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Help Your Student Find the Right College Academic Program

Guest Contributor

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As a high school counselor, I've had students tell me they love to argue and are good at it, so they want to be lawyers. They don't realize lawyers spend much of their day collecting research and data to prepare for a case and that many (if not most) cases are settled long before the courtroom.

Or the student tells me they want to be a doctor, but as we discuss their interests further, they admit that they hate their science and math classes.

Understanding the day-to-day tasks and responsibilities of the careers they are learning about is vital to finding a college major and, ultimately, an occupation they will enjoy.

Choosing an area of academic focus, and finding the right college where they can pursue this interest, is often overwhelming for both students and parents. Although starting college as an undecided major is an option, it often leads to more time spent in school and, therefore, more expense.

As you guide your high school student through the college search process, you can avoid significant college distress by learning about program entry, limits, and requirements before your student settles on a college and program. Exploration, research, and visits are key college planning elements for moving from significant distress to major decisions.

Start With the End in Mind

Throughout a lifetime, an average adult will spend more than 80,000 hours working. For that reason, finding something you enjoy doing is pretty important!

How can you help your high school student do this? First, they can explore their interests. Second, they can explore careers. Most high schools offer programs such as Naviance or MCIS to their students. These sites provide interest and skills inventories for students to learn about themselves and research careers matching their interests.

Your student should talk with a high school counselor to learn about the opportunities at their school. If your high school doesn't offer these tools, check out free online resources such as O*Net from the U.S. Department of Labor. If your child has already taken the ACT, review the interest inventory results included with their scores. Then explore how those interests and strengths can be utilized in the identified career fields. When researching different careers, it's essential to understand what that career actually does.

Program Limits and Guaranteed Entry

Once a career path is identified, you and your student can use the sites referenced above to search for college majors that match those careers. However, some colleges and universities have limits on the number of students admitted to a particular major each academic year. Others may require students to complete prerequisite classes before they can apply for the program. Typically these programs are highly competitive, so it's important to research ahead of time and ask very specific questions when visiting.

Bachelor of Nursing programs often falls under these guidelines. Lab space and clinical requirements dictate the number of students a college can accept into its program. Thus, it's essential to investigate your student's chances for admission, how many students are accepted each year, how and when your student can apply, what backup major options are offered, and if they have a guaranteed entry program.

Guaranteed entry programs allow students to either apply as first-year students and be admitted to the college major or guarantee entry into the major as long as specific prerequisites are met. Guaranteed entry can be a huge benefit to ensuring a smooth course of study. If guaranteed entry is not an option, it's essential to understand and consider other factors: your student's chances for admission, alternative major options, how the college will help them explore those majors if needed, and your student's willingness to transfer colleges if necessary. Remember that these alternate options will likely extend the time and money spent on college.

Accreditation, Licensing, and Degree Requirements

Although I have been helping students and families navigate college exploration for almost 20 years, I was reminded of something very important when helping my own daughter research Architecture programs this past fall. Some majors have specific accreditation requirements to be licensed in the field, yet colleges are not always forthcoming in explaining what their programs provide.

For example, to become a licensed architect, a student must complete an accredited Bachelor of Architecture program (B of Arch). A Bachelor of Science or Bachelor of Arts in Architecture is not the same and would require a Master's degree to get the necessary accreditation for licensure. Yet, unless you know the specific questions to ask the colleges, they may not share that information.

Do your homework ahead of time alongside your high school student so you understand precisely what is needed to get into the career they want and what major and degree program can get them there. Research colleges, their major options, and admission criteria before visiting. Have questions prepared when visiting so that you and your student can find out exactly what each college can provide and select the best-fit college for them.

Becky Martin is a high school counselor in southeastern Minnesota and a workshop speaker for MyCollegePlanningTeam. With almost two decades of high school counseling experience, she has helped thousands of students and families navigate the college planning process from start to finish. Becky received her Bachelor's degree in Psychology from the University of Wisconsin, LaCrosse, her Master's degree in Counseling and Psychological Services from St. Mary's University of Minnesota, and her School Counseling Licensure credentials at Minnesota State University, Mankato.
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