When I am invited to speak on career days, a key piece of advice I offer is something that won’t work for everyone. As a matter of fact, it may not be right for most of you. But, if it does fit, then it’s the best advice you will ever receive. That is: Find your career path as soon as possible.

If that suggestion makes you edgy or you’re nowhere close to there, then please forget I said anything. Stop reading now. Don’t even think about it again. Just go on about your business of exploring and finding your field by sampling and shadowing careers until you decide. There’s honestly no rush. You be you.

However, if you happen to be among the very few individuals who know their “calling” at an early age, then you are lucky and can take advantage of it when you are ready to get into college.

For instance, I am a lifelong writer who knew what I wanted to be at 9 years old and got my first newspaper job when I was just 16 years old. I learned how to use a camera and interviewed my first foreign exchange student for a front page story of my local weekly — stopping to pick up an all-American hotdog to set up the photos. Yikes!! Later I would learn that staging such a photo was quite inappropriate.

I know I was fortunate in that my newspaper career happened in the 70s, 80s and 90s (the olden days) when newspapers were the “Fourth Estate” and internet hadn’t become such a common denominator. Also it was easier to get a job through less traditional routes and there were plenty of jobs to go around.

My point is that my early knowledge of myself as a writer gave me a solid leg up when I got a better job at age 18 at a daily newspaper and later when I competed for a job at a Top 10 newspaper against people with high-powered degrees from big name universities. My portfolio was extensive. I rode with police officers, fought fires beside firefighters, was the co-pilot of a helicopter and spent a day on a hover craft with a crawfish farmer. I interviewed presidents, princes and criminals. Likewise, your experience can be equally helpful when you get an early start.

Do you love education? How about numbers and dimensions? Science? Medicine? How about some really competitive careers (like newspapers were in my day). Do you want to be an actor? A singer? A painter? A musician? If you know yourself and what makes you happy every day for a career that will span decades and decades, then you can get started now. Build your resume and portfolio. Meet mentors and references. Shadow someone in your field. Discover how that job looks from a “day in the life of” point of view. Maybe you will discover it’s not really what you have in mind. Or you will learn ways to get inside the job, discover the exact right university for your interest and be successful from the start.

My daughter is a much sought after teacher of special needs children who has been selected “teacher of the year” in her school and her school district. That honor seldom goes to teachers who are so specialized. When I asked her what advice I had given her that helped with her success, this was it. She said she was lucky to know she wanted to work with disadvantaged children and had jobs and experiences all along her educational path that prepared her. She was a lifeguard, a swim coach, a tutor of students less organized than she is and, most importantly, found her dream job during college at the Boys and Girls Club where she got a range of experience in her field.

In my case — back in the day, I was the last person ever hired at this particular newspaper who did not have a college degree. As I acquired my mass communications degree (back then you didn’t have to choose so I got experience in television, radio, advertising and newspapers) I took four advanced semesters of news writing and two of editing where I made top grades by turning in the same work I would do in a career that continues today — more than four decades later.

A resume that shows significant experience in your area of interest is highly valuable today. University and business leaders are looking for candidates with “big ideas” to save the world, solve an age-old problem and be experts of a higher level than ever before. That is more likely to happen with experience. So, it can really help if you are sold on your career path and start building that experience before you ever submit a college application.

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