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Are You Ready for College? Alternatives for the Unsure

It’s all set. For three and a half years of high school, you’ve made the grades, been on teams, sung in the chorus or played in the band. You’ve taken the SATs (twice!), written the essays, and filled out the forms for at least half a dozen colleges. Applications are in and you’re sure to be accepted.

But have you ever stopped to wonder if you are ready to go? What’s it all about anyway? Why are you going to spend thousands of your parents’ saved and borrowed dollars? Why are you committing four years of your life and putting yourself in debt?

It’s a peculiar rite of passage that has developed in America over the past 40 years. Believe it or not, it’s only since World War II that college has been the accepted, if not expected, way for kids to leave home, grow up, learn some things, and, hopefully, get a job that will begin to pay off the cost of this education. Sure, some kids are ready. They go off to school, take their studies seriously, and lay down the foundations for becoming the doctors, astrophysicists, educators, and writers of tomorrow.

But some kids, perhaps even the majority of kids, simply aren’t ready to do that. They don’t have a clue what they want to do with their lives. They are really sick of school. And, not so deep inside, they know that they aren’t ready to handle the sudden freedom of a life without the structure of home. They go to college because it’s expected, because they have nothing better to do, or because they just want to get away from home.

Developing a Plan

It is true that college is easier to manage than adult life. Most colleges provide housing, meals, activities, and something to do every day. Growing up at school can happen more gradually than out in the world, with the basics taken care of and little expected except to squeak through classes. For a bright kid, it doesn’t take a lot out of a day to go to class, do some reading, write a paper or at least pass a test or two. Adolescence is thus extended four more years.

But there are other ways — perhaps even better ways — to bridge the gap between the teen years and adulthood. If you recognize yourself in these paragraphs, maybe it’s time to think hard about where you are going and what you are doing. Success in life doesn’t require college immediately following high school. There are ways to grow up and leave home that don’t require your parents to mortgage their house or you to mortgage your future by using loan money for an extended party.

If your parents have been planning for your admission to Harvard since the day you were born, you need to quiet their fears that you are throwing your life away if you put off going to school. They will need reassurance that you know that the surest way to stunt your own growth and development is to attend college without direction and live off your parents for a year. You are taking a year off from school, not a year off from life. In fact, a year dedicated to developing skills in adult living is not a year “off” at all.

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The best strategy is to have a plan. Think about what you can do to gain some experience, to explore options for your future life, to get experience with managing your own time and money, and to get some direction. A clear plan that includes a return to the college track in a year or two will usually get even the most concerned parents on board.

Are You Ready for College? Alternatives for the Unsure

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.

Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2020). Are You Ready for College? Alternatives for the Unsure. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 26, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 14 Jan 2020 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 14 Jan 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.