A Guide to Cliff-Jumping: Handling Senior Year Stress


by Avery

My senior year of high school felt like walking closer and closer to the edge of a cliff.

I pictured graduation as the point at which I would jump off, not to certain death or anything quite so drastic, but into a whole new world to learn to navigate, a huge gaping unknown. While I was terribly excited for the jump, the idea of losing the feeling of my feet on the ground I was so familiar with was a little stressful.

Senior year can be terrifying, super fun, super tense, exciting, or confusing. It can seem to take forever or whiz by scary-fast. Handling all of these feelings can be extremely hard, not to mention that if you plan on going to college, you will have an absurd number of details to keep track of.

The stress I experienced didn’t come from my schoolwork, but from logistics—the worry that I couldn’t “get it all done” in time. Myself being a pretty poorly-organized individual, I probably made these details harder to manage than they had to be. So, dear reader, please learn from my mistakes!

Senior year stress seems to come in two main phases:

First: Securing your parachute, getting snacks for the road, arranging transportation, quadruple checking your parachute…Sorry to bring back this cliff metaphor, but bear with me.

This is college/future-related stress. It’s when there are always more details creeping up on you. You’re busy as heck touring colleges, writing application essays, applying for scholarships, etc. This time requires a lot of decision making as well as hard work, which can be a lethal combination. Here are some suggestions for handling this death-by-details stress:

  1. Keep a calendar of your deadlines and requirements. At the beginning of each week, make goals of what you need to accomplish, and write out the specific steps necessary. Give every task a few extra days to account for slow “processing”.
  2. Keep track of who you need to talk to. Maybe it’s your counselor or teachers. Remember that these people are very busy around this time, and you may need to give them extra time to accomplish tasks like sending your transcript or writing letters of recommendation. Waiting for others (such as your counselor) can be one of the most stressful things about this time. But remember, once a task is out of your hands, you can’t do anything else about it, so just let it go. Chances are, there are better places to channel your energy than worrying whether or not your transcript has arrived at a college. (That said, it’s okay to send a follow-up email if the person has not responded within a reasonable amount of time – sometimes people need a reminder)
  3. Consider setting aside a few hours each week for “future planning”. What this means will differ for everyone. Maybe it entails sorting out your graduation requirements. Working on remedial coursework or online classes. Some folks are planning on working straight after high school, which may require less planning. Still, you can always polish up your resume or start the job hunt now.

Second: “Phase two stress”, as I’ll call it, is more like walking towards the edge of the cliff. It’s the time when you realize high school is ending soon. And life is about to change. You may be battling restlessness/“senioritis” (a lack of focus and extreme boredom at school) as well as a desire to cling to what you know. I guarantee that most of your peers are equally frazzled by this, so talk to them!

Oh yeah, and this is when you start receiving letters back from colleges if you’re going that route (maybe this is like picking out the specific ledge you’ll jump from… Maybe we can let this metaphor die). Be proud of every acceptance you get, you worked hard for that! Try to take rejections in stride, too, even though it may sting terribly. And remember, a rejection isn’t always about you, per se. Schools have to make quotas of certain demographic categories so try not to take a rejection too personally.

I think the best way of handling this stress is to spend time with people you care about. Take time to appreciate the good people in your life and take time for relaxing too. Try to put future-thoughts out of your mind for an hour each day. Your decision making abilities may improve after having a little time off.

So, yes, this is a bizarre and scary time, but all that being said, I really did enjoy much of my senior year. I had less homework, fewer classes, and more time to spend with my friends and family. After making the decision to take a gap year and deciding on my college, I was just so excited! Hopefully you can get excited, too.

As spring rolls around, breathe in that sweet scent of freedom…graduation is coming, and so is your senior summer, which might be one of the best times ever.

Gap Year: Making Your Own Path

Backpacking through san Francisco after climbing something like 15 flights of stairs to Coit tower

‘Backpacking’ through San Francisco after climbing something like 15 flights of stairs to Coit Tower!

by Avery

As a child, you receive constant instructions on what to do from the adults in your life. Where it was okay to go, what to eat, where to play, who to play with. As you get a little older, teachers take on this role, too. This isn’t a bad thing, of course; you were a kid. But now you’ve been told what to do for 17 or 18 years. If your life is anything like mine (which it may not be), it has been structured by other people telling you what to do, and you’re probably pretty used to it.

Oversimplified? Well, probably. Still at least kinda true? I think so.

For me, this was the main reason I didn’t want to go to college right away. Though I really am excited to go to college, I wasn’t ready. I wanted to learn how to structure my own time around my desires and interests, and not out of student-ly obligations. I wanted to define myself outside of my role as a student, and fill my days exactly how I wanted to before settling into another 4+ years in a school system

Now don’t get me wrong: there is infinite knowledge to be gained from others, other people have tons of wisdom to offer, and college is a great thing, but taking time off from school was one of the best calls I’ve ever made.

There are so many reasons to take a break from school. You might be feeling burnt out after high school. Maybe your interests don’t totally match up with a school setting right now. Taking time off to work and save money may be a great idea for you. Maybe you’ve caught a travel bug. Or, maybe you aren’t sure what you want to study in college yet and don’t want to start before you’ve thought about it a bit more.

