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Beyond Your Degree: From Education to Opportunity

act career college sat Feb 13, 2024
black man running on track at sunrise

Guest Contributor: Ben Jang

Many years ago, I got suspended from Princeton. 

The model student in high school who never stepped a toe out of line. Straight A's, math competition winner, admission to Princeton, Stanford, and UPenn. And then, gone. Just like that, my perfect academic record up in smoke.

What happened?

Three years prior, I was holding three golden admissions letters. The only problem was, I didn't know where to aim next. No one was there to remind me that life is a series of races, so I stopped completely. It took getting kicked out for a year for me to realize that it was my job to set up the finish line. I had to choose what races to run. 

When you’re college shopping, it’s tempting to Google average salaries and make your decision based on that. But I want to encourage you to look a bit further. Aim beyond the immediate, to goals five years, ten years down the line. Don't just assume you'll get a great job offer out of college just by showing up. You must be intentional to mold your education into opportunities.

Finding Alignment Between Passions and Practicalities

If your passions don't align with your chosen major or career, it can seem impossible to connect them. But with reflection, you can find ways to integrate what you love into your studies and work.

I struggled to reconcile my engineering major with my love of painting. I found that answering three questions helped me find clarity my purpose so that I could make the most of my college education. I believe that your answers to these questions will help you plan your next steps, too. 

1. Will your goal (target job) disappear in the next 3 years?

If your answer is “yes,” you need to re-examine your goal (we'll talk about finding your purpose later in this article). Once you have your goal, try to understand what exactly appeals to you about it. Then, you can find ways to get more of this out of your career or degree of choice.

I love painting because:

  • I love creating something from just an idea
  • I get satisfaction from gifting my creations to others
  • I find the hours of solitary focused work relaxing

Ways to tie this to my engineering degree was:

  • I want creative freedom (specifically around problem solving)
  • I want my creations to impact people, not just be theoretical
  • I want a big project that allows me to work away at it for a long period of time

Answering these revealed entrepreneurship as my path, leading me to startups and eventually launching my own business.

2. What is the smallest step I can possibly take to get closer to my goals?

Make your next step as small and specific as possible to maximize your chances of actually following through with continued pursuit of your goal. For example, instead of saying something generic like, “I'll network with people in startups,” instead say something more tangible and specific, such as “Today I will find 10 LinkedIn profiles of startup founders that have an engineering background and reach out to them.”

3. Why am I not taking that step? 

Hidden costs are non-monetary prices that we often don’t explicitly consider. The most common hidden costs are:

  • Time
  • Reputation
  • Fear of failure/ Risk

If you’re struggling to find the hidden costs that are holding you back, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Would I do this if it happened instantly?
  • Would I do this if no one ever found out?
  • Would I do this if I knew it would work?

Getting around hidden costs can be tricky, but here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Time passes regardless of what you’re doing. Why not spend it doing something that will get you closer to your goals?
  • If you were successful, would you care if anyone found out about it? Conversely, would you be okay with never getting to your goals because of this?
  • If you pick up an instrument for the first time, do you expect to be good at it? Learning new skills takes time. Why do you think you’ll be good from the start?

By examining my motivations and taking small steps, I aligned my interests with opportunities. The key is reflecting on what you want and steadily working towards it.

Finding Your Driving Purpose

How do you actually uncover your goal? I ask students: What would you do if you knew you couldn't fail? Let this guide and focus you. What goal would make you run this race, eyes wide open, determined, focused? 

(If you’re struggling to find your goals, don’t take my advice - take the advice of Patrick Bet-David, best-selling author, centa-millionaire, and part owner of the New York Yankees. His self-assessment questionnaire can be found here.)

Actually sit down and give this a shot. Everyone’s goals are different. That’s the beauty of it. For me it’s helping every single person around me achieve what they thought was impossible, one step at a time. I could work on this for the next 10, 20, 40 years of my life without getting bored or burned out. In fact, I plan to. That’s why I work with my students, push them to build companies, carry out research, and test their ideas in the real world.

I want you to find that for yourself. I want you to find your driving purpose, too.

Give yourself permission to ask: What do I truly want? It doesn't have to be perfect.

Aim. Move. Adjust. That's how we make progress. That's how you turn education into opportunity. That's how you live a life that matters — to yourself and to others.

Final Thoughts

College isn’t just about textbooks and lectures. You're paying for the chance to use an education  to take what those professors, books, and societies offer and mold it into something purposeful. But the diploma you receive at the end of college isn't the finish line  it's the starting gun. Education isn't a product or a service. It's a tool. One that you have to seize and make the most of.

I know these are uncomfortable questions. But remember that life doesn't start or stop with a degree. It’s already started, and well under way. Make sure you know where you're going next. Because the most dangerous finish line is the one you don't see coming

The race is on. Are you ready to run?


Ben Jang is the founder of GOM Admissions, the college consultancy that focuses on pushing students to maximize their education and live purposeful, meaningful lives.


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