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Are You Stuck with a "Next-Step Mentality?"

If you're locking into your career plans, college counselor Nancy Donehower has three words for you: Don't do it.

Huh? A college counselor telling you not to lock into plans? What's that all about? Actually, Donehower isn't the only counselor advising students to take their time in discovering who they are and what they want to do when they get out of college.

Prepare Broadly

"It makes sense to me," she explains, "that the best preparation for a future that's still unfolding, is a broad preparation. It shouldn't prevent you from following areas that light you up, but a broad preparation will prepare you for multiple careers."

That's important because jobs change more frequently due to changes in technology and business competition. Some jobs that are available today may be on their way out in 10 years. "The best thing about preparing broadly is that you get to live in a big world," says Donehower. "You avoid getting typecast in a job or business area, and if your job becomes obsolete, you can move on. You want to be nimble and be able to leap from lily pad to lily pad."

Explore and find out about yourself

Many students Donehower advises make the mistake of working on "the next step in front of them," avoiding time to explore their interests or reflect on what they're learning about themselves. For example, students will look at a college and try to figure out what they perceive the college is looking for in a student. Then they try to remake themselves into that student, even though it might go against who they really are.

Students let the "next-step mentality" interfere with their learning as well, she says. Many students don't take courses outside their comfort zone for fear it will ruin their GPA and their changes of getting into a certain college.

"You may be reluctant to go outside your areas of strength for fear you'll get a low grade," says Donehower. "But if you think one grade in one class will ruin your chances of admission, you're doing yourself a disservice. Colleges look at a number of factors in addition to grades. Students often perceive requirements of colleges as much more stringent and narrow than they really are."

Since colleges work to admit a diverse group of students, the best thing to do is be yourself and explore your options.

Donehower says, "I know of many people in their late 20s who are unhappy in their careers and who regret that they didn't pursue a wider range of interests while in college."

Her advice to students: "Think about who you are right now. You have certain preferences. You have areas you like to study. You have certain skills." She suggests using interest surveys to help you gain a sense of where your interests and skills can lead you.

"Follow your nose and find a college that will support and encourage you academically and socially. Have faith in yourself and the things you like to do," she adds.

With more than 2,000 four-year colleges and universities to consider, Donehower says, "The most exciting thing for you to know is that there are many colleges in the U.S. that will work well for you."

A few additional tips

Exercise your mind. Take courses in varied subjects and explore academic interests for your own learning satisfaction, not just to help you get into college or land a job.

Remember when considering a college, popularity does not necessarily equal quality. There are many colleges and universities worth exploring — not just those with familiar names.

Participate in activities you enjoy. There are no right or wrong choices here. Admissions people want to know about your level of commitment. The type and number of organizations you belong to are less important.


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