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.
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.
- Get a job to learn how to support yourself. And get a real one! Not at the local fast food place. Not babysitting. Not for minimum wage. Take it seriously and see what kind of serious job you can get. Join up with friends to get an apartment and figure out how to deal with roommates, time management, and money. Pay your bills. Figure out how to balance work and play, friends, family, and love relationships. This is the school of life! Manage it well and you will make much better use of your college years later.
- Get a job to help you figure out what you want to do. Do you have a few ideas about what you might like to do someday? Think about jobs at this point in your life as “apprenticeships.” If there are no paid jobs available, approach workplaces about setting up unpaid “internships.” See if your folks will support you for a year while you narrow down your interests and get some solid information about the realities of the fields you are considering. Think you might want to be a scientist? Find a job in a lab. Contemplating teaching? Set up an internship to be a tutor or teacher’s aide. Want to work with computers? See if a local web designer wants an intern.
- Get a job to get a foot in the door. Think about something you might like to do for a living and see if there is a way to get in on the ground floor even the “basement.” I know one person who always wanted to work with a national magazine. She went to New York and offered to do anything (empty waste baskets, get folks coffee, clean the studio) just to be near the action. The personnel director was impressed with her energy and hired her to do just that. She worked her way up and, five years later, is an editor. She takes classes at night towards a degree to, as she says, “make my resume match my job.” The idea here is to see entry-level jobs as the first rung on a ladder to success.
- Volunteer. Many nonprofit organizations don’t have the money to hire but are desperate for help. If you think you might like work in human services, childcare, recreation, politics, or health services, think about volunteer work you can do to learn more about these fields. Negotiate a year of support from your parents while you put yourself wholeheartedly into working full time for an organization or cause you believe in.
- Travel. Living in a culture other than the one you grew up in is a wonderful way to find out who you are. No money? Get creative. Sign up to crew on a cruise line. Be an au pair or nanny for a family in another country. Look into exchange programs for high school graduates.
- The Military. Basic training is a solid introduction to self-discipline, team building, and independence. You can learn skills and earn money toward college if you sign up for even two years. Like college, the military provides housing, meals, and a program. If you’re not ready to be on your own, you may find the structure and discipline of military life helpful. See www.army.mil, www.navy.mil, www.usmc.mil, or www.af.mil for more information.
- Americorps. One of the best-kept secrets in the U.S., Americorps offers young people between the ages of 17 and 24 the opportunity to make the world a better place and earn money toward college. Click on www.americorps.org for information and listings of opportunities. Young people tutor in inner-city schools, work in National Parks, and help rehab low-income housing through this organization. The friendships and skills they develop by working in teams often last a lifetime. Americorps programs include: City Year (www.cityyear.org), VISTA (www.americorpsvista.org), and the National Civilian Community Corps (www.americorpsncc.org).
- The Student Conservation Association(www.sca-inc.org). Interested in environmental issues, biological sciences, outdoor education, or conservation? Check into the SCA. Expense-paid internships are available in endangered species protection, archaeology, marine biology, forestry and more. You can earn money for college and even receive college credit for your service.
- Ease into college life by working and taking courses at your local community college. Community colleges often schedule courses with working people in mind and are generally less expensive than four-year institutions. One way to figure out what you want to do is to work for a year or two and take some courses in fields that interest you. An associate’s degree from a community college is often transferable to a four-year college. This route to higher education reduces the cost considerably, lets you work and go to school (a plus for those without ready funds), and offers a gentler transition to adult life. Live at home for the first two years of college by attending community college. Then go away for the last two years.
The years following high school are important growing years for most of us. Going directly to college is certainly one way to learn, to grow, and to gain confidence. But it isn’t the only way and it may not be the right choice for you. Think about who you are and where you think you are going. Be creative and design a path that will get you where you want to go.