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Empowering your money

How high school graduates should think about the future

At a glance:

  • How to approach higher education

  • Paying for college

  • How to think about a job

  • How to write your first resume

  • Getting into the job market

  • Summary of advice for high school graduates

Education and employment are important factors in everyone's life.

Students preparing to graduate from high school have important decisions to make about their future. Important questions to ask yourself are:

  • What are your interests?

  • How can you turn those interests into a potential career path?

  • What skills are needed to pursue a career that matches your interests?

  • How and where do you have an opportunity to learn these skills?

  • How will you pay for college?

  • While college is a great choice for many, it's not necessarily a fit for every individual.

LONG BEACH, CA - JUNE 12: Lakewood High School students enjoy their graduation ceremony at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Long Beach on Wednesday, June 12, 2019. (Photo by Brittany Murray/MediaNews Group/Long Beach Press-Telegram via Getty Images)
Lakewood High School students enjoy their graduation ceremony at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Long Beach on Wednesday, June 12, 2019. (Photo by Brittany Murray/MediaNews Group/Long Beach Press-Telegram via Getty Images)

One reason many choose to continue their education is because education opens up a new world of possibilities. For example, there are four-year, two-year, or technical colleges to attend; or you can pursue an apprenticeship in the trades.

You might also consider joining the military to learn new skills and get work experience. College gives young adults an opportunity to pursue an interest, find a career passion, study with talented professors and instructors, and become part of a larger academic community. It also allows individuals to begin living independently while having the structure and resources of a college campus.

Is there anything wrong with not going to college? Absolutely not.

However, most of us will spend 40 hours each week on the job for 40 years or more. Finding something where you can develop your skills and grow your income over your lifetime is important to both your personal and financial well-being.

If you decide not to pursue college, determine what kind of jobs are available in the areas you're interested in and look for employers who provide you the opportunity to learn, develop your skills, and realize growth in your job responsibilities and income. The more skills you learn, the better able you will be to land other, more desirable jobs.

A great tool that will help you is the College Navigator.

How to approach higher education

If you decide to continue your education, it's time to consider your options. Most young adults will consider one of the following four options when choosing a college path:

  • Associate's degree at a two-year school.

  • Bachelor's degree at a four-year school. (More and more students are choosing to go to a two-year school and upon completion transfer to a four-year school to finish. Oftentimes this is done because it is much less expensive to attend a two-year school.)

  • Apprenticeship program in the trades. This is hands-on learning. If you like building, designing, and working with your hands and have interest in careers involving construction, carpentry, plumbing, electricity, or many other alternatives in the trades industry, then an apprenticeship program might be a good match for you. These programs are generally four-year programs where you work on the job and increase your skills and responsibilities over the four-year period. Additionally you may begin earning a wage on day one of the apprenticeship. Some apprenticeships may require some post-secondary education prior to applying. You need to have a good work ethic for an apprenticeship. You might also be required to have membership in a union representing your trade.

  • The military. Beyond learning skills that can put you on the track to a good salary after you leave the service, you might also get your tuition paid for while you are in the service.

West Point cadets raise their right hands to take the oath before tossing their caps during graduation ceremonies at the United States Military Academy, Saturday, May 25, 2019, in West Point, N.Y. (AP Photo/Julius Constantine Motal)
West Point cadets raise their right hands to take the oath before tossing their caps during graduation ceremonies at the United States Military Academy, Saturday, May 25, 2019, in West Point, N.Y. (AP Photo/Julius Constantine Motal)

Try these online resources

A terrific website available to all individuals considering going to college is "Big Future" by the College Board. This site is filled with resources to help you identify your interests, consider career options, research schools, and understand costs and options for paying for college. Additionally, they have a guided process to help you build your individual plan.

Those attending college and earning a bachelor's degree generally earn more money over their career than those with only a high school diploma. The lifetime earning potential of those with a bachelor's degree is $2.4 million versus $1.3 million for a high school graduate (source: US Census Bureau, 2011). While these are the averages and your experience could be much different, it is important to have an understanding of what these paths look like for most.

If you choose college, it's important to understand that you are making a financial investment in your future. College is expensive, and it's important that you be committed to achieving a degree and understand what you are responsible for paying to attend college.

Paying for College

Once you've decided to go to college, it is important to build your understanding of how to pay for college.

In general, college is paid for through money that's been saved on your behalf by you or others, part-time or full-time employment you intend on having during college, and through various sources of financial aid. Your goal should be to borrow as little money as possible to pay for college.

This is important so that you have a manageable student loan payment after graduating from high school and beginning your career.

