Do what you love! Follow your heart! Let your passion guide you!
Sounds amazing, right? We all want to wake up each morning feeling inspired and excited to learn or to go to work. So, as a high school student, how do you decide what you truly enjoy–and then choose a university program that matches your interests AND prepares you to one day earn, you know… money?!
We're here to help! Here are some tips on how to successfully map your passions to a university program.
Explore your interests
Jamie Casap, an independent education consultant and the former chief education evangelist at Google, believes the best questions Gen Zs can ask themselves are " What kind of person do you want to be?" and "What kind of problems do you want to solve?"
Whether it's addressing climate change, improving transit systems, or developing life-saving vaccines, these questions can help you visualize your role in the world and decide how you want to spend your time.
"A great way to start is by making a list of your likes and dislikes beyond academics. My niece loves escape rooms. She's a natural problem-solver. Knowing that could point her toward programs such as math, engineering, and business."
Make lists of what you like and dislike
Your lists can include anything. They will likely change over time – but they can be really helpful in narrowing down your interests. Here's a sample to get you thinking!
- Being physically active
- Math and geography
- Having a large circle of friends
- Challenging myself
- Helping people
- Repetitive tasks
- Working under pressure
- Public speaking
- Science courses
- Writing essays
- Large cities
- Playing musical instruments
- Learning a new language
- Building models
- Persuading people to see a point of view
Look for little clues
Even noticing HOW you made your list can signal what you enjoy. Did you create a vision board (Fine Arts), a spreadsheet (Accounting and Financial Management), or a list-making app (Computer Science)? Pay attention! Every little bit of information can help.
Part-time jobs, extracurriculars, a high school co-op program, and volunteer work are great ways to discover more about your skills, interests, and aptitudes (the stuff you're naturally great at). These experiences look fabulous on a university application, but more importantly, provide valuable clues as to how you love spending time.
Jay says that a former colleague spent his high school years involved in his local parks and recreation facilities—working, volunteering, and enjoying. This experience led to a university Recreation and Leisure Studies program, then ultimately a career.
By pursuing interests outside your classroom, you can also make early connections in a field you think you'd enjoy and gain insight from the pros about what they do.
Which brings us to our next point…
Gain different perspectives
Quiz your parents, their friends, your teachers and guidance counsellors, coaches, managers at your part-time job—everyone you can.
Discover their stories, where they went to school, and what they studied. You'll see that career paths aren't always a straight line.
Then, flip the conversation! Ask these people to describe you and your interests. Their insight could spark an idea you've never considered. For example, if you're treasurer for your school's business club and spend your weekends hiking and camping, maybe Environment and Business is for you!
"Sometimes we're not overly self-aware so an extra perspective can help," says Jay.
Try information interviews
Andrew Quin, an Ontario high school teacher and owner of the post-secondary consulting service Edvice4you, says information interviews can be really helpful.
"Ask a business or a person what they do and what skills they use; what skill sets the business needs, what kinds of people they hire, what kind of degree do they have. If you study this, can you do that at this company? You're gathering info about what a company does, what kind of people they hire, and what qualifications you need," explains Andrew.
Jay adds, "If there's a person you admire, look them up on LinkedIn. Note their education and how they got to where they are—what you learn may surprise you."
As you get an idea of what you do – and don't – love, begin to research potential university programs. Some ways to get started include
- taking an interest test with your guidance counsellor,
- entering key words from your "likes" list + "careers" or "university programs" into a search engine or use those key words on university websites to see which programs or courses pop up
- attending university fairs, or
- connecting with an education consultant.
You'll soon start to see connections! For example, do you love sports and happen to be a great writer? Take journalism to become a sports columnist. Love sports and human behaviour? A Psychology program could teach you to help athletes up their mental game. Love sports and have an eye for fashion? Create a new line of sports apparel with a degree in fashion design.
"A former client wanted to be in the NHL, but needed a Plan B. Although he loved hockey, he was also fascinated with the human body so he completed a degree in Kinesiology with a post-graduate certificate in personal fitness. Now he's the strength and conditioning coach for the Toronto Maple Leafs," says Andrew.
"Prior to applying to university I had no idea my program even existed," said Tayrn, a Therapeutic Recreation co-op student who is including a minor in Social Development Studies as part of her degree. "Now I can't picture myself studying anything else."
Think about different approaches
If your interests are more abstract, such as you like helping people, there are lots of options available. According to Jay, there are 1,100 (and counting) distinct careers in health.
Whether your interest in health is physical (Biology), mental or emotional (Social Work), spiritual (Religious Studies), technical innovation (Biomedical Engineering) or the health of the community at large (Public Health)—you're sure to find a program that will prepare you for your dream job.
As you learn about universities and the programs they offer, you'll likely discover there are often different ways of studying your area of interest.
Combine your interests
Many universities allow you to study two or more areas of interest. Want to study math and music? Environmental sciences and politics? Urban planning and history? Contact universities and ask how you can combine your interests.
If you have multiple interests and can't match a specific program, Waterloo's Knowledge Integration program is like designing your own degree.
Once you have a good idea of your interests, your strengths, and maybe even a couple of programs, you might still have one question… or two… or a lot. Don't be shy; we're here to help!
- Check out virtual or in-person university open houses and tours and talk to students and profs.
- Look at university websites and viewbooks to get a sense of what you'll learn, where you'll live, and who you'll meet.
- Contact Jay and our recruitment team at firstname.lastname@example.org. They love helping students discover programs that may be the perfect fit.
- Use sites such as schoolfinder.com to browse types of programs. Or explore Waterloo's programs grouped by theme.
- Get tips from current students on finding a university program.
If you're in Grade 12, it may seem like you have to decide your whole life right now (eek!), but keep in mind that choosing a university program doesn't lock you in. Often you can change programs if you find the one you chose really isn't for you.
Also, as a Gen Z-er, you'll likely have several jobs over your lifetime, and industries are evolving so quickly that it's challenging to plan for a career that may not even exist yet!
So, take a deep breath—you don't have to decide everything today.
Taking time now to really understand who you are—your likes, dislikes, and aptitudes—is key to unlocking a future that's truly rewarding, even if the whole picture isn't clear just yet.
"Don't worry too much about feeling uncertain about the future because it's a journey that you have just started! Follow your passions and do what you feel is right because things will fall into place."
Ready to learn more?
Visit our Missing Manual website for tips and advice from Waterloo students and staff. Topics include
- How to study multiple interests at university
- How to choose a university program
- What to do when you can't decide what to study
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