The Ultimate Career Planning Guide for High School Students
It’s never too early to start planning your career! Having an idea of your personal career goals can be a huge advantage for thriving at high school and university, helping you to stay motivated and make the most of the available opportunities.
Imagine you’re lost in a forest. If you see four or five different paths, all leading in different directions, it might be difficult to decide on which path to take. If there’s only one path – one which is clearly signposted! – you’re able to follow it confident in the knowledge that you’ll reach your destination in the best way possible.
Planning your career is much the same. Having a clear, defined path will get you to your desired destination far quicker and with far more confidence. Plus, it’s much easier to enjoy the journey when you know you’re on the right path!
We’ve put together an eight-step guide for career planning as a student to help you in forging your own path.
1. Understanding Yourself
When you begin to consider career planning, it’s helpful to think of yourself as your own recruiter. Consider your skills and interests, and how you can apply these to a particular field or industry. Honestly assess your strengths and weaknesses, and you’ll begin to understand how to utilise your strengths in the most effective way, as well as how to improve on your weaknesses.
Of course, nobody expects you to have a complete skill set while you’re still in high school, but highlighting the ways in which you can continue to refine and improve your skills is an excellent starting point.
A valuable way of assessing your ideal career path based on your skills and interests is to take the OxBright Career Test. You’ll be offered personalised career recommendations, helpful resources including books and podcasts to help sharpen your skills, and detailed statistics highlighting areas for improvement.
Employers value candidates who understand their strengths and can identify how to use them within a business or organisation, so the sooner you understand yourself, the better.
2. Matching Skills and Interests
Sometimes your skills and interests may not align with just one career, and it may be hard to work out which career is best suited to you. A passion for writing, for example, can benefit a number of careers including copywriting, marketing and journalism. Similarly, an interest in mathematics could lead towards a career in data science, economics or even game design.
With such a wide range of career options for each of your skills and interests, having a wide range of skills – especially transferable ones – is incredibly valuable. A transferable skill can see you move from one career to another, and will be valued in virtually every industry. Good teamwork, for example, is a skill you can refine through group work at school and university, and which will maintain its value in the workplace. Regardless of the career you ultimately choose, you’ll almost certainly be working in collaboration with others.
Transferable skills can also include things like written communication and mathematics. Good written communication can come in just as handy in a data-centric job as one that centres around writing. Similarly, good basic mathematical skills will stand you in good stead in lots of creative fields, especially in our increasingly technological age.
Therefore, it’s a good idea to accumulate as many of these transferable skills as you can, to help you stand out as somebody who’s able to adapt to meet a range of different challenges.
3. Exploring Career Options
Picking a career that suits you from hundreds of possibilities can seem a bit overwhelming, but thankfully there are lots of helpful resources online to help make career planning a little easier.
UCAS has a list of potential careers for young people to consider, filtered by industry and broken down into roles, including information such as average salaries and role requirements. Other ways of gaining greater insight into the ins-and-outs of different careers is through career fairs, mentorship programmes and online internships.
The Oxford Scholastica Academy runs a series of residential summer schools to help young people gain insight into a number of different fields, including law, medicine and business, offering students clarity about their futures. Gaining experience in your future sector is essential, as considering job outlook, salary potential and educational requirements will help you to decide whether a career path is suited to your preferences and needs.
Once you’ve assessed this, the true career planning can begin!
4. Setting Goals and Creating a Plan
So, how do you go about setting your goals? Is it as simple as just writing down your end goal on a piece of paper and coming back to it in a few years? Not quite. A good place to start is by setting SMART goals.
SMART goals are goals that fulfil the following criteria:
This could be aiming to become a copywriter for a company in the environmental industry, or a robotics engineer concerned with designing machines to do automated jobs. Having specific goals allows you to focus on learning the in-depth skills needed for these specific careers.
Rather than setting yourself the goal of becoming a robotics engineer and leaving it at that, you might instead set yourself a number of smaller targets in monthly or yearly intervals. This could include aiming to read a certain number of relevant books, or to complete a certain qualification within a specific time frame.
Having these measurable goals in place will help you to stay motivated, as you’ll be able to see your progress in real time.
Setting unrealistic goals – goals that you most likely won’t achieve within the timeframe you’ve set – will be dispiriting. Remember, you’re only human, and it’s important to consider how long it will take to reach certain targets.
If you’re realistic with your goals, you’ll be much more likely to reach them, and in turn you’ll be more likely to achieve your long-term goals.
If your ultimate objective is to become a current affairs journalist, then there’s little point setting yourself the goal of reading the entirety of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace!
If you have the time then absolutely, whatever you read is going to enrich your skills and make you a better writer, but an aspiring journalist will find that aiming to read a range of newspapers each day, and applying for internships at local media organisations, will be far more efficient than trying to tackle a long and challenging reading list.
The final step in setting SMART goals is to set yourself timeframes. You can make these challenging, but remember to keep them realistic!
Completing short-term goals – and ticking them off in your diary – will fill you with an enormous amount of satisfaction. Plus, observing your progress as you go will reveal how capable you are of ultimately achieving and excelling in your long-term goal – success in your chosen career!
