3 Ways to Bring College and Career Focus to Middle School

Middle school student with diploma and cap

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

We begin asking students about their dream careers in their very first years of school. Many of us can recall sharing with our pre-K classmates that we planned to be astronauts, firefighters, or doctors. But at what point do students’ vague future plans become their career paths? As educators, it may be sooner than you think. While pre-K students probably don’t need to see course syllabi and training programs for their dream careers, there are many benefits to beginning college and career preparations before students enter high school.

Indeed, a 2013 policy report from ACT Research & Policy highlighted the importance of early learning to prepare for future success. For example, research showed that students who were off track in eighth grade had greater difficulty passing the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks in 12th grade. Additionally, those who had low scores on the ACT Explore in eighth grade had just a 10 percent chance of passing 12th-grade reading readiness benchmarks, a 6 percent chance of passing science benchmarks, and a 3 percent chance of passing mathematics benchmarks. Educators already know that learning builds on prior knowledge and skills; statistics like these simply highlight the importance of early learning.

So, how can we build college and career readiness skills before students have reached the point of filling out college applications? In recent years, more educators have been focusing on these skills with middle school students, and they've seen great results! Here are three ways you can inspire middle-schoolers to start thinking about and preparing for the future:


1. Tap into students' interests

Showing middle school students how their interests can translate into future careers or paths of study is undoubtedly a major motivator, as students may not know how many career possibilities relate to a single passion. For example, a student who loves sports can translate that into a range of different jobs beyond playing pro ball, as the world of sports also needs physical therapists, photojournalists, public relations managers, agents, and statisticians… just to name a few. Understanding the breadth of options out there is essential to a student’s college and career prep.

Help students imagine these possibilities by turning college and career prep into a research assignment. What are their interests? Which activities show their strengths? Ask students to list 10 to 20 careers related to their field of interest, choose their top three, and research the associated education and training requirements. How many years will they need to spend on their education? Which schools are most highly rated for this career path? Looking into the possibilities will help students visualize their future and describe the steps they’ll need to take along the way.


2. Engage the community

Who better to guide students on their career paths than those who have taken the same paths themselves? According to an EdWeek article titled "Career Prep Moves Into Middle Schools," partnering with members of the community to mentor interested students gives middle-schoolers a realistic view of potential careers. Some organizations that coordinate mentorship and apprenticeship programs even receive grant money through United Way’s Middle Grade Success Challenge.

These programs are already showing promising results. For example, Spark is a nonprofit that matches underserved and at-risk seventh- and eighth-graders with professionals in the community. Of the students who have participated in Spark programs, about 90 percent enter high school with positive school behaviors, such as regular attendance and passing math and English, compared to 70 percent of their peers.

3. Tie academics to future success

EdSource notes that middle school is a key step in the college and career pipeline, in part because the experience establishes good habits for school and for the future. Kalin Pont-Tate, a student who participated in Spark apprenticeships, summed up the impact of the experience on his academic life: “Before [the apprenticeships], I didn’t realize that all the classes I had were that important or beneficial to anything I wanted to do. What does math have to do with anything? But I realized I had to put my best foot forward to do what I want to do.” Inspired by the program, Pont-Tate raised his grades from a C-average to a perfect 4.0 by the time he graduated from middle school.

Additionally, students are recognizing the importance of learning non-cognitive skills to ensure future college and career success. Current research shows that observable behaviors in middle school, such as a high number of incomplete assignments, can signal that students will need additional help to develop their motivational skills. Understanding the importance of motivation, completion, and working toward a goal is vital to success—in middle school and beyond.

Whether students see themselves following careers in academia, the arts, technology, or a trade, early preparation is key. By tapping into students’ natural interests, working with community partners, and relating current classes to future success, we can help middle-school students prepare for college and careers. Ultimately, taking the time to encourage students in middle school helps them approach their current and future studies with purpose.



What is your school or district doing to prepare students for college, careers, and beyond? Connect with us on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn and let us know your thoughts and experiences on this topic!

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