Stop me if this sounds familiar – you’ve walked your high school graduation line and the next thing you know, class syllabi and loans to sign are shoved into your hands leaving you to think, wow, things are changing quickly! Most of us high school grads feel this way – and we should!
After four years of high school that likely included talks on college readiness, we’re supposed to be armed for continuing the lengthy march up the academic mountain by going to college just a few short months after finishing high school. I guess graduation high school is what it feels like when a climber reaches Everest Base Camp. They probably say to each other, wow, this is just base camp? One graduation line just propels you toward another, with life operating in four-year chunks that supposedly teach you everything you need to know.
But what if high school graduation didn’t lead to one path? What if it carved a path to many other routes to get where we want to go? A path more suited for us?
Shaping your own path looks different on everybody. For some, they defer college for a year and head off on a gap year before taking up their place at a university. Other students skip college altogether, while some decide to spend the summer working or traveling, and see where life leads them from there. They blog, code, explore, or start their own businesses. Others volunteer, intern, or simply spend some time getting to know the person they are out of high school. In other words, if you want to keep learning, there isn’t only one way up the mountain. Even major universities like Princeton, Harvard, and UNC Chapel Hill encourage students to pursue work, travel, or meaningful projects after high school.
The world doesn’t look the same as it did ten years ago. So why should education?
The streamlined high school-to-college trajectory may be business as usual, but that doesn’t mean following it is your only option. Having experiences that stray from the traditional stand to improve employability, help you outperform peers academically and demonstrate boosted academic momentum, and embrace the idea that learning is more of a lifelong thing than a purely academic one. There are countless things you can do after high school that not only improve your potential academic endeavors, but your life as well. We’ve broken down a few of the coolest below:
Travel (and everything that comes along with it).
We’ve likely all heard some version of “see the world while you’re young!” and chances are, there’s a good reason for that: Typically, young people are freer of the trappings of adulthood that limit things like travel to vacation days, which is why spending time seeing--and even better, engaging in--the world after high school is such a valuable opportunity. But do yourself a favor: Go beyond taking scenic Instagram pictures. Travel is a chance to get a sense of the world outside your comfort zone, which means immersing yourself in another culture, place, or point of view. Learn a new language. Try to cook for yourself instead of heading to a restaurant every night. Some of the biggest things gained through travel are increased empathy, adaptability and problem-solving, and resourcefulness, all attributes that are advantageous for your function as a human being. If you don’t feel comfortable loading up your backpack and venturing off on your own, research different travel opportunities through organizations or even student-centric groups that head overseas.
Start something that matters.
You know that thing you’ve been wanting to try forever? The idea that keeps coming back? Consider taking some time to put it into practice post-high school. Pour your time and energy into a skill, whether it be coding, piano, graphic design, or something else you’ve been dying to do on a bigger level than after-school activities. While starting your own business may sound like a stretch, if you’ve developed specific sets of skills, consider taking on freelance work, volunteering your talents for worthy organizations or causes, or even coordinating a great event--like a fundraiser or 5K--in your community. In high school, getting involved was about how many clubs you could join. Instead, take on responsibilities in your community and get involved where you can.
Glamorous? No. An awesomely beneficial move? Definitely. Even in its most inexpensive edition, college is a considerable financial investment. One of the coolest things you could possibly do after high school is set yourself up for some financial freedom later on. In addition to being a valuable time to learn to manage money that isn’t tethered to a loan, saving up could lead to big things: What if your savings went toward traveling rather than textbooks? That rainy day fund could pay off in a major way if it isn’t eaten up by school supplies or registration fees.
Gain work experience.
By this point, you’re probably thinking “how is working cool?” Despite hearsay about the grind of the daily 9-5, gaining work experience isn’t just cool, it is the coolest. Getting to put your skills into practice? Actually doing things instead of writing papers about them? Plus, 74% of millennials felt “as though their colleges and universities had failed to fully prepare them for their post-grad careers”--talk about getting ahead of the curve by doing your work early! Sometimes, we fall into a rut of thinking of work as the boring thing we do to pay our bills, and honestly, at some points in your life it will likely feel exactly like that. But not now. If you go to work before you go to college, you have more freedom to explore your dream careers, to get your feet wet in what you’re curious about without the stress of declaring a major in it and paying for it (added bonus: they pay you!).
Focus on your own path.
Fact: Getting to pursue something you’re intensely passionate about shouldn’t be far-fetched. Even from a research perspective, passion is actually pretty important to overall happiness and productivity, and ideally, it should be part of your education. Too often, it isn’t. Venturing off to pursue what matters to you instead of immediately signing on for another four years of organized academics is a priceless opportunity.
But say you don’t know what you’re passionate about. This is a chance to find it. Our entire academic career is building blocks, climbing up a ladder, following the person in front of us. Have you ever hit pause to think about how you want your life to look, seperate of the system? Have you considered what you’d be doing if you weren’t sitting in class? Not only does focusing on your own path stand to make you more mature and self-reliant, taking the “road less traveled by” can change your life in unexpected ways.