Let's take a deeper dive into financial aid.

Facts about financial aid

Student financial aid in the United States is funding intended to help students pay educational expenses including tuition and fees, room and board, books and supplies, etc. for education at a college, university, or private school. It comes in the form of grants, scholarships, school loans, and work-study.

  • Grants and scholarships are typically free money, which does not have to be paid back, but can have some terms and conditions.

  • Work-study is aid that you receive while you work a campus job. It usually goes toward books and other costs.

  • Loans are funds that need to be repaid. There are a variety of sources from which loans can be obtained and include federal, institutional, and private/alternative.

Other terms

  • Tuition and fees are basic costs for your educational program at a specific institution.

  • Cost of attendance typically includes tuition and fees, books and supplies, room and board, personal transportation, health insurance, and other required fees and expenses. You do not necessarily need to borrow the full cost of attendance but only what you need to cover these costs.

In this photo taken July 26, 2010, Brittany Wolfe, a University of California Los Angeles Applied Mathematics 2010 graduate checks old text books at the UCLA Powell Library Building in Los Angeles. Wolfe had to play an infuriating game of checking out books on reserve to avoid having to buy them herself. Now she is working as an orientation counselor for new students and part of that is giving advice on textbooks. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
Brittany Wolfe checks old textbooks at the UCLA Powell Library Building in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

Financial aid is not …

  • Automatic. If you don't fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), you will not receive a financial aid award letter. Make sure that the school you are applying to is noted on the FAFSA.

  • The only way to pay for school. You can save for college to pay for parts of college expenses (books, room and board, supplies, etc.) You can also apply for outside scholarships. Remember, financial aid is awarded, but it does not always cover ALL of your college expenses. There are scholarships that you can apply for before you go to college as early as your sophomore year in high school. The most scholarship money is given out to high school seniors. Additionally, you can apply for outside scholarships while you are in college through graduate school.

  • All free. Remember, loans could be included in your financial aid award, and that is money that must be paid back. You have to decide if it is worth taking it out. That is determined by total tuition costs and how much you can afford to pay on your own.

  • Money to flake off. On occasion, you may receive what is called a refund check. This is money you get back if your financial aid covered all of your expenses for each semester. Some students don't receive anything back. Others can receive hundreds or thousands of dollars back. It is tempting as a college student to spend it all on fun things. However, you may owe the school money the next semester if you do not check. Additionally, you may not actually NEED the extra, and if you took out loans, you will have to pay this money back with interest. Financial aid is money that should be used only for school and the expenses associated with school.

What is the FAFSA?

The FAFSA is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

You have to fill the application out every year that you plan to go to college to receive federal funds from your school in the form of loans, grants, and scholarships.

Fafsa. Student aid application form on the tablet
The FAFSA is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

Tips on filling out the FAFSA

  • Fill out the FAFSA early, as soon as possible after you and your parents file your yearly income taxes.

  • Get your parents involved because you will need their filed income tax information from the previous year. You will need to do this every year until you turn 25. Further information regarding parent information can be found on the www.fafsa.ed.gov site.

  • Complete the online form. Make sure you complete the form on the official FAFSA Website (www.fafsa.ed.gov). There are other organizations that try to have you complete their FAFSA form and then charge you a fee for using their Website.

  • Make sure to check on the processing — call your college's financial aid office to see if they have received it. Also, check with your college's financial aid office about additional paperwork that you need to get the award letter processed.

Scholarship search resources

Scholarships are free money. You should take the time to pursue as many scholarships as possible to help you pay for college.

Talk to your school counselor. Work with the guidance counselor at your school to identify potential scholarships to apply for. There may be a variety of different scholarships offered by local organizations in your community. Additionally, there are scholarship awards provided by thousands of organizations across the country. Also, the colleges you are considering likely have scholarship opportunities for you to pursue.

You can find scholarship information online. Conduct a scholarship search online. Use scholarship sites or go to your college site and look for scholarships offered by the school of your choice. Once you have a few you can apply for, learn the deadlines and begin applying. Here are three Websites available to help you with your scholarship search.

  • Big Future: bigfuture.collegeboard.org/

  • FastWeb scholarship search engine: www.fastweb.com/

  • Cappex: www.cappex.com/

In this Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019 photo, Esme Goldman, 13, streams an episode of the '90s sitcom "Friends" via Netflix on her laptop in her bedroom, in Pasadena, Calif. “Friends” marks its 25th anniversary Sunday, Sept. 22 and the quintessential 1990s sitcom has attracted a new slew of viewers who are barely half that age. Tween and teen girls in particular have embraced the show with huge enthusiasm, taking a show that belonged to Generation X and making it their own.  (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)
You can find scholarship information online. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

Remember the following tips when applying for scholarships:

  • Apply for EVERYTHING you are eligible for. You never know if you can get it unless you apply.

