Which course or college leads to a good career?

Preparing for life after high school: Selecting the right course & college for your future

The graduation rate for high-schoolers recently reached a record high 81%, getting closer to the nation’s goal of 90% by 2020. That is good news for students and our country’s future. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics confirms that higher education results in high earnings and employment.

unemployment and earnings by education and college level

But with rising student debt and lower incomes, the question of what comes after high school has become even more important. In fact, more people are now searching for the terms ‘which college’ and ‘good career’.

There are plenty of online resources that can help you prepare. We have summarized some of them in these 3 key steps.

Step 1: Selecting your course or study field

Before choosing a college, you have to choose your course or field of study. A history degree at an elite college is no good if you are better at mathematics or want to be a banker. First, you need to be sure that the course you choose will support your future career aspirations.

If you are passionate about a particular field, such as music or health, you should pursue it. But improve your prospects by preparing yourself. Understand the effort involved in completing the related course and the realistic outcome when you finish. Jumping in a river because you like swimming without checking its depth is sure to result in problems. Be well informed when choosing your course. Even if it is a risk, it should be a calculated risk.

One thing you can do is identify areas that suit best to your strengths or personality.

Confirm your strengths: what jobs suit your interests?

Taking a career test can help confirm your strengths and weaknesses and can determine the type of career that will best suit your interests.

  • Mynextmove (free) provides a tool with a set of 60 questions designed to test your interests. Depending on your experience level, it suggests careers that match your interests with a long list of choices from bricklaying to acting to electrical engineering. I tested the tool for myself, and the results were decent. The site also provides other resources if you already know your course choice or if you just want to browse careers by industry.
  • Education Planner (free) provides a short career matching tool based on your interest in some activities. The list of careers is generic.
  • Assessment (paid) uses a proprietary career assessment tool called Motivational Appraisal of Personal Potential. It measures 71 different traits to determine the right type of career for you. They claim the tool has been validated by psychologists, and many organizations use it. The package can cost between $90-150. Ask your career counselor if they have access to the test or special pricing. We have not used this tool so can’t suggest how good it is.
  • Career Fitter (paid) analyzes your responses to 60 questions to help determine the career that will best suit you. The cost is $40 for the report. Again, we have not used this tool.
  • Friends and family (free). Seek the opinion of those closest to you. Ask them to describe what skills they think you have. Use that knowledge to determine where you can do well.

Using these tools may naturally direct you towards your passion. When answering the questions to any of the tests, it is best to consider how someone else sees you and your interests. Not all tests will be 100% accurate in depicting your future. Only consider these tools to help support your decisions and do not rely on them solely.

Confirm your personality type: what job will make you the happiest?

personality test is designed to reveal aspects of your personality and can help determine the type of career that will best suit your character.

  • Guardian Personality Test uses a set of 24 questions to classify your interests into specific themes.  Your ideal career path may be a combination of the themes with top scores. Use this as another starting point for investigating the direction your career should take.
  • Jung’s career indicator aims to assign you a four-letter personality type (out of a total of 16 combinations). It can help determine suitable careers by analyzing natural behavioral preferences as per theories of C. Jung and I. Briggs Myers. You can read details of each personality type, career options, learning and communication style. Most of my personal results on the test seemed to be accurate.

Step 2: Explore salary / pay in a good career

Once you have narrowed your course or career choices, research the potential salary in your chosen field at both entry and experienced level.

  • Rasmussen career research hub has a salary-by-state section. It ranks jobs in each state by (a) average salary and (b) average salary adjusted for cost of living. It is not surprising that many jobs pay well in California and New York but do not rank as well after adjusting for cost of living.
  • Salary.com has a US Salary Wizard where you can search or browse salary information on virtually any type of job. You can also narrow down to a particular state or county. The site includes generic descriptions of the jobs.
  • Bureau of Labor Statistics conducts a National Occupation and Wage Estimate study by collecting data from employers in all industry sectors. The most recent survey was published in May 2015 and provides pay detail by occupation.
  • Payscale’s career research tool has details on nearly all jobs, and you can narrow your search by state, city, experience level. What I find interesting is the value added information on potential career paths reported by others. It also lists skills that can affect the salary you can earn. For example, it lists particular types of application skills for an IT developer that can lead to a higher salary. Note that it is an estimate based on their research, but it provides some directional sense. Payscale also has a tool called Career Path Explorer where you can enter a job title and see the different career paths people have taken.

