Your son shrugs off a bad grade on his algebra test. Or your daughter balks at unplugging the iPod to finish her homework problems. The response you get goes something like this:

“What’s the point of algebra? I’m never gonna use it again.”

Even if your child doesn’t get to this point, he might wonder what middle school has to do with a future career. Schools don’t always do a good job of making that connection. But if you take time to talk to your child about career goals now, you can help him broaden his thinking, choose elective classes more carefully and shape his summer plans.

Math and real life

Let’s start with this: What’s the point of algebra if you’re not headed toward a career in math?

The answer: You won’t get to college without it. And if you wind up having to take remedial math in college because you didn’t complete two years of algebra and geometry, your chances of succeeding in college are considerably lower, according to research by the ACT.

But what if your child says college isn’t for him? You can tell him, of course, that he may well change his mind between now and high school graduation, that there’s no point in closing doors to future careers and that the average person makes more than three career changes. But if he’s adamant, start with some real-life examples.

Research by the ACT shows that high school graduates need the same math whether they’re going to college or straight into the work force. Your child – and you – might be surprised to know all the careers that don’t require college but do require math. Here are just a few:

  • Auto mechanics: Advances in technology have changed the components and materials used in cars, and auto mechanics today need to have good math, as well as computer and reading skills necessary to follow instructions in technical manuals that are often computer based.
  • Carpentry: Carpenters use algebra and geometry every time they calculate angles to figure out how to cut their building materials.
  • Real estate: Agents use math to figure out if a potential buyer will qualify for a loan, and to calculate closing costs and mortgage payments.
  • Small business: Owners and managers calculate product prices, employee wages, taxes and advertising budgets. They prepare business plans that include short- and long-term budgets; analyze statistics from customer service surveys and data to figure out the best use of floor space.

Your child can log on to the College and Work Ready Agenda to see videos of Washington state students as they interview a musician, Xbox creator, architect and airline pilot about why math matters in their careers.

Even if your child doesn’t choose a career that specifically uses algebra, studying it will help her learn to think logically and make her a better problem solver. It will also help her be a wiser consumer of health care, a better manager of her personal finances and a smarter analyst of election campaign pitches.

What about science?

Is your child balking at science? She doesn’t have to be a scientist to need science smarts on the job.

A chef uses chemistry to make sauces thicken and soufflés rise. So does an artist who uses knowledge of how metals oxidize to create colors in his work. Park rangers, firefighters and airline pilots use science. Those cool detectives on “CSI” use chemistry to investigate crimes, lawyers need an understanding of scientific evidence to make their arguments in court, and judges need to analyze the evidence brought by opposing sides in a case.


Explore careers

If these examples don’t spark her thinking, you can go online and find a wealth of resources to help her think about life after school.

  • The College Board’s Majors and Careers Central includes a career guide and descriptions of the hottest careers for the college graduates of the future.
  • You can look up the training, earnings and career prospects of hundreds of different jobs in the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook, along with a description of what these workers do every day.
  • Careership is a free career exploration guide for students.

Finally, if your child’s school doesn’t already have a career day, work with administrators and the parent organization to create one. Listening to community members from many fields talk about how they do their jobs can broaden your child’s thinking about the years ahead.

“Why do I have to write this essay?”

Middle-schoolers all over the country are struggling to master the five-paragraph essay. This commonly taught form is made up of a first paragraph that includes a thesis statement; three body paragraphs that support the thesis with evidence, examples or anecdotes; and a final paragraph that sums it all up.

Your child is correct if he says he won’t be writing too many of these in his life. His high school and college teachers will expect more complicated writing from him, and there aren’t too many jobs that require people to crank out five-paragraph essays.

But these essays are not only building blocks for more complex writing assignments, they can also be handy tools for the future. The high school student faced with limited time and space to answer a question on an essay exam will find this form useful to fall back on. So will a job applicant writing a cover letter.

No matter what your child does after high school, she’ll need to be able to think logically, write clearly and make her point concisely. If she doesn’t believe you when you tell her, she might listen to the advice of Guy Kawasaki, a successful entrepreneur, venture capitalist, investment banker and writer.

In a blog posting Kawaski advises college students on the 10 Things to Learn This School Year. On his list: how to write a one-page report (“The best reports in the real world are one page or less.”) and how to write a five-sentence email. Why?

“The optimal length of an email is five sentences,” he says. “All you should do is explain who you are, what you want, why you should get it, and when you need it by.”

Think that’s easy? Just look at the last email you received. Then, tell your child that there’s a lot more to writing well than writing five paragraphs. But it’s a start.

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