My grade 12 students are applying to college and for the most part, they’re miserable about it. They’re worried about grades and transcripts, letters of recommendation and application essays. They’re worried about class assessment tasks, standardized tests, final exams.
And no matter how often I try to tell them that it doesn’t matter, I understand that to them, it does. When I was 17, applying to college was the most stressful and seemingly important thing I’d ever done, too. I do empathize with my students. Applying to college is the most stressful thing most of them have ever done, but it doesn’t have to be this way.
I’ve been telling my students to consider the following pieces of advice based on what I know now, looking back over 11 years:
- Put yourself in a place you’d like to live. Think about what you want around you, the community you’d like to call home, and the access that place provides for whatever matters to you.
- Study something that provides you with options. You can always go back to school, continue your education, and switch tracks entirely. The more options you have, the easier it is to change your mind and do something else.
- Consider your passions and the best ways to find fulfillment – and then consider what you need to be able to do that. Financial security? Free time? A level of autonomy? We encourage students to follow their passions, but I’d argue that it’s more important to set yourself up to be able to do that in the long run.
- Remember that formal education is an option, not a requirement. It’s a choice. Take a gap year. Get a job. Go somewhere new. And then decide whether formal education is the best way to set yourself up to live a good life. Higher education isn’t going away.
- Figure out how you learn best. Figure out what you need to sustain yourself in an environment that drives you. Do you need a 9-5 job to afford to spend your weekends surfing? Do you need to live in a specific country? Do you need to be part of a think tank to have meaningful discussions?
I’m not saying these are the right questions for everyone, but I do believe they merit some thought. Higher education is the default option for the students that I teach, as well as for many students worldwide. I don’t think this is always appropriate, if for no other reason than we don’t often consider alternatives. We also don’t often consider why higher education is the default.
Asking questions is a step in a different direction, and hopefully in the right one.
A friend described his life path to me as “a bowl of spaghetti” and he’s one of the most interesting people I know. I followed a very linear path until I got scared and jumped off it; I’m a better person and educator as a result. Linearity and predictability are safe, easy, and obvious but there’s a lot more to the world than that.