  • Talk to your counselor and teachers about opportunities.

  • Research opportunities at the school of your choice.

  • Start researching early to ensure that you do not miss deadlines. Scholarship deadlines are often 6–8 months prior to the start of the academic year.

  • Have a parent or teacher look over personal statements and essays. Many scholarships require you to write these as part of their application.

  • Work on your grade-point average (GPA) and get involved with extracurricular activities and volunteer work. Colleges like to know that you are a well-rounded student.

How to think about a job

Your job is such a big part of your life that, if you are like most people, you naturally want to invest time and effort into ensuring that you have one that you like.

With this in mind, let's think about some of the big issues to ponder around employment.

Reasons for employment: money and benefits

The most basic benefit of employment is income: money that you can use to pay for your housing, car, food, clothing, entertainment, and gifts for others.

But a job is more than getting a paycheck in return for giving up 30, 40, or more hours of your week. You can also get benefits that you can't get anywhere else, or which you can get only by paying extra elsewhere. Millions of Americans get health insurance and retirement plan benefits through their jobs. With some retirement plans, such as 401(k)s, your employer can contribute to your plan on your behalf, building up your retirement funds that much more quickly.

If your current company has a retirement plan, it is a good idea to sign up for it and make an educated decision regarding how to invest your contributions. The Investments and Retirement tutorials can provide further insights to help you.

Why would an employer offer these benefits? Because employers find that they can attract and keep talented employees that way. They are willing to give employees benefits and periodic raises if those employees do good work, show leadership, and help the company earn money. Ultimately, an employer will be looking for job candidates who can help the company succeed.

Reasons for employment: life skills and personal fulfillment

A job will help you develop skills that you can use not only at work, but off the job too. For example, cooking skills, writing skills, mechanical skills, and accounting skills can help you immeasurably in your daily life. They will pay "dividends" not only for you but for your family also.

Then, of course, there is purpose and meaning. A career is a valuable and effective way to give meaning to your life. Many people feel a sense of calling in their lives that is expressed through a career. Are you drawn to any particular fields of work that could be a calling for you?

Reasons for employment: security

In the end, however you feel about your work, you are building up financial security for your life and the lives of others — a spouse, children, grandchildren, elderly parents, and perhaps other people who depend on you.

Billy Ramos, right, fills out a job application with Adidas during a job fair at Dolphin Mall, Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Billy Ramos, right, fills out a job application with Adidas during a job fair at Dolphin Mall, Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Other things to think about when considering a job

  • Costs of employment: location and transportation. The offerings may be limited in your area. Depending on your transportation situation, this will be important. Do the pay and the level of satisfaction make potentially high transportation costs worth it?

  • Costs of employment: clothing and other apparel. Some people find that they have to spend a lot of money on their appearance. This will depend on the type of job, of course.

  • Costs of employment: equipment and technology. Again, depending on the type of job, you might find yourself spending a lot of money on computers, software, or other equipment. Ideally, the company will pay for these things, but some will not, especially if you are working as a contractor.

  • Regular raises. Does the company provide regular reviews and wage increases? Consider talking to people who work there.

  • Employee treatment. Does the company treat its employees well? Do the wages seem fair and competitive?

  • Advancement. Does the job seem like a dead end with no potential for moving up the ladder, or does it offer advancement opportunities? The more you can advance, the more you can earn and the more skills you can develop.

  • Change over time. Your job duties may change over time. That means there will be a change in demand on your skills. Are you open to learning new skills? Those who are have the best potential to earn more money and get more job satisfaction.

  • Stability. How stable does the company seem? You might have to deal with layoffs, cuts in wages or benefits, downsizing, or outsourcing of your job. These are not always easy to predict. You should always keep in mind that you might have to change careers (most of us change careers anyway). It is a good idea to keep an emergency fund to cover you for at least six months if you should lose your job.

  • Ongoing education and re-training. Most of us will need ongoing learning as we go through our working years. Technology changes, processes change, demands change. To keep up, you might need to go through more education or training. Your company might need you to learn a new computer program, for example, or to learn to read blueprints. Often, your company will provide this training for you, but not always. You may need to take courses at a local college or online. You might also find that voluntarily getting a new degree will make you a candidate for a big promotion.

