Career Counselling for High School Students: What’s Next?

 Many high school students don’t know what they want to do for a career or for post secondary and not knowing can be absolutely fine, albeit inconvenient, when applying for post secondary programs or when other career and life experiences are imminent. After all, high school will end and people have to do something.  In reality, most high school students just need to know what’s next; what might make sense; and that very few decisions are irreversible.  For many, exposure to new subject matter in post secondary settings, or time in the workplace can help people sort out questions they might have about their ultimate direction.

Some high school students however, can feel an enormous pressure to “decide”.  Decisions about a career direction, a post-secondary program, or a post-secondary institution can all feel imminent and quite overwhelming.  Pressure can come from parents who want what’s best for their children and who want to see them continue to develop and grow, to be constructively engaged in life, to experience success or to achieve all they are capable of.  It can come from the school and teachers who talk about the importance of doing well so that they can get into universities and programs of their choice and ultimately be successful in life. It can come from friends and peers who seem to have it all together and are applying or being accepted into post-secondary programs. Pressure can come from within oneself – when they believe they should “just know” and that if they don’t know there is something really wrong.  For many, this pressure in and of itself is enough to create anxious indecision.
Students who have known since they were 10 years old what they wanted “to be a …” are not necessarily better off than those in grade 12 who are uncertain about where they want to apply or what programs they might want to apply for.  If they know with too much certainty they may stop paying attention to who they are becoming and which experiences have the capacity to develop into a true passion. The process of understanding where people fit occupationally is very much one of developing a personal identity, of understanding strengths, looking for patterns of how one approaches life and on being a bit clearer on where interests lie, at least at this point in time.  We cannot always predict how that might change, given the limited experience of someone who is 16 or 17 years old.
This brings to mind another sector of the high school population – those who appear disengaged.  These are the young people who appear to be adrift.  Not really planning anything for the future, not knowing what they are interested in, not developing new skills or honing established ones, not noticeably trying to sort it all out.  These young people are often more focused on what they don’t want than what they do and as a result keep their world and its possibilities small.  There can be many reasons for this and it’s important that we resist temptation to jump to a simplistic explanation.

 Given the variety of presentation of career difficulties – the appropriately undecided, the anxiously undecided, the prematurely decided, or the disengaged, how do we help high school students get on with “the next step”? It almost certainly should start with listening to the concerns of the young person and his or her parents. An early step is almost always to figure out what kind of help will be most useful and what needs to be accomplished in order for the counselling to be considered successful.  Sometimes information about occupations, educational programs, or making decisions is what is most needed.  Sometimes more personal information, either created through reflective writing, the counselling process or information garnered through tests and inventories, can help.  At times there are other factors that predispose young people to be indecisive that can be “worked through” with a counsellor.  Career counselling is not “one size fits all”.  It can be simple or more complex.
 Career counselling will usually involve some assessment to help the young person have a better understanding of him or herself. The assessment will often include some combination of aptitudes, abilities, interests and personality.  Career counselling will also usually include an examination of past experiences, of successes, and interests. Additionally the counselling will normally include information about occupations and educational programs. The process, timing and focus of these components, however, may vary depending upon the circumstances and goals of the young person.