SparkNotes Blog

Auntie SparkNotes: I Don’t Know What I Want to Do with My Life!

Dear Auntie SparkNotes,

I’m 16 years old and a junior in high school, and yet I still don’t know what I want to do with my life! Everyone around me keeps talking about what college they want to go to and what they plan on majoring in and I’m just sitting there, saying nothing. It’s not that I didn’t have an idea. I did. At first, I really had my mind set on fashion design and I wanted to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, but as I began receiving emails from that college, I began to learn more about it and one requirement is that you must know how to sew (duh). I can hand sew but I still don’t know how to use a sewing machine! My mom always said she was going to teach me, but she never had time to sit down and actually teach me. Now I’m worried that I’m running out of time because I have to apply for college next school year and i don’t even know how to work a sewing machine! I don’t even have a design portfolio or any projects (all requirements by the way). How am I supposed to apply for the school of my dreams if I can’t do anything that’s in their requirements? So, after asking myself that question a billion times, I let go of my dream to do fashion design and now I have no clue what I want to do with my life or what college I want to go to. I also really love writing and I have a blog, but there’s no career I can find that’s stable enough to do writing. So I just don’t know what to do with my life!

Before I say anything else, Sparkler, I must say this: If being comfy with a sewing machine is all that stands between you and your dream job, that’s hardly a reason to give it up. You have at least six months between now and college application season, which is not only plenty of time to acquire a nice, solid, intermediate skill set, but to do it totally on your own using YouTube tutorials.

That is, if this is really only about the sewing machine. But then again, if your desire to be a fashion designer stemmed from an actual, practical interest in fashion design, I don’t think you’d be in your current pickle in the first place. You would have learned to use a sewing machine ages ago—the better to execute all those ideas for awesome clothes that were rattling around in your head and exploding out of your sketchbook.

So basically, it sounds like you’ve had a pretty common experience: Your career goals were based on a nebulous concept of what a fashion designer is and does (in my head, this is basically a highlights reel of big moments from Project Runway and/or The Carrie Diaries set to a soundtrack of RuPaul’s “Cover Girl”), and it looked like a lot of nonspecific, gorgeous, glamorous fun. But because your “dream job” was more about the fantasy of a certain kind of life than any particular passion for the actual work, the dream ended abruptly when you ran up against the reality of what the job requires.

Which is fine! This happens all the time, to all kinds of people. And despite what you may think, “I’m 16 years old and I still don’t know what I want to do with my life!” is a statement so obvious that Auntie Sparknotes literally paused after reading it to say the word “DUH” out loud. Most people don’t know what they want to do with their lives at the age of 16! Most don’t even know what their options are, or how their particular combination of skills and interests might translate into a course of study and eventual career path. That’s why colleges don’t require students to declare a major until sophomore year: Even when you have an idea of what you’d like to focus on, it takes time and exploration to know exactly how and where you want to apply that focus.

In short: Relax, sweet pea. All of this is perfectly normal.

And it leaves you in a perfectly good place to start exploring the possibilities, which is what the college application process is all about. You’re not choosing a career, or even a college major; you’re choosing an environment in which to develop the skills, knowledge, and self-awareness that will inform your next steps in life.

In your case, here’s what that means: First, make a very broad, very basic list of what you’re good at and what interests you. (Pro tip: If you’re not sure how to do that, look at your most recent grade report and your schedule from the past six months. The classes you get your easiest As in are your strong subjects; the things you like to do in your spare time are your areas of interest.)

And then, let that list inform your search for a college —one where you can reasonably expect to be engaged, fulfilled, and stimulated for the next four years. That might mean going to a school that’s strong in a particular department, like literature or journalism or political science or communications (all of which are fields where your writing skills would be in high demand, by the way); or it might be as non-specific as choosing a liberal arts degree over a technical one, and trusting that the next four years will serve to give you some more direction as well as an education.

Which is probably the most important thing to remember, whenever you start to stress about the future: That the reason you go to college isn’t just to get a job when you come out. It’s to learn, to grow, and to become a competent, responsible, educated adult—one who’s ready to explore the various paths available to her. Because on the day you graduate from college, you may still not know for sure what you want to do with your life. But if you’ve done college right, you’ll know that it’s okay not to know, and you’ll be ready to embark confidently on the process of figuring it out.

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