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August 1st, 2011,
How to Choose College Classes

By Patrick O’Connor

The temperature may be pushing 100, but many people are already thinking about fall–not just because of the cooler weather, but because it’s time to enroll for fall classes. Many students are escaping the heat by hitting the public libraries, comparing Web sites of different training and bachelor’s degree programs, and trying to answer a very old question:

Am I better off to get specific technical training, or should I get a college degree that includes coursework in math, English, and social science?

Tips for Choosing College Classes and Programs

This isn’t an easy question to answer.  Even in a tight economy, there always seems to be a need for entry-level workers in field like customer service, technical training, and now, homeland security.  Qualifications for these jobs tend to be minimal, as employers look for completion of a year’s worth of training in certificate programs, or perhaps two years of training in an associate’s degree program where most of the courses focus on a specialty.

Given the need for jobs, it’s easy to understand why this would be the right answer. Your training is immediate, the opportunities are there, and the money is good–sometimes very good.  Make this your plan, and all will be well in the short run.

But what about the long term?  With an ever-changing job market, it might be helpful to have skills employers see as essential skills for every job, including work as supervisors and managers in the field you may go into. In addition, most Americans are expected to change professions many times in their lives. Developing these skills could give you the same advantage on many jobs that technical training offers on the job you have in mind now.

This is where courses in what are called the liberal arts come in handy. By studying English, psychology, lab sciences, and more, students learn to compare ideas and analyze them–and this kind of critical thinking is a big part of most future jobs.  These same courses give you practice on how to compare one person¹s opinion to another, a skill that’s important in most jobs, and in key life situations, like deciding what kind of car to buy, or who to vote for.

It turns out employers see these skills as very important.  A recent article in The Christian Science Monitor quotes a survey where a large percentage of employers want workers that can think analytically, work as teams, and communicate clearly.  These same employers see technical skills as important, but not nearly as important as these other habits.

So what’s a student to do–the job that’s easiest to get is looking only for technical skills, but the skills to build a career on seem pretty different. Perhaps the answer is both–start with your technical skills now, but set a goal of working that technical certificate into a college degree.  As you make your plans, talk to the advisers at your program or college to see just how the classes you’ll take this fall will transfer to another college, or another program.

Every class you take now may not transfer, but in keeping your eye on the immediate goal and the big picture, you can create a bright, diverse work future for yourself, a future with options that will keep you cool, no matter what the temperature.

As a counselor and college adviser for 25 years, Patrick O’Connor has helped unemployed workers, veterans, returning students, and new high school graduates learn new skills, earn degrees, prepare for graduate school and get better-paying jobs.  He’s a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, and author of the widely acclaimed college guide, College is Yours in 600 Words or Less. Most important, he’d like to help you realize your goals for college and career success.