Written by Amy (she/her), student
So, you don’t know what you want to do after graduation. The good news is, you’re not alone.
In high school, only a few people I knew had an idea of what they wanted to be — and those were typically the people who wanted careers with clearly-defined paths: nurse, lawyer, or farmer, for example. If you know that you want to go to university, but you don’t know what you want program to apply to, don’t worry! We’ve got some tips that will help you to consider what your next steps could be.
1. Think about your favourite subjects
Think about the courses you've taken in high school. What do you love learning about? Maybe it was the one class you got a high mark in, a book you read for fun, or a volunteer position that sparked your interest. Would you be happy learning more about that subject in university? Would you be happiest learning about that subject, more than any other one?
Studying something that interests you will make it easier to get to class, study, complete assignments, pay attention in class or during labs, manage your time, and get good marks.
2. Identify your strengths
There’s so much that goes into being good at something or to really mastering it. And while there’s no one way to find your strengths, here are some things you could try.
Think of the people (friends and family) you know that you trust to be totally and completely honest with you. Ask one or two of them what they think your strengths are. What do your teachers compliment you on? On the flip side: what do they say you’re bad at? Doing career quizzes and chatting with my guidance counsellor about my interests really helped me decide what I wanted to do in university.
Look at your grades
Dig out your old report cards. What classes did you do well in? Try to consider if what you're good at matches what you love. For example, you may have aced all your accounting tests, but you can’t see yourself working with balance sheets all the time. Or, you may want to be the next Bill Nye the Science Guy (or Gal!), but can’t handle writing lab reports. You want to be happy with what you’re studying since money and careers aren’t everything! It’s important to take time to really consider whether you can see yourself studying this one subject for four to five years.
Try something new
Another tip is to try something new — a new part-time job, a new club, or a volunteer opportunity. Have you ever tried something and surprised yourself that it came really easily to you (e.g., filming, coding, editing someone’s homework)?
3. Factors to research when choosing a university program
Before you apply to a specific program, read university brochures and talk to students in the program at an open house or during a campus tour. Make sure the program interests you and lines up with your career path!
Do any of your family or friends know anyone in the career or field you're considering? Can you ask them about a typical day? What advice do they have for you? Do the programs you’re looking into offer internships or co-op so you can try different careers and build your network?
Yes, university is about so much more than getting a job after you graduate. However, you may want to look at earnings potential for your field of interest, and consider whether job opportunities in that field are growing. Something to consider is that a six-figure salary may not be worth it if you're not happy in your job. I definitely had a great experience while I worked for a non-profit during one of my co-op jobs, and I realized I want to pursue that field after graduation. I personally would prefer to work in a non-profit, rather than live the corporate lifestyle.
Use first year to explore
Make the most of your first year! Talk to your professors and other students. What are grads doing? What cool courses are upper-year students taking?
Try taking electives in other subjects you enjoy. You might find that you’d be happier studying something else. If this happens, you can change your program. An academic advisor would be happy to help you figure out what’s best for you.
In my first year, I took an Introduction to International Studies course as an elective, fell in love with it, and then declared an International Studies minor. This is something I wasn’t expecting to pursue, but shows how taking a course out of interest can turn into something more!
Choose a program with a general first year
There are lots of programs that allow for some flexibility. For example, if you know that you want to study math, but you don’t know what kind of math you want to study, Waterloo has general first-year math program — Honours Mathematics.
Waterloo also has general science and arts programs. All these programs have academic advisors who can help you choose your major. The Faculty of Arts even has a "pick your major" week. Being in Honours Arts and Business myself, I declared my major at the end of my first year. I went into university thinking I was going to major in French, but ended up deciding that Sociology was the right fit for me after taking a Juvenile Delinquency course.
Our academic advisors and Peer Academic Leaders at St. Jerome’s University sat down with students in the caf and helped us fill out our forms to declare our majors and any minors we were looking at. This was especially great because it meant we knew that the forms had been processed, and that we were good to go!
Get the university experience you want
When choosing a university program, you want to choose the university that is right for you.
Of course, this includes your program, but there are also factors other than academics to consider when choosing a university. Do you want to study in a big city or a small town? How far away from home do you want to be? Do you want to play sports at school?
4. Nothing is set in stone
I've said that you want to choose the university and program that is right for you. Of course, this is true, but you have to remember that you might not get it right on your first try. And that's ok.
I hope that during your tours or research of different universities, you find the school that feels like home and the best fit for you!
Lots of people change their majors or even switch schools at some point during their degree.
Good luck researching your post-secondary path!