Career Preparation for Precollege Students: Getting Started

As a high school student, you may think that you have plenty of time to decide on your career path and to acquire the skills you will need to market yourself successfully. Some people believe that completing an academic program will guarantee them a job. This is not always true. What can you do to make yourself attractive to a future employer?

You need to start exploring your career interests and developing your job skills now! In today's competitive job market it is essential that you possess relevant skills and experiences that will set you apart from everyone else. Work-based learning experiences can help you focus your career interests and develop job skills. Many high schools make work-based learning activities available to you.

What is Work-Based Learning?

Below are descriptions of typical activities and services your school may offer. They all provide opportunities in work settings. Check them out and take advantage of them!

Informational Interview

In informational interviews, you meet with people working in your fields of interest to ask questions about their particular occupations, qualification requirements, job duties, and companies. These interviews help you gain insights into your career interests from the people who do those jobs every day.

Job Shadowing

In a job shadow, you visit a business to observe the everyday functions of an occupational area of interest to you. Experiences vary in time from one hour to a full day depending on the amount of time employers can provide, as well as your interest and school requirements. Job-shadowing experiences offer you opportunities for career exploration and provide you with a realistic view of the day-to-day activities of specific jobs.

Service Learning

Service learning programs offer opportunities to be a concerned, informed, and productive citizen by providing community service in non paid, volunteer positions. These volunteer programs increase the relevancy of your academic learning as you apply knowledge and skills while making a contribution to your local community.

Independent Study

Your school may allow you to earn academic credit for work experiences. In an independent study option you would work one-on-one with a teacher or other educator to develop your work project for credit. Work experience, coupled with written work, such as a journal or essay, is an excellent way to practice, demonstrate, and expand the skills you've learned in school.


An internship is an intensive learning experience that is not part of a regular class. You work in a supervised learning situation with an employer doing planned learning activities. An internship can give you a broad overview of an occupational field, while providing you with opportunities to experience work responsibilities and develop work skills. Some internships are paid; some are not paid.

Why Should I Participate in Work-Based Learning?

Work-based learning experiences, such as job shadows and internships, offer you opportunities to practice skills and to network with potential employers. However, for students with disabilities, work-based learning experiences offer additional benefits. They give you a chance to determine if you can perform the essential functions of particular jobs. They give you opportunities to practice disclosing your disability and requesting accommodations from an employer. In addition, you can test which accommodations work best for you. You develop self-advocacy skills through work-based learning. It's a great way to get off to a running start on your career path!

Who are Members of My Team for Success?

Finding work-based learning experiences as a young adult on your own be challenging. You may be unfamiliar with your accommodation needs and the process of locating work-based learning opportunities and jobs, filling out applications and forms, and speaking with employers. Reach out and ask for support from those who care about your success. Below are some specific steps you can take with potential members of your team for success — your school, your family, community resources, and mentors.

Your School

  • Visit your career center, counseling/advising office, or School-to-Work program to find work-based learning opportunities.
  • Participate in available orientations, workshops, and individual counseling sessions to improve your job-search skills.
  • Discuss the types of work setting accommodations you may need with coordinators and your guidance counselors; also, ask them for suggestions.
  • If you have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), make sure mainstream work-based learning and career preparation activities are included; talk with your IEP team about activities that interest you.
  • Work with your teacher, counselor , or transition specialist to develop self-advocacy skills, options for disclosing your disability, and assistive technology resources.

Your Family

  • Talk to your family members about the world of work. Those who have worked many years may be your best resources!
  • Get assistance in understanding the Social Security (SS) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) systems. Contact your local SSA office and request an appointment with a benefits counselor, or access the SSA website.
  • Learn to advocate in your Individual Education Plan (IEP) development and in receiving appropriate accommodations at school and work. Ask a parent or supporter to help identify a strategy.
  • Start networking. Begin with people you know (family members, employers, co-workers, friends, neighbors, etc.). Talk to these people about work experiences you are seeking. They may know of new leads or help expand your network further.

Community Resources

  • Contact the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR). DVR may be able to aid you in employment preparation and placement. DVR can also refer you to community rehabilitation programs and Projects With Industry (PWI) programs.
  • Access other local support networks and disability service organizations.


Seek out someone you admire to be your mentor. Someone who is in college or pursuing a career is a good choice. Mentors can share valuable experiences, insights, and resources with you. They can also provide encouragement and support as you make decisions related to your career preparation.

How Can I Get Started?

  • C is for Careers. Think about what interests you. Be imaginative, then narrow it down.
  • A is for Academics. Determine which academic programs best suit your career goals.
  • R is for Research. Research careers that spark your interests, maximize your strengths, and minimize your weaknesses.
  • EE is for Experiential Education. Practice job search skills. Apply for internships. Ask for informational interviews, and try other work-based learning opportunities.
  • RS is for Relevant Skills. Use on-the-job experience to learn practical "real world" skills. Apply what you've learned in school to the workplace. Test which accommodations work best for you.

What are Some Program Options?

School-to-Work and High School/High Tech are examples of two work-based learning programs that may be available in your area.


The School-to-Work Opportunities Act of 1994 was signed by President Clinton. All School-to-Work programs are based on the concept that education is most beneficial for future careers when students apply what they learn to real work situations. Although programs vary in structure from state to state, each School-to-Work model has three core elements:

  • School-based Learning classroom instruction based on high academic and occupational skill standards.
  • Work-based Learning career exploration, work experience, structured training, and mentoring at job sites.
  • Connecting Activities courses integrating classroom and on-the-job instruction, matching students with participating employers, and training mentors.

For more information, see The School-to-Work Opportunities Act of 1994

High School/High Tech

High School/High Tech is a community-based partnership of parents, educators, rehabilitation professionals, and business representatives. The partnership combines site tours, job shadowing, internships, and mentoring to encourage students with disabilities to pursue careers in the technology industry. The High School/High Tech program in the Puget Sound region is a collaboration of DO-IT, the City of Seattle, and Seattle Public Schools. Contact your State Governor's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities to find out if there is a High School/High Tech program in your area. High School/High Tech is sponsored by the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP), U.S. Department of Labor. 


A short video, Learn and Earn: Tips for Teens, may be freely viewed online along with a publication with the same title. It can also be purchased in DVD format from DO-IT.

Questions and answers, case studies, and promising practices can be found in the searchable The Employment Office Knowledge Base.