Career planning is essential for students who want to control their own destiny. This applies if you are currently in college, or getting ready to enter college or a vocational school, or even if you’re a high school senior and ready to start thinking ahead.

To some extent you should try to be creative while career planning. You should seek opportunities to learn, grow, network and gain practical experience wherever you can find them. Nevertheless, there are some tried-and-true career planning strategies that have helped many other people ultimately land the job of their dreams, and they can make the magic happen for you as well.

So you can share in this time-tested knowledge, here are 10 career planning tips that can put you on the fast-track to long-term work-related success:

#1 Take a career aptitude test, or multiple free career tests

If you’ve never taken a career assessment test, you may be surprised by just how much you can learn from doing so. Experts in psychology and career planning have collaborated to create career aptitude tests that measure critically important aspects of your personality and then link them to potential career paths or job types.

When you take a career aptitude test, you’ll learn more about what motivates you and about your work environment preferences. You’ll find out which careers are most likely to bring you enjoyment and satisfaction, and which are more likely to frustrate you, stress you out, or leave you feeling unfulfilled. Free career tests can change your thinking about your future, by convincing you to consider intriguing opportunities that you never seriously contemplated before.

#2 Pursue internships, summer jobs or volunteer opportunities

Once you have a shortlist of career interest areas, it’s time to explore them. Internships, apprenticeships, part-time or summer jobs and volunteer positions are ways that you can get your foot in the door, while learning more about the demands and responsibilities associated with a particular line of work.

In the digital age, finding internship opportunities is easier than ever. The old reliable methods for finding this kind of work—through family connections, college career centers, career fairs, academic departments—are still relevant. But now you can search online platforms for jobs that are available locally, nationally or virtually.  

#3 Talk to the people you know about what they do

Your career fact-finding mission should include informal discussions or interviews with family members, friends and neighbors who work in a variety of careers. Because they know and trust you, they’ll be willing to give you the inside scoop on what it's really like to work as a dentist, hair stylist, nurse, teacher, software developer, salesperson and so on.

You may think you know a lot of this information already, after observing these people and talking to them over the years. But if you approach them to ask specific questions and encourage totally honest responses, the chances are they will all reveal some surprising things that might either pique your curiosity or discourage your interest in their chosen career fields.

#4 Make sure they know you well at your college’s career center

The entire purpose of a college or vocational school career center is to provide you with access to all the resources you need to investigate every career option under the sun, and to learn more about where you might fit. They can administer career aptitude tests that will enlighten you if you aren’t yet certain about what you want to do, or help you prepare a brilliant resume customized for your career field if you’re ready to begin your job search right now.

The best time to form a relationship with the advisors and administrators in your college career center is soon after you arrive on campus. The contacts you make there can be invaluable, and if you’re there often enough that they remember your name it means you’ve done things exactly right. 

#5 Participate in a work-study program

Federal financial aid programs include work-study options that you can choose as at least a partial alternative to loans. In addition to keeping your student debt down, these programs will give you an opportunity to get more work experience, which you may presently be lacking.

There is no guarantee that your work-study assignment will have any direct relevance to your ultimate career choice, although you certainly could be offered something that would be relevant to your future work. Nevertheless, completing multiple work-study assignments will show potential employers that you’re committed to working and were able to juggle work and school responsibilities successfully during your time in school.

#6 Take classes or courses outside your institution of higher learning

You shouldn’t depend on your college or vocational school to train you completely. You should supplement your academic learning by taking outside courses all on your own. These could be in-person continuing education courses or classes offered through local community centers, or they could be online classes offered by any number of education-oriented platforms or websites. You could also develop your own creative projects that would put your growing skillset to the test, and then display the results and receive feedback from the public.

If you do this you’ll accelerate your academic and vocational growth. But you’ll also show initiative and a go-getter type of energy that will appeal to potential employers in the future.

#7 Seriously investigate your entrepreneurial options

You may have a relatively conventional view about careers and your career aptitude test may have recommended some conventional career options. But that doesn’t mean you can’t think outside the box! It has never been easier to start your own business or make a living as a freelancer or independent contractor than it is right now. For this reason, you would be wise to really investigate ways you might be able to use your developing skills and knowledge to make a go of it on your own, or perhaps in partnership with friends or other associates. If you’re creative and have an independent personality, the entrepreneurial route might be your best bet for career happiness.

#8 Monitor current hiring statistics (but take them with a grain of salt)

If you spend three minutes on Google, you’ll encounter dozens of lists of the hottest jobs. This will tell you whether your current career interests are in sync with current trends or running in the opposite direction. It is imperative that you know what’s going on in the job market, locally as well as nationally, before you make any firm decisions about what career to pursue.

However, you should not select a career based exclusively on current hiring trends. Nor should you avoid choosing a particular career simply because the number of jobs available in the next five years is forecast to remain stagnant. You should investigate lists of the top, best, hottest and happiest jobs in America because the data they provide paints an accurate picture of where the economy is heading as a whole. This is valuable information, and it can help you navigate a job market that is constantly changing and evolving, regardless of your ultimate career plans.

#9 If you choose to follow your passion, understand the consequences

In a perfect world, you’d be able to find a career that lets you leverage your knowledge and interest  in art, music, entrepreneurship, writing, home improvement projects, computers, sports, craft work, public speaking or a thousand other potential passions. But we don’t live in a perfect world. So, you need to be practical about what is doable and what isn’t, or where opportunities lie and where they don’t.

If you do ultimately decide to pursue a career that engages your passions but has a questionable employment outlook, you should spend time investigating hidden opportunities that might be available in that field. Conversely, if you decide to pursue a job that’s okay but not a passion, then spend some time figuring out how you can make that job work for you. The good news is, it’s possible to inject meaning into any career - you just have to be strategic about it.

#10 Remember that slow and steady wins the race

The most counterproductive approach to career planning is to wait until the last minute to get started. Like a tortoise out to win the biggest race of your life, your planning and preparation should remain steady and consistent as your educational career progresses. It should build toward a crescendo that peaks just as you’re about to make the transition from academia to the world of actual work.

This doesn’t mean you’ll know exactly what job or position you’ll be applying for once you graduate. But you should definitely have your options narrowed down to jobs you know you’d like and have prepared yourself to handle. Take that career aptitude test as your first step and enjoy the beginning of a thrilling ride filled with twists, turns and career triumphs!


Nathan Falde
Nathan Falde has been working as a freelance writer for the past six years. His ghostwritten work and bylined articles have appeared in numerous online outlets, and in 2014-2015 he acted as co-creator for a series of eBooks on the personality types. An INFJ and a native of Wisconsin, Nathan currently lives in Bogota, Colombia with his wife Martha and their son Nicholas.