Career Planning Misconceptions

By Ann Emerson

Constructivist theories of learning remind us that one of the main reasons that students may have difficulty “learning” information is that they believe they already “know” it. When 8th through 12th graders don’t seem to be getting the best of a career development activity, it is frequently because they have misconceptions that influence their attitudes toward the future. Unless corrected, these misconceptions can undermine their educational and career planning. A school counselor or career services professional may “notice” actions and words that give away the students’ inaccurate thoughts. Effective responses are detailed below.

Middle School Misconceptions:

What you notice: While hearing about different types of career credentials students could earn such as certificates, 2-year degrees, 4-year degrees, students ask about scholarships.
What they are thinking: A scholarship is something that a college student does instead of taking classes!
What they need to know: A scholarship is a way of helping to pay for their education. They must still choose the right type of education, attend classes, study, and pass tests like everyone else.

What you notice: students stop exploring after viewing one favored job in arts, entertainment or professional sports.
What they are thinking: these jobs are easy to get because they don’t require “college.”
What they need to know: more young people are interested in arts, entertainment and professional sports careers than there are projected to be job openings. Stick to presenting the facts – it really helps here. The students can usually tell you the implications of such facts - that not everybody who wants a job in these fields can get one, and that only the people who are the best get the jobs. In such cases where there is a surplus of interested workers, wages are lower so students will need to decide whether they like their career goal well enough to endure low wages and insufficient work opportunities. It may help to contrast these fields with nursing. If students pass their exams and demonstrate their skills, they can have a job – they don’t have to be better than other nurses. And because there is a demand for nursing skills, the pay is very high. Also, this is a good time to mention that the students, like many adults, can have art and sports as hobbies.

What you notice: students view the salaries for high-paying fields such as law and medicine, and immediately exclaim, “That’s what I’m doing!” When you encourage them to view the education requirements and recognize that these fields require years of college preparation and hard work, they respond, “Then I’ll go to community college.”
What they are thinking: community college is easier than a 4-year college or university.
What they need to know: all types of college education require strong reading, writing and math skills. Community college is closer to home and costs less than a 4-year college, but it has the same challenges – which they must prepare for by earnest study in high school.

What you notice: students are already talking about getting in to “good colleges.”
What they are thinking: the hardest thing about college education is getting accepted.
What they need to know: a college degree is not automatic even for those who have been accepted. About half the students who enroll in college fail to complete a degree. The national completion rate for 4-year institutions overall, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics is 55.3%; the completion rate for less than 2-year institutions is 32.6%. Preparing for college by working to develop academic skills one step at a time throughout high school, and by understanding how college will help them achieve their career goals may be important ways to put themselves in the successful half!

High School Misconceptions:

What you notice: students who expect to attend college show little interest in their high school assignments and take shortcuts whenever possible.
What they are thinking: since college is so important, that must be where the important things will happen, and that high school is nothing but a kind of waiting room.
What they need to know: low college completion rates mean that most students can’t afford to take a “wait and see” approach. Studies demonstrate that the students who succeed in a 4-year college are more likely to be those with higher levels of achievement – i.e. higher grades - in high school. High school courses, and in particular, career and technical education courses, should challenge them to figure out what they want to be “good at” when they grow up.

What you notice: high school students expect to work full-time AND attend college full-time AND share an apartment with friends.
What they are thinking: that graduating from high school will magically improve their time-management skills.
What they need to know: Apart from some highly-motivated students with great work habits, most students can’t do all these things. Ask them which one usually loses out. (If they aren’t sure, remind them of the completion statistics.) If they want an education, they will inevitably have to live at home at least part of the time, work less than full-time and have reduced income – in other words, make sacrifices.

When school and career counselors correct misconceptions, we are enabling students to disengage from fantasies and engage with possibilities. Addressing these misconceptions as early as middle school and directly in high school, helps form correct attitudes about the future. Ask any parent or teacher – by correcting misconceptions, we are truly giving value!

Ann Emerson, B.A., M.S. is a School-to-Career Specialist in Stafford County Public Schools. Serving in this capacity for the last five years, she has provided presentations about educational and career planning, and directed over 10,000 middle school students and over 1,000 high school students in using web-based career resources. She can be reached at aemerson@staffordschools.net

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