In the fall, Kevin McCoy is headed to college.
He chose his school — Vanderbilt University, where he received a football scholarship. He picked out a major — biology. And he even has a specific career in mind — forensic scientist.
But, at 17 and fresh out of high school, is he ready to make those important decisions?
"I don't know," he said. "But I'm definitely ready for the challenge."
McCoy, who graduates from Armwood High School on Tuesday, spent months researching, he said. Along with his parents, he looked at schools that would be a good fit for both his education and future plans.
Guidance and career counselors say such research is key to success.
"If students start researching early enough, then we can get them to a place where they feel comfortable," said Shelly Hollingsworth, a guidance counselor at Tampa Bay Technical High School. "If they wait until April of their senior year, then they are freaking out a little more than others."
It's the same process regardless of whether a student heads to college, the military or straight into the job market. Students should use their high school years as a time to explore, Hollingsworth said.
Interested in the military? Join the JROTC. Want a job in welding? Take specialized classes.
At schools like Tampa Bay Tech, students participate in career programs where they gain experience in their chosen field, Hollingsworth said.
"Many are focused and go on to college," she said. "Or, sometimes they realize after doing it in high school that it's not for them. We'd much rather have them figure that out in high school then later in college."
Students at other schools can try job shadowing, get internships or volunteer to gain the same kind of experience, she said.
For those students without a clear career path in mind, counselors say not to fret just yet.
"We don't want students 'major shopping,' " said Drema Howard, director of the career center at the University of South Florida. "We want it to be an informed decision. All of us are going to help that student look at whether this is a good fit."
When thinking about different career options, look at what you enjoy, Howard suggests.
"Everyone has that sense of what they do well and what they are strong in," Howard said. "Match that to the world of work, and not just now but with what may exist 10 or 15 years down the road."
Davee Thompson, who graduates from Plant High School this month, credits her time volunteering as critical to her decision process.
For two years, Thompson served as president of her school's chapter of Best Buddies, a nonprofit organization that creates one-on-one friendships for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
"I fell in love with the whole aspect of working with special needs children," she said.
Thompson will attend Tallahassee Community College in the fall with plans to transfer to Florida State University in the spring.
Though Thompson knows what field she would like to work in, she is realistic about job prospects.
"Being a teacher in Florida right now is hard," she said. "I'm looking at my different options but I know whatever I do it's going to include working with these children."
Thompson says her preparation allows her to be more relaxed than some of her friends right now, she said.
"My friends that don't have a clue what to major in have been meeting with counselors and going to orientation and some are choosing a major they are not even interested in," she said.
Even after the research is done, the final decision may come down to a gut feeling.
Darius Scott, who graduates from Tampa Bay Tech this month, plans on joining the Army.
He chose the military after seeing a cousin excel at it. He only questioned which branch he should choose: the Army or the Marines.
Once he's done, he'll go on to college, he said.
And what he hopes to gain is not far from what many graduates making the next decision in life seek.
"Respect. And confidence."
Shelley Rossetter can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2442.