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How to Make Big Important Decisions

Practical tips to help ease your transition to college.

How to Make Big Important Decisions

Practical tips to help ease your transition to college.

The last few months didn’t turn out the way you’d pictured they would. The school year ended with a thud. Questions about what your junior or senior year will hold are pinging around in your head like mental pinballs that don’t appear to have any easy answers. You’re trying to look forward, wanting to finish school strong, hoping you’ll have a place to land in a few months, but you don’t want to take anything for granted—not this time, not this year.

I know because my family is there, too. We’re having these same conversations. The big important decisions of where to go to college and what to major in still figure into our late-night talks, but now, during the pandemic, those conversations are dominated by a lot more ifs, hows, and whats:

If the high school year was cut short, how will that affect my plans? What do I want to do after high school, and can it still happen? What can my family and I do to prepare now to make sure I’ll have everything I need be successful?

And perhaps most important: How do I picture myself on the other side of high school, at the end of college, or as I begin my career?

Who do you want to be? And how do you get there?

Futures and Fingerprints

Every human being on the planet was uniquely formed, not only in our physical genetic makeup, but in our thoughts and opinions, our gifts and skill sets, our desires and dreams. A 2018 study from the University of Zurich revealed our individual brain anatomy is as unique as our fingerprints. Before you come down hard on a place and a plan for after high school, consider and investigate how God uniquely created you.

Here are a few questions to get you going:

  • What do you feel naturally gifted at, and what skills have you developed and enjoy using?
  • What’s your greatest joy, or your deepest longing?
  • What is your hope for the world, and what is your hope for yourself?
  • Where do you struggle in school, and where do you find an easier path?
  • What key ingredients make up your personal identity? What other ingredients would you like to see thrown in there?

Get to Know Yourself Better

Personality assessments like the Enneagram or Myers-Briggs are great tools for discovering strengths or skills. Here are just a few other tests that are available online.

  • The free O*Net Interest Profile helps students discover their interests and connect them to possible careers.
  • RichardStep.com offers Strengths & Weaknesses, a free aptitude test aimed at finding the purpose behind your actions and choices.
  • This Personal Values Assessment from the Barrett Values Centre also assesses your motivations and priorities. The quiz is free, but registration is required.
  • Gary Chapman, author of the New York Times bestseller The Five Love Languages, now offers quizzes for teens and children on the 5LoveLanguages site. No registration is required, and the site provides a breakdown of where you fall in five categories, helping you understand your own emotional intelligence.
  • The MAPP (Motivational Appraisal Personal Potential) Career Assessment is an extensive personality test for all ages, matching the right career to your unique profile. Registration and fees are required.
  • The College Board offers a set of free online tools designed to help you match a college and a major to your particular dreams and skills.

Keep in mind that as powerful as these assessments may be in helping you pin down your strengths, they aren’t the only tools in your toolbox. Be careful not to place too much authority in them. Use them as well as, but not as a replacement for, the advice of your parents and the results of your own soul-searching.

“I always tell clients to take these tests with a grain of salt,” says Debi Hake, a licensed family and marriage counselor in Columbia, Missouri, “because the results are likely to change as you get older, incorporate more life experiences and develop maturity and emotional intelligence. However, taking personality assessments and, yes, digging into how God made you and who you are as a person can be very helpful for teens (and adults) to determine what possible career or schooling options they might be well-suited for.”

Widen Your Circle of Advisors

Jeff Alexander spent more than 20 years as a Christian school educator and family pastor. He’s now a senior pastor in Maine with one child in college and another about to graduate high school. I asked him how he has helped his own kids prepare for college.

“Find second voices,” he told me.

He’s not alone. Every parent and many students I spoke with agreed that it’s important for teens to find trusted adults to speak to in addition to their parents, adults who can confirm their gifts and help evaluate their choices. Too often we rely only on our parents and peers to help guide our way or approve of our decisions.

Think back to the personal inventory you made above and ask these trusted second voices what they think about your responses. Do they agree with your assessment? Do they have any additional suggestions? Their answers may surprise you, in a good way.

We all need second voices, but how do we find them? Ask your parents who they go to for guidance and advice, or look to the coaches and teachers already in your life. “Every kid is different,” Alexander says to parents trying to help their teens find suitable second voices. “Find local mentors, people you want your child to be like and who know what they’re capable of.”

Go Your Own Way

Perhaps you initially considered following your parents’ path and staying close to home—close to the college and career choices they had made—because it felt like safe, comfortable ground.

As my son Jack has matured, he has discovered his own interests and his own gifts, and they are quite different from ours. He can envision a future for himself not based on what we did but based on his own callings and desires. He’s not saying no to our choices, but he’s not narrowing the field for himself by following our footsteps exactly. Instead, Jack is walking a path we’ve trod the edges of, discovering what other landmarks or vistas line the way. He may revisit and reconsider our old stomping grounds, but it’s more likely he’ll plot his own course.