Step 3: Selecting your college

Selecting the right college is as important as narrowing your career choices. As the Wall Street Journal points out, elite colleges do not always lead to higher salaries. The many factors you should consider are:

  • Cost related:
    • Tuition costs – College costs have increased in recent years. That is resulting in high student debt levels and increase in defaults. If you have a list of career choices, compare and balance the cost of pursuing each career with:
      • The time it will take to recover the costs (or pay off debt) assuming you find a job within six months.
      • The potential for future earnings.

      Do not take on more debt because you have easier access to credit. It can alter your life negatively so evaluate the cost with scrutiny. It is also important to understand where your money is being spent. Institutions that have managed to limit tuition increases may be doing so by managing or cutting costs or quality. Do not assume that the cost of education is always correlated to the quality of education.

    • Tuition payment plans – Flexible payment options may mean that the institutions are willing to work with you.
    • Financial aid –  Compare availability of federal or state grants and federal student loans across colleges. Institutions may also award their own grants and scholarships.
    • Student debt – Inquire about the average student debt and determine how long it can take you to pay it off.
    • Default rates – Higher default rates are a sign that students are not finding adequate income to repay their debt or the schools may not have good career services that help students after they graduate.
  • Income related:
    • Job placement rate – A good college is almost always supported by a good job placement rate.
    • Campus career services, alumni network – Not all colleges provide the same support level through their career programs. Colleges that use your tuition to invest in career services are better. Career services include helping finding jobs, career counseling, resume reviews, internship opportunities, interview preparation, etc.
    • Internships – Look for colleges that offer internships or other job opportunities in your field of study.
  • Admission and college related:
    • Admission rate – Lower admission rates mean high competition and low acceptance rate. That should not discourage you from applying. But consider widening your college choices.
    • Admission criteria – Schools may be looking for more than GPA scores and you can expect essays or interviews from good schools. Prepare for the requirements to increase your chances of acceptance.
    • Flexible scheduling options – Availability of study options can help if you have family or job commitments to balance.
    • Graduation rate – Unfortunately, graduation rates are at an all-time low. Only 59% of students attending full-time college completed their bachelor’s degree within six years. Finding a college with a high graduation rate works in your favor. If students normally graduate on time, you are more likely to graduate on time as well.
    • Class size – Lower class size may result in higher individual attention but will have limited opportunity for peer or group discussions.
    • Accreditation – Look for accredited schools as it means good quality education and recognition. Some professions, such as lawyers or doctors, will not accept degrees from unaccredited schools.

There are other factors that may be of interest to you and many other writings on the matter such as this blog.

Where can I research college information?

Everything you need to know is available online and with the institutions. Some good sources of information are at the following links:

  • U.S. Department of Education has some resources it put together to help with selection of the right college for you:
    • College Scorecard provides you with data on average annual cost, graduation rate, and salary after school. You can search and compare by course, location, name.
    • College Navigator has extensive information on each institution including tuition, federal aid, enrollment rate, graduation rate, accreditation, default rates, etc.
    • College Affordability check provides lists of institutions based on the tuition, fees and net prices (the price of attendance after considering all grant and scholarship aid) charged to students.
    • Some advice on careful selection of schools.
    • Information on federal aid.
  • Scholarship search for over 7,000 financial aid opportunities with data from the U.S. Department of Labor.
  • College Board published a report on four-year graduation rates for each State. The study is from 2013 based on information from the U.S. Department of Education.
  • Payscale’s 2015-16 College Salary Report has college rankings of over 1,000 schools by salary potential.
  • You can also use the college ranking tool below.



There is a lot of information you have to research when making the decision of choosing the right course and the right college. Such a big life altering decision needs careful attention. Whether you are a parent, sibling, caretaker or student, do as much research as possible. And never hesitate to ask.

We hope the information we put together above is helpful. If you have any questions, please ask in the comments below.



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