Man accompanied with two women sitting in board room and having business interview
Man accompanied with two women sitting in board room and having business interview

Getting into the job market

When you apply for a job, you are competing against other people for a position. You will be evaluated on a number of factors. For example, employers will look at your work history. They may look at your education if you are applying for a skilled position.

Do you have references? You will need people who can attest to your work ethic, your experience, and your skills. Your presentation also matters to employers. If you are well groomed and well dressed, with good speech, employers will consider those qualities in your favor.

Some cities might have employment agencies that have career counselors who can help you write a resume, develop job skills, and plan for a career. If you live in a very small city, you might not have such an option. Here are a few other ideas that people find helpful:

Find part-time work or internships

  • Teachers and counselors. They may be able to identify some internship experiences because they are the first people some professionals go to when looking for youth workers.

  • Grocery stores, retail stores, and restaurants. Many mall stores or standalone retailers hire high school students. Apply to these jobs to get a good first work experience.

  • Look online. The job market has already moved to the Internet. Sites like Snagajob.com, Monster.com, and Careerbuilder.com let you upload your resume and get matches for jobs. Snagajob even has a category for teen jobs that list lots of companies hiring in the area for teens.

  • Create a LinkedIn profile. LinkedIn is a Website created for professional networking. You may find networking helpful for connecting with professionals who can lead to work opportunities, especially as you get older. You must be at least 14 to create a LinkedIn account.

Search for a job or create your own job

Make a list of things that you are great at doing. Are you good at hair styling? Do you like babysitting? Do you rake or mow lawns? Can you write for long periods and do it well? Are you a fix-it person when things break down? Do you love to cook for other people? These are all good indicators of careers you may be suited for. Things that you like to do for free can point you toward jobs that will pay you to do these things. In time, you might even find that you want to go into business for yourself and become your own boss.

Think of ways to get income from those small ventures. Also, think of the resources mentioned above and places in your neighborhood. Where can you apply for a job in the next 30 days?

Job interview tips for teens

If the job you are applying for has a specific job description, review it before your interview and think of examples and experiences that qualify you for the position. If you are applying for a position in retail or food services, think of experiences where you spent time interacting and communicating with a variety of people.

Draw from school events and volunteer activities if you lack work experience. Being prepared will ensure that you provide your strongest and most relevant response to your interview questions.

Mock interview exercise

If possible, have someone conduct a practice interview with you so you feel more comfortable answering questions about yourself. Try these mock interview questions, and add extra ones as you think of them:

  • Why are you interested in our company?

  • How has school prepared you for working for us?

  • Why should we hire you?

  • What are your strengths and weaknesses?

  • What do you think it takes to be successful in this position?

  • How would you describe your ability to work as a team member?

  • What has been your most rewarding accomplishment?

  • Have you ever had difficulty with a teacher/coach/teammate/co-worker/supervisor?

  • How did you handle it?

  • Give me an example of how you have been responsible for something important.

  • Describe a situation where you made a mistake that affected other people, whether you were able to fix the mistake, and what steps you took.

Make your resume

The job you are applying for may or may not require a resume.

A resume is a document that presents your work history, educational history, grade-point average, skills, and other relevant activity related to work. Some employers will ask for your resume along with your employment application.

If you do not have a resume, it is a good idea to make one, even if you don't have a lot of work experience. If you don't have work experience, list your volunteer work experience, after-school activities, or other things you can relate to the job you are applying for. Employers will notice those.

A man shares a resume during the Executive Branch Job Fair hosted by the Conservative Partnership Institute at the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, U.S., June 15, 2018. REUTERS/Toya Sarno Jordan
A man shares a resume during the Executive Branch Job Fair hosted by the Conservative Partnership Institute at the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, U.S., June 15, 2018. REUTERS/Toya Sarno Jordan

Clean up your online life

Employers look at personal profiles on social media. Maintain a professional look on sites like Facebook and Twitter. Make sure you have, or create, a professional email address to provide on your contact information. Your email should contain a recognizable version of your name with no inappropriate additions.

Dressing for the interview

Your attire is one of the first things your interviewer will notice about you. You want your outfit to convey your ability to perform the job. Make sure your clothing is clean and your general appearance tidy and put together. Put together a plain two-pocket folder (blue or black) with 2–3 copies of your resume and list of references to carry with you into the interview. It helps complete the image of someone prepared and ready to work. Plus, it is handy to have copies of your documents if the interviewers ask for them.

During the interview

Firmly shake your interviewer's hand and introduce yourself. Try to relax and be yourself. Be confident in your abilities. Make eye contact. Try to make your responses clear and to the point, and always focus on answering the question they asked you.

