Stumbling Blocks to Success: Uncertainty about what you want to do

Last year, about a month before graduation, one of the students in my internship course came to talk with me after class. She was trying to figure out what to do about applying for jobs, and she felt she needed some extra advice. When I asked her what she was hoping to do, she told me that she had no idea! And I’ve encountered a lot of college students with the same dilemma.

Some lucky people figure out early on that they have a passion for a specific career or field—engineering, medicine, the law, social work—and, for them, choosing a college major is tied to that career. But many others choose a major based on subjects that they enjoyed in high school—and I think that’s probably true for a lot of students who end up majoring in the humanities (English, history), math, and sciences (biology, chemistry, physics). Those are the subjects that everyone is required to study, and most of us are good at or interested in at least one of them. Unfortunately, those majors don’t typically lead to a specific career unless your goal is to teach one of those subjects.

So what can you do to help yourself figure out a career if your college major doesn’t automatically set you up for your first job? I have some suggestions, which are probably most helpful if you’re still in college. However, if you’ve already graduated, some of them can still be useful to you in identifying careers you might enjoy. (Note: These suggestions are explored in much greater detail in my book’s Step 1: Identify your skills and strengths.)

TIP 1. Use online aptitude tests for personal exploration. Your college career center is likely to have links to tests they feel are helpful, but you can find a lot of them with just a quick online search. In my book, I tell you the ones that I tried and evaluate the usefulness of each.

TIP 2. Focus on your skills, not your degrees. Employers pretty consistently look for people with the ability to work with a team, communicate both in writing and orally, solve problems, analyze data, and other attributes. Think about what you can do, not necessarily what you have studied.

TIP 3. Seek out relevant books to learn about yourself and possible career matches. There are lots of self-help books specifically designed for this purpose, some of which have been around for years and are used by major corporations.

Tip 4. Enhance your skills (or develop new ones). If you find that the jobs that interest you require skills you don’t have, take another course or participate in an online workshop or do some volunteer work to gain those skills.

TIP 5. Before you graduate, try to complete at least one, and ideally several, internships relevant to careers that interest you. I’ve written about this before. Internships have become increasingly important.

TIP 6. Conduct information interviews. Information interviews can help you learn what specific jobs are really like and how you might fit into an organization. In addition to this tip, my book’s Appendix A shows you how to secure and benefit from information interviews.