Everyone today agrees that college is one of the most important and dynamic times in a person's life. In a recent article, Fox News' John Stossel points out that college graduates will typically earn "an estimated $1 million more" than high school graduates over their working lives. (Stossel, 2011) Not only is earning a degree crucial in terms of building your future, but college is also a rich and rewarding life experience. College is when we discover who we really are, where we build life-long relationships, where we learn critical life-skills and develop habits that will stay with us the rest of our lives. If you're a student about to set sail on the great sea of uncertainty that is the university adventure let me offer you some encouragement, some useful (hopefully) information that perhaps no one else will tell you, and also a sharp pinch of reality!
Now first understand this; college really is a dynamic and important time in your life, and it really can be a launch-pad for your career and a place to find your calling. There are thousands of articles and lists with titles like "the best college majors for your personality" or "the ten best majors for future earning potential". And everyone you know is probably telling you to choose this college or that major, and Grandpa gave you that article from MapFanciers Quarterly that says cartographers will soon be in higher demand than chemists! How can you possibly make shrewd and informed decisions about where to attend and what major to study? It really might be easier to just base your decisions on what career field wears the most interesting hats! So in order to hopefully reduce some of your confusion and address some of your concerns, here are a few things that I wish had known or learned before college.
The first thing I wish I had known before leaving for college is simply that there are so many great choices and options out there for students. Not everyone has the ability or desire to move far away from home to an expensive, out-of-state university right away after high school. To those of you who are thinking about college, but aren't sure about where to go, or what to study, I say "don't rush!" There are tons of options and different ways to pursue a degree without spending a fortune, and without committing to a specific degree program. Online distance learning programs have become nearly ubiquitous at large universities in recent years, and they are designed to be flexible enough for students to earn credits while working full or part time or pursuing other interests. And most of these programs are geared toward helping students complete their general education requirements, which is ideal for people unsure about what career field might interest them. Smaller community colleges are also a viable option in this regard, and are definitely worth looking into as well. With such a wide variety of educational choices available today for high school graduates, it would be an genuine tragedy for any of them to commit to something they aren't sure about simply because of the outdated idea that students must attend a traditional university to pursue a college degree!
With all the talk about how college will be "the beginning of the rest of your life" and "critical for success in life", and all the expectations of parents, family, teachers and coaches, it's easy to imagine then that high school seniors are under a fair amount of pressure. The most practical lesson I wish I had learned before college is how critical it is not to subject myself to extraneous pressures and expectations - especially when it comes to choosing a major. It is incredibly easy to allow the expectations we pile onto ourselves to hijack the part of our brains involved in decision-making, and then after 2 or 3 expensive years of unproductive floundering, we wonder why we ever thought a degree in theoretical physics was a good idea. The point I want to make here is that the intense pressure we often put on ourselves to have the ideal college experience, choose an exciting major, earn perfect grades and then launch smoothly into a successful and fulfilling career after 4 blissful years may be a bit misguided. For many people, choosing a major and entering college is fraught with second-guessing and apprehension. And after college many people eventually settle into careers that have little to do with what they studied in college. For a typical wide-eyed teenager unfamiliar with significant responsibility or self-sufficiency, this choice is likely the most important they've ever been faced with! To you teenagers worrying about this I say "relax!" Yes your choice of major is important, but choosing a field of study is not a permanent selection of your unalterable destiny. A major is merely a path, one that could literally lead anywhere! Don't be fooled into believing that the next 60 years of your life are vitally dependent on the decisions you make in the next few months.
There are a couple of mistakes people commonly make when picking their major because of this unfounded strain. The first is choosing a major based on what sounds impressive, or what your friends are doing. Engineering majors often exemplify this problem. Every year thousands of students "wash out" of engineering programs, not because they are bad students or a lack of intelligence, but because they suddenly realize that they don't care for, or don't have the aptitude for the difficult math requirements in engineering programs. Many of those students chose engineering because their parents were engineers, or because they thought it would impress people. Engineering sounds intriguing and is a great major for many people, but not everyone thinks in equations or gets excited by Texas Instruments catalogs.
Another typical mistake that freshman make when selecting a college program is choosing one based on potential income. Doctors and Lawyers earn very strong salaries, but very few doctors will say they suffered through 8 years of school and several years of residency because of money. Many students start out declaring pre-med or pre-law, only to discover after a few semesters that they have no interest in cellular physiology or constitutional jurisprudence.
If you are feeling the pressure to choose a major, there are a few things I suggest you do to clear away the confusion: First, do some actual research on potential majors, find out what people actually do with them, and what kinds of classes they have to take (most college departmental websites publish their degree requirements and have some information about potential careers). Second, if you are unsure about your future, consult the people you trust! Ask one or two mentors who know you best what they envision for you in college and beyond. They can help you make sense of all your thoughts and ideas, but remember that the choice is ultimately yours. Finally, since relatively few people end up working in the same field as their major, pick one that won't make you miserable! Suffering through an uninteresting degree program for four years and then dragging yourself through an intolerable career is not worth a few extra dollars in your pocket.
The last thing I want to share with you today has less to do with the practical issues surrounding college and more to do with the spiritual. As Christians, we should always seek to follow God's will in the things we do and the paths we choose. And since the transition from high-school to university is one of the most important periods in our lives it only makes sense to ask God for his direction and leading. However sometimes it can be difficult to discern exactly what or where God is guiding us. If you are a student who has been given a clear vision of God's will for your life, awesome! That is truly a wonderful blessing and I encourage you to chase after that vision with all your heart! But perhaps you have earnestly asked for God to reveal to you his will for your life, yet you feel you haven't received an answer. As a college student I struggled with this issue mightily, but thankfully I received some tremendously valuable counsel from a mentor. Because of the seeming lack of any clear direction from the Lord I had become discouraged and downtrodden, but a very wise man transformed my perspective by suggesting that although God had not provided a plain answer by saying "David, I want you to take this path." God really had answered my question after all. The trick was in realizing that instead of God dictating a path for me, He was actually saying, "which path do you want David?" The exhilaration I felt at realizing that this frustrating silence from God was actually an incredible gift of choice was unbelievably relieving. What I took away from all this was that sometimes, when we are confronted with a difficult and important choice where all the competing options seem equally valid, God might just be trying to bestow a great gift, not deliberately trying to frustrate us. If you are struggling with a significant decision regarding your future, I encourage you to seek God's will first, and then if you are still lacking a clear path to follow, take a leap-of-faith (and it truly does require faith and trust) and decide what dreams you want to pursue. The result is the ability to set aside self-doubts and second-guessing- the worries, fears and missteps you will save yourself and will be completely worth it.
Your college years may be a dynamic and exciting transition period, but the most important things in life are same in a college dormitory as they are in a retirement community. And they have little to do with term papers or research internships. So most importantly, don't let the exhilaration and trepidation of starting a new phase of life overshadow the importance of developing relationships and pursuing your dreams.