Advice for high school students

Last week, I was invited to give a presentation at a local high school on “How to succeed in college.” Following was my talk:

“Today and in the near future, most of the good jobs are in the areas of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM.) How many high school students know about this? How many many students know what skills they need to get these jobs? How many students plan their career carefully? And how many students know how to study effectively to succeed in college?”

“Before applying to any college, you need to plan for your career by exploring many options. You need to look into several STEM fields and learn what choices are there. Find something that you are interested in and if possible, talk to people who work in that field to get their advice. Do not be shy about asking them because most professionals like to help students. Some of you may hesitate on asking for advice but you need to overcome that. If you do not ask, you will never know what kind of support these professionals could help you.”

“Once you identify some areas that you are interested in, you should look at the classes that are relating to those areas to see how well you are doing. It may help you to make a decision on your career choice. If you are interested in computer science, ask yourself: “Did I take a programming class? How well am I doing?” If you are interested in Medicine, ask yourself, “How well am I doing in biology or chemistry class?” If you have not taken these class yet then you should take them to see whether you like them or not? Taking classes can validate your interest in the field and help you to prepare for classes that you will take in college. If you find that these classes are not for you, you still have time to explore another different career. High school is the best time to try many things before you make a career choice.”

“Do NOT wait until going to college to make a career decision. That is a mistake if you do not know what you want when going to college, you will waste your precious time. What will happen if you take a class in college and do not do well? What will happen that you do not like what you study? Many students switch their field several times until they find something that they like, so they are wasting a lot of time. Even if they find something that they do well, it may not be a good choice. If they do not plan a career but only “flowing in the college stream randomly” they may end up in the unemployment line because what they study may not be what the market needs.”

“You need to know exactly what you want to do BEFORE going to college so you can plan your career properly and prepare for it. Even you are young, you must think about what you want to do with your life after graduation from college. You need to know what careers may best fit your personality and interests. Choosing a career that you like and the field that you are good at are important for your future happiness. A good career choice must “fits” both your personality and interests. However, you should be realistic of your choice too. You must distinguish between a hobby and a career. A career is something you do to make a living in your life, a hobby is something you do to enjoy yourself. A career is a profession that requires specific training and efforts that you want to do for a long time. A hobby is something you do for enjoyment and relaxation. A hobby may or may not be an occupation. You may ask yourself, can I make a living with my hobby? Is there a need for my hobby in this job market?

For example, some of you know how to play a musical instrument as you love music. You may want to become a professional musician but it will require a lot of training and hours of practice and the job market for this skill is very competitive. But if you want to play for your own enjoyment, you can do it whenever you want. Many software students play musical instruments and sing well, but they are not professional as it is only their hobby.”

“Once you have decided on a career, you need to discuss with your parents. Your parents may have different opinion and expectations but a discussion is essential so you and your parents can have the time to explore several options and understand each other. Please remember that your parents have the experience that you do not as they can help you look at any situation clearly and realistically. If you have done a good job of reviewing and evaluating a career, this is the time to share your research with them on your choice. They need to have all the information about how and why you are making that decision. Keeping them involved in your career planning will allow them to understand you better.”

“To succeed in college requires a lot of preparation because college studying is different from high school. There are a lot of materials to read and a variety of courses that you must take. No matter which college that you are going to, you will be very busy. To succeed, you need to have strong study skills and manage your time accordingly. Even you do well in high school, it does not guarantee that you will do well in college because college classes have a rapid pace, and much more things to learn as compared with high school. You must be prepared to put in much more time and efforts. If you fell behind, you must seek help immediately, else it is too late. You may seek help from the professors or the teaching assistants. I know some students prefer to ask their friends, maybe they could help but maybe not. But the professors and teaching assistants are there to support you, they know the materials well and often know what problems students often have so do not hesitate to seek their help directly.”

“College is NOT just for studying but also the time for you to mature. The most important of maturity is to accept responsibility. Yes, you are responsible for everything you do, and your behavior in college will determine how mature you are. Remember that you always have a choice when making a decision, and you must accept the results and be willing to deal with them. How much time do you set yourself to study? It is your choice. How many friends do you want to have? It is your choice. Who do you want to be friend with? It is your choice too. For every choice you made, there will be a result, good or bad, and it is up to you to make the right decision. Of course, you will make mistakes but as long as you are learning from them and do not make it again, you are learning well. Do NOT be afraid of failure. Many things you try will NOT work, many people you like may not like you. That is NOT the end of the world. Just move on and continue with your study and your life.”

Remember, college is the time where you prepare for your career and your life. You are there to study and mature as everything else could wait. You need to be patient and do not hurry into something that you may regret later. Work as hard as you can, and as long as you put in the efforts to do your best, you will succeed.”


  • Blogs of Prof. John Vu, Carnegie Mellon University
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