represented in Group B. These graduates are not engaged or happy at work — they are there primarily to get a paycheck.

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York shows that the final 40% of graduates, Group C, will not be able to get a job requiring a college degree. This is known as being ‘underemployed,’ meaning the graduate got a job as a delivery driver, bartender, barista, or sales clerk, for example. They are the least engaged and generally very unhappy in their work.

The Group A graduates are generally students who knew a good career (and related major) before entering college. Here are 7 reasons why knowing that good career is so important.

1. Graduate in 4 years with little or no debt

Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.

— Nelson Mandela

Knowing your best career and major when you enter college is the absolute best way to assure you will graduate on time.

The average time for college students to get a 4-year Bachelor’s degree is more than 6 years! Taking that long has severe disadvantages. Obvious impacts are 2+ additional years of tuition, room and board costs, and the loss of 2+ years of income. Together, these impacts amount to a loss of $150,000 to $200,000. Not as obvious are:

Studies show that 70% of a student’s debt occurs during the extra 2+ years because those costs were not originally budgeted for.
It is most likely that the added time was associated with changing of majors. This, in turn, caused the loss of solid internships that are vital to getting a good job at graduation.

As you can imagine, all of these factors add a lot of college-related stress.

On the other hand, graduating in 4 years relieves you of all those negative effects. The very important advantages of graduating in 4 years are highlighted in the following sections.

2.Reduce college stress and pressure

Stress is caused by being ‘here’ but wanting to be ‘there’

— Eckert Tolle

Most students enter college with the belief that they will graduate in 4 years and automatically get a good job (the ‘there’ in the above quote). Unfortunately, about 2/3 of all students soon discover that the major they thought would be good for them is not working.
Either they are not really interested in their major, or they are not especially good at the subject when compared to others. When that happens, they usually decide that another major would be a better fit, forcing them to practically start over. Now they have wasted time, money, and credits on a major that was not meant for them.

What is even crazier is that about half of the time, they change majors 2 or 3 times, with further negative effects. Added stress builds up as they realize it will take 6 or more years to graduate and their student debt will increase significantly with each extension beyond 4 years.

Worst of all, as they near graduation, they begin to realize that they will not be able to get a job in their final major area. This is because for many majors there are fewer career-related jobs than there are graduates each year.

Another reason they will have a harder time getting a job at graduation is because they were not able to get solid internships. They realize they will never get ‘there’ and that the college stress is likely to extend well into whatever career they wind up in.

The best way to avoid this excessive stress and pressure is to know a good career and major at the very beginning of college. You will be sure you are directed toward ‘there’ because you are very good at and passionate about your studies. You will be sure that the 4-year graduate schedule will be readily achievable and will get 2 or 3 solid internships confirming that you are pursuing the right career.

3. Get good grades and recognition

People work for money, but go the extra mile for recognition, praise and rewards.

— Dale Carnegie

You will enjoy classes and doing homework because you are studying topics you are good at and passionate about. As a result, you will be near or at the top of your class. Your professors will look at you positively because of the level of motivation and engagement you display on a consistent basis. You will also be recognized as being special by your fellow students.

This recognition will build your confidence, reduce college stress, and elevate your standing in a career-related network (discussed in the following section). Professors that appreciate your talent and passion will often be very important for building that network. They will also be valuable references when you pursue internships and get a great job at graduation.

4. Immediately begin to establish a career-related network

Networking is an investment in your business. It takes time and when done correctly can yield great results for years to come.

— Diane Helbig

There are many advantages to having a career-related network, even as a student. They include:

  • You have others to discuss how school relates to the actual career.
  • Including professors in your network will improve their recognition that you are an exceptional student.
  • You will begin to learn the types of positions and organizations you would be most interested in by discussing your aspirations with professors and prior graduates already working in career-related positions.
  • The network will identify special opportunities for internships and work after graduation.
  • The network, and especially professors, will be great references when you pursue internships and work after graduation.

Knowing a good career and related major that you will be very good at and passionate about when you start college will allow you to begin a career-related network immediately. It will gather size and strength at graduation through activities such as:

  • Attendance at career-related conferences.
  • Internships and part-time work in the career area.
  • Conversations with practicing professionals.

The ability to build such a strong career-related network is not possible for students who change majors even once, let alone 2 or 3 times.

5. Get at least 2 vital internships

Internships have always been important to college students, but never more than now.

— Katie Riley

There is no substitute really for learning about the world of work and being in the world of work. You can do that through internships. You can do it through summer job experiences or even from volunteer jobs in your local community. Strive early to get some kind of practical work experience.

— Alexis Herman

Thirty to forty years ago the number of graduates and jobs requiring a degree were similar. Then, graduates were practically guaranteed to get a good job because employers would hire someone just for getting a degree. They would also provide a trainee period for graduates to get some experience.

Things are very different now because there are far more graduates than there are careers requiring a degree. As a result, graduates in 2020 had to compete against each other to get positions. For example, in 2020 there were about 800,000 more graduates than there were jobs requiring a degree.

Now, employers are most interested in the experience you have had, even above the college you attended or your GPA. This trend makes it essential that you get at least 2 solid summer internships. And even better, that you also get part-time work at an organization you interned with during the school year.

There are additional major benefits of having good internships. For examples, they help you:

  • Understand the connection between theoretical school topics and their real-world application.
  • Determine the specific types of work you want to do and organizations you could excel and grow in.
  • Identify mentors you would like to work with.

6. Be hired into a great job at graduation

Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.

— Steve Jobs

Because of your career-related network and having 2 or 3 solid internships, you will almost certainly have a great job lined up even before graduation. Through your internships and network, you will know the type of position and employer that will provide the best conditions for:

  • Building a strong career foundation,
  • Completing projects that you will be especially good at, and
  • Demonstrating clearly your high level of motivation and engagement.

An ideal early position is one where you be working with a ‘mentor’ who can teach you topics not covered in college and guide you in the direction for responsibility advancements.

7. Have the best chance to get frequent promotions

If you want to advance quickly to higher levels of your job, your choice may be a smaller, high-growth organization or division of a larger employer. In these situations, management is constantly looking for new talent to initially tackle the most important projects, and then to be promoted to management positions.

As an example:

When I was getting my Ph.D., I worked full time each summer and part-time during the school year with a small, but rapidly growing geotechnical engineering consulting company, with an owner who was an excellent mentor.

On graduation day, I was given the responsibility of Project Manager, managing and working with staff to provide clients with extraordinary results.

In 3 years, I was promoted to Vice President. Now I was responsible for all projects requiring the design of dams and development of very large second-home developments. In 3 more years, I was promoted to an Executive Vice President position, responsible for the company’s growth and client diversification.

In the next 8 years, we grew from 100 geotechnical professions in 2 Midwest offices to 600 diversified professionals in mining, radioactive waste management, and the clean-up of large, contaminated sites. We had grown to 7 offices across the country. My career-related experience during undergraduate and graduate schools gave me the experience necessary for those advancements.

Graduates who take positions in very large or no-growth small organizations usually will not have similar growth opportunities.

This article also appears on Dr. Ellison's Medium blog