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High Schoolers are Forced to Make Major Life Decisions Before They’re Cognitively Capable

Updated: Aug 15, 2019

Being told at age 17 that I had to know exactly what I wanted for my career path for the rest of my life–that “know everything NOW or you’ll never be able to catch up” mentality—was terrifying, to say the least. In my personal experience, and for a lot of my peers too, everything seemed to be happening so fast; I felt catapulted into these high-stakes situations that I was not ready for.

Constantly asked questions were “what’s your major?” and “what colleges are you applying to?” and “what do you want to do for a living” which, in my adolescent mind, was pretty much equivalent to “tell me your life plan right now year by year even though you’ve barely even had the opportunity to understand what ‘living’ really means yet.”

The rush of the whole college application process (#collegeadmission) places unrealistic expectations upon teenagers by forcing them to immediately dictate what career they want, even though they will not be able to actively pursue it until four years later (i.e. deciding as a teenager that you want to be a film major vs. finding out four years later that there is a very, very limited job market for that and that getting a degree in computer science may have been a better choice, but by then it’s too late).

On the other hand, students who forfeit their passions to pick a career that ends up being a poor fit will encounter significant setbacks–job dissatisfaction, under-qualifications, poor performance–during the most important years of their lives.

Four years is a long time and holds plenty of room for change and growth; I know for certain that the person I was four years ago is almost unrecognizable from the person I’ve become today, through experiences and reprioritization.

The amount of pressure teenagers are put under to make these major life defining educational and occupational decisions on their own before they’re prepared—much less cognitively capable—is unreasonable.

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), the regions of the human brain, such as the prefrontal cortex, associated with self-control and long-term planning are not fully developed during adolescence. However, the ventral striatum, which is associated with reward, has increased activity.

“Scientists have identified a specific region of the brain called the amygdala that is responsible for immediate reactions including fear and aggressive behavior. This region develops early. However, the frontal cortex, the area of the brain that controls reasoning and helps us think before we act, develops later. This part of the brain is still changing and maturing well into adulthood,” the AACAP said. “Nerve cells develop myelin, an insulating layer that helps cells communicate. All these changes are essential for the development of coordinated thought, action, and behavior.”

Being guided by the amygdala more over the frontal cortex causes teenagers to often be less aware of the consequences to their behavior, and act on immediate, pleasure seeking impulses.

The problem is, these facts are often ignored or unknown by both parents and the higher education system.

However, with resources such as college counseling, missteps and mistakes made during teenage years can easily be avoided. Having proper guidance from an adult professional—acting as a voice of logic—on exploring career options and planning educational paths is extremely beneficial and ultimately can launch up and coming students ahead on their path to success.

Life-changing decision should not look like a nightmare

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