When I asked Jeff Alexander if teens today are more willing to go their own way, to think outside the box, his answer was enlightening. “It’s not just thinking outside the box,” he said. “There is no box anymore.”

Don’t be afraid to forge your own path. Take this year to try out a few things to see what fits. Keep an eye out for free or low-cost classes and workshops in your area that will allow you to try out a new subject. Take leadership opportunities when they present themselves, and look for other ways to be involved in your church and community; you’ll learn about yourself while you’re helping others.

And, when it comes to those big important decisions, be open-minded. Consider a general education degree that you can adapt or specialize as time goes on. If an associate’s degree at a local Christian college is more financially feasible and practical, that’s okay. Great, even! Not sure where you can go with a degree in the field you dream of? Take comfort. Many schools, like California Baptist University, will help you match your chosen major or interest to careers and program paths, which may show you that you have more options than you ever thought possible.

College as a First Step

So, you’ve taken inventory of your gifts, callings, and skills, you’ve reached out to and listened to second voices, and you’ve broken out of the box to explore new options and opportunities. Perhaps all this soul searching has you thinking about what comes after college. Maybe grad school or seminary will be the next step?

Before moving in this direction, ask yourself: What do you want the end result to be? What are the qualifications for someone in the career field you’re aiming for?

Are you planning to go into formal, full-time ministry that would require a seminary degree? Is a master’s degree required for entry-level work in your chosen career, or is it possible for you to gain work experience now, getting a foot in the door and saving money while aiming for a postgraduate degree or further qualification down the road? If a master’s degree is necessary, is it possible to find a program at a lower-cost school?

More importantly, do you truly enjoy classroom learning? Many teens and young adults can’t imagine another six or eight years in school, but if you’re someone who loves to learn in the classroom, a postgraduate degree may be the best way for you to hone the gifts and talents you possess.

The bottom line is you don’t have to decide today if grad school or seminary is right for you. But don’t rule it out yet, either. The further along you are in your college career, the better you’ll know yourself, your goals, and what you need to achieve them.

No, It’s Not Too Late

If I could leave you with one thing—something you could take with you as you finish high school, no matter what the last six months have looked like—it would be that it’s truly never too late. You may have been planning for your future since that first kindergarten career day, or you may have woken up this morning with a personal epiphany that points you in a direction you’d never considered before. Either way, the future you’re dreaming of is still attainable. The pandemic didn’t make you lose your only chance at success. You always have options.

If you’re afraid those options are limited, or if you’re completely unsure of what’s next, Hake suggests adding an elective or two to help you explore potential post-graduation ideas. Maybe that shop class leads to enrolling in a trade school for woodworking. Also, don’t be afraid to take on adult responsibilities like managing a bank account or making your own meals as you build up independence. “Practical things that you can do to set yourself up for success after graduation will make that transition to college smoother,” she says. “Even if it doesn’t change grades or college choice, you will be well equipped to handle life at that point.”

No matter where you find yourself, you have time to explore, people who will root for you, and a future that God has already set in motion. That sounds like the perfect recipe for success to me.

Keeping Calm Amid the Chaos

Stress from the coronavirus pandemic is everywhere and is likely affecting your pre-college plans. Despite how uncertain the future may feel, here are five things to keep you sane (and to work your heart and brain) while you wait:

  • Apply. Even if start dates are delayed, most colleges are accepting applications now for the 2021–2022 academic year. Refresh yourself on those deadlines and get your applications in on time.
  • Go on a virtual tour. Many colleges, like MidAmerica Nazarene University, offer virtual tours. Even when lockdown is no longer looming, virtual tours are a great way to compare and contrast what your top colleges have to offer without spending as much in time and travel costs.
  • Research financial aid. Now is the perfect time to apply for financial aid or rework the financial aid package you’ve been given. “Schools are prepared to be flexible in terms of aid and to work with you to make it happen,” says Elissa Nadworny, a reporter covering higher education for National Public Radio and host of the network’s Life Kit podcast. “You can apply to have [your financial aid package] increased if something in your family has changed—if a family member has been laid off or you’ve lost your part-time job. Reach out to the schools you’ve been accepted to and let them know.”
  • Take an online class. Explore what low-cost or free education opportunities are in your area. Libraries are a great place to start, with links to local workshops, tutoring, or extracurriculars.
  • Make a before-college bucket list. This is it, your last year or two at home. Even if you stick around for college, you’ll be making that big transition from childhood to adulthood. So make these months count and dream up a to-do list with your friends and family. Camping? Check. All 11 Star Wars movies, plus The Clone Wars marathon? Check. A mom and daughter London-style high tea? Check. Create memories with the people you love right now, even if it isn’t what you thought this time would be like.

Karen Huber writes on culture, faith, and parenting abroad. She resides in Dublin, Ireland, with her husband and three children.

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