There’s no right or wrong way of creating and organising your SMART goals, just as there’s no right or wrong way of planning for an essay or revising for an exam. You may find it helpful to put all your goals, short- and long-term, into a spreadsheet, marking them off as you achieve them. Alternatively you may prefer to use a physical calendar or diary, or even to create your own chart for success.
Whichever tracking method works best for you, keeping within the SMART framework will help to ensure that your career planning is achievable and effective.
It’s also worth noting that the goals you set yourself may change over time. As you learn more about the industries that appeal to you, it’s natural for the details of your ambitions to alter. This is why having a mixture of short- and long-term goals is important, because even if your long-term goal alters, your short-term goals can easily be changed to complement any changes to the larger plan.
5. Researching Education Pathways
In the midst of studying and completing university applications, your future career can seem like a long way off, but it can be helpful to see university as a goal on your path towards a career. University provides the opportunity to specialise in a particular field or topic of interest, as well as boosting your employability and developing a whole new set of skills, like critical thinking and thorough research skills. Apprenticeships and freelance work can also help boost your employability credentials.
Once you have a clear idea of your longer-term career goals, it’s far easier to make an informed decision about which education pathway is best suited to you and your goals.
With so much choice available, there are a variety of online resources to help narrow down your options. You can research different universities and courses through metrics like student satisfaction, continuation and post-degree career prospects.
If you’re concerned about the cost of university courses, apprenticeships and other educational pathways, a range of scholarships and financial aid options exist – you could even set yourself a career-planning goal to do some research into different funding options!
6. Gaining Skills and Experience
Before enrolling in university, there are plenty of skills and experiences you can gain in the meantime. Try to identify which essential skills are valued by employers in your chosen field, and consider the ways you could start to develop these.
This could include participating in extracurricular activities like sports, performing arts, or courses – this is also a fantastic way of building a well-rounded and impressive CV!
Another great way to develop your skills in preparation for university is to participate in essay-writing competitions to strengthen your research and communication skills. OxBright’s 2023 Essay Competition challenges you to think about the future of your subject, helping you to stand out from the crowd in your university applications.
You could also work a part-time job in a similar field of interest, or volunteer within your local community, to help you develop collaboration and problem-solving skills.
Don’t forget to make a note of the skills you’re learning and developing! Include them in a portfolio or resume to showcase the experience you’ve accrued. Your CV is a chance to show off, and sell yourself to an employer or an admissions team, so make the most of it and don’t sell yourself short!
7. Applying to University
With your newfound skills and experiences, your university application will be a force to be reckoned with! Admissions teams look through hundreds of applications each year from many impressive, high-achieving students, so standing out from the crowd is essential.
Like your resume, your personal statement for university is a chance to sell yourself, so make sure to mention your extracurricular activities – and what you’ve gained from these experiences!
Positive references are also extremely important, so set yourself a goal to find strong referees from your school or extracurricular activities. Ideally, these should be people who know you well, and can comment on your academic abilities and the individual strengths that make you an ideal candidate. Don’t be afraid to give your referees any extra information that you think would be helpful! This could be:
- Information on the course(s) you’re applying for
- Any academic achievements, grades or projects you’ve completed
- Any extracurricular activities that your referee might not be aware of
Remember to ask any potential referees before submitting their name in your application, and be sure to give them plenty of time to actually write and submit the reference!
Many courses also require you to attend an interview, so the communication skills you’ve been practising, and the confidence you’ve gained through developing your skill set, will be really valuable here.
Inevitably, all this preparation can seem like a lot! Organising the different components and managing your time effectively will help to make sure your application is submitted on time, free of mistakes and most importantly, successfully conveying your ambition and talent!
8. Networking and Professional Development
Between school, participating in extracurricular activities and starting university, you’ll likely have developed a network without realising it! In other words, you‘ll have built the kinds of professional connections that are essential to thriving in your career.
Networking can expand your knowledge as well as your opportunities. Although you’ll naturally network through school, college and university, you can always expand your network even further by attending industry events and seeking mentorship opportunities.
References are just as important for job applications as they are at university, and networking is a great way to find strong, trustworthy referees for your future. What’s more, by networking you’ll gain knowledge from experts in your field and stay updated with industry trends, meaning you’ll always be prepared to portray your expertise in applications and interviews.
We hope this guide to career planning has inspired you to think in greater detail about what your career goals are, and how you can go about achieving them. It’s never too early to start exploring your career options, and by setting both long- and short-term goals, your journey will be consistently rewarding and fulfilling.
As you learn and grow, your career goals may shift slightly, but by regularly monitoring your progress, you’ll be prepared to develop new skills and explore new avenues to help you best achieve these goals, whatever they may be!
If you’re keen to think more about career planning and would like more tips and guides, the Oxford Scholastica Academy has a range of valuable resources and programmes to help further plan your future at university and beyond.
By Sam Cox
Sam is a recent English graduate from the University of Bristol whose interests include twentieth-century fiction, film, and cultural criticism.
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