Sit up in your chair, do not lean forward onto the table, or slouch back into your seat. At the end of the interview, shake their hand again and thank them for their time, and restate your interest in working for them. Some companies may ask if you have questions at the conclusion of the interview. Have at least one question ready to ask. Here are some ideas for questions to ask:

  • What is your favorite part about working for this company?

  • Can you describe what a typical day in this position would be like?

  • What is something you wish someone had told you before you started working here?

  • How would you describe the organizational culture/working environment?

  • What opportunities are there to train/gain experience in this position?

  • What have previous people in this position gone on to do?

Note: Never ask about salary or time off during the interview unless the interviewer brings it up!

And that's it. Good luck!

Mid adult Chinese business owner discussing with mature man, creative professionals in meeting, mature man having job interview in creative studio
Be ready to ask questions.

Writing Your Resume

If you have never created a resume, now is the time to try it. For this exercise, you will need the following materials:

  • Computer

  • Create-a-resume handout

  • Resume examples

Student instructions

Read the resume tips below and review the resume examples. Then review the create-a-resume handout (download it here), and begin to draft the information that you would like to include on your resume.

When you feel you have written everything you need for your resume, begin typing it on a computer. If you are writing it in a class, save and share it with your teacher in the format that they would like to receive it (printed or email).

Resume tips for high school students

Include all your activities. Since most high school students haven't held lots of jobs, it will be important to draw upon all aspects of your life that show you have the right character, work ethic, skills, and personality to succeed in a job.

This means that your resume will likely be devoted more to school activities, volunteer work, and academic and athletic pursuits than actual paid employment. Include any challenging advanced academic projects, since this shows employers that you are intelligent and a hard worker.

Make an outline. Make a quick list or outline of all possible experiences to include in your resume before you try to craft the right language for your descriptions.

Promote your attitude and performance. Employers for basic service jobs will be most interested in your work habits and attitude. If you have a perfect or near-perfect attendance or punctuality for school or jobs, you might include language like "compiled a perfect [or near perfect] record for attendance and punctuality" when describing an experience. If supervisors or teachers have recognized you for a positive attitude or outstanding service, you should make reference to that in your resume description.

For example, you might say "recognized by supervisor for providing outstanding service to customers." If you received a bonus or a raise, or were given added responsibility like orienting new staff or athletic team members, make sure you reference that distinction.

Use action verbs. Use active language (rather than passive language) when describing your experiences so you portray yourself in a dynamic way. Start the phrases in your descriptions with action verbs like organized, led, calculated, taught, served, trained, tutored, wrote, researched, inventoried, created, designed, drafted, edited, and so on. Employers look for staff who have a history of making positive contributions. Review each of your experiences and ask yourself if there were any minor achievements in class, clubs, sports or the workplace as you carried out your role. If so, use verbs like enhanced, reorganized, increased, improved, initiated, upgraded, expanded, and so on to point to the value that you added.

Employer interviewing a young male job seeker sitting at a table reading his CV resume viewed from above, Job interview concept.
Employer interviewing a young male job seeker sitting at a table reading his CV resume viewed from above, Job interview concept.

Keep it to one page

Use short, concise phrases in a clean, easy-to-read font such as Calibri, Cambria, or Arial. This is a document that will be skimmed, scanned, and glanced at, so you want your future employer to be able to find what they are looking for right away.

Proofread your draft. Review your draft very carefully before finalizing your document and make sure there are no spelling or grammar errors. Ask your guidance counselor, parents, or a favorite teacher to critique your resume.

Ask for recommendations. Ask teachers, coaches, volunteer supervisors, and activity advisors for written recommendations when you develop a positive relationship. You could create a simple personal Website with copies of these recommendations and place a link to the site on your resume. You can also bring paper copies of recommendations with you when you visit employers and speak with managers.

Follow some of these suggestions so you can pull together a killer resume and separate yourself from the competition for jobs and internships.

Summary of Education and Employment

Getting a job and keeping it will require learning skills throughout your life. Almost everyone will have to adapt. Even if you choose not to go to college, you will go through some education—perhaps learning new programs, taking an online class, or doing on-the-job training.

The companies you work for invest in you so that they can succeed and grow. In turn, they provide pay and, hopefully, benefits. These will help you make a life for yourself and for others as well—children, a spouse, and perhaps parents and relatives.

How far you go in the world of work will depend mostly on how far you want to push yourself to work hard and learn new skills. Ideally, higher education of some kind can help you with that.

This content was created in partnership with the Financial Fitness Group, a leading e-learning provider of FINRA compliant financial wellness solutions that help improve financial literacy.

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