Maybe you’re hesitant to pursue a gap year as an option. It can be hard to decide what to do with all that time. But the thing is, there are so many options. You can live at home and volunteer somewhere in your community while working part-time. You can do Peace Corps, or Americorps, or work in a national park, or backpack out west, or train puppies, or work at a daycare… You can take a gap year with a program such as Rotary Youth Exchange, or plan the details yourself. Ask around your community, school, relatives, friends…You never know what you may find as a gap year option. The best part is, you can tailor your itinerary (or lack thereof) to what you want, who you are, and what you want to learn.

I decided I wanted the freedom to go where I wanted and to not be tied to the strict schedule of a program, but that isn’t for everyone. I also knew that I wanted to be in nature. A wanted a break from urban Minneapolis, so I decided to use my connection in rural California.

How do you do it?
While I was deciding whether to actually take a gap year, I was also applying to colleges. I ended up simply deferring my enrollment to McGill university; the process was really quite easy. Almost all schools allow you to do this, but make sure to check with the school first. You can also reapply to colleges during your gap year, though this can be a little harder without the support of your high school.

My Plan
I decided to set my year up in “semesters”, having 2 main projects during the school year time frame. It looked something like this:

September and October: Traveled on the West Coast with a friend from high school, while based out of my uncle’s land in Northern California. Worked on art, read a lot, helped with projects around the land, went hiking.

Mount shasta, taken during a day hike in September

Mount Shasta day hike in September

November: I worked as a cook and laborer on a forestry crew. We were clearing dead brush to reduce the risk of forest fires in the area and cutting down trees in a former pine plantation to restore the forest to its natural state.

After the west coast portion of my year, I came home for a few weeks.

January-April: Going to Phnom Penh, Cambodia to volunteer with a human rights non-profit that works with garment factory workers, sex workers, and others. I’ll be their writer and communications person. I’ll live at a house with 3 other volunteers.

May: I’m hoping to travel around Southeast Asia before coming home for the summer!

I’m only a few months into my year, but I’ve already learned so much. My sense of independence and self-reliance has improved a ton. I’ve become more motivated to learn for the sake of learning again (I finally have time to read for pleasure after years of only required readings in school). I’ve met some great people, improved my sense of street smarts and who to trust while traveling, and have had a ton of fun doing it. I’ve been at home the past few weeks and after talking to my friends who are at college right now, I am so thankful that I made the decision to wait on school.

Thinking about taking some time before heading to college? Here are some resources for researching gap year programs and options:

Also be sure to check out your Career & College Center at your high school. They’ve got lots of great connections and programs to recommend.

Don’t apply to 13 schools. Just. Don’t.


by Avery

I don’t know why I did, or more accurately, I don’t remember how the list got that long. It seemed like, oh, choices are good. The more schools I apply to, the more choices I’ll have about where to go! Well, sort of.

While choices are good, too many choices are not. Not to mention that too many colleges on your list means too many college applications. And too many frickin’ application fees.

For your own sanity, I’d suggest keeping it around seven. It is better to rule out a school early, not to wait until you’ve cried, sweat, and strained over an application. Of course, it’s important to have a balance among the schools on your list between competitive schools and ones to which you will very likely get in.

Keeping your list short(ish) will also make writing your college application essays easier.

So much seems to rest on getting that essay right. It’s one of the only parts of your college application that is personal; the rest is mainly numbers and figures such as your grades and test scores. While it can seem like one of the more stressful components of a college application, it doesn’t have to be. Try to have fun with it (haha)!

Tons of schools use the Common Application, which can be a huge burden off your shoulders when it comes to keeping things organized. The Common Application requires just one essay (of 600 to 1500 words) to be sent to all the schools, though individual schools may require other additional essays.

This essay amounts to a couple of pages, which isn’t really that many pages considering how much the prompts require of you. Given the limited space, you should keep your writing concise and clear.

Despite the brevity required of the essay, the prompts on the Common Application are pretty open-ended, so you’ll have a lot of leeway in tailoring your essay to your life and your experiences. This year’s prompts are the same as last year’s, and include topics of personal failure, challenging ideas you disagree with, your transition from childhood to adulthood, and meaningful places. They ask about you, so you should write about you.

As for content, I’d suggest writing about something that isn’t directly school-related, unless you have something very unique and/or poignant to say about your experience at school. But given that the essay is intended to give an admissions committee more of an idea about what makes you unique, it is more compelling to read about something more personal.

When writing, keep your style relaxed but polished. Write like yourself. Don’t overuse a thesaurus, but make sure you use proper grammar, spelling, and appropriate language for an academic setting. Use colorful and descriptive language (think about how many essays the admissions committees read…Think about how you can make yours stand out). Also, get feedback from at least three people, and proofread the heck out of your final draft before you send it off!

Tons of colleges have a standard “Why do you want to come here?” type question. Here’s a secret: you really only have to write one, with variance. If you are applying to many similar schools, this is especially true. Maybe you like the size, the availability of research opportunities, and the sweet marching band at all the schools to which you’ve chosen to apply. Once you put these common traits into writing, you’re halfway done. For the rest, state clearly what draws you to each school specifically. Remember to send the right version to the right school!!!

One last thing: a calendar is a great tool for keeping yourself organized with your college apps. Give yourself ample time to get everything done, but also give yourself deadlines and stick to them. Seeing a full list of all you need to do can be daunting, but it’s better than finding “surprise” tasks later!

Okay, here’s the actual last thing: If you need help brainstorming, editing, or whatever else, I’d love to help! Shoot me an email or message and I’ll get back to you soon 🙂 .

How NOT to Tour a College


by Avery

My first college tour was at Cornell University in New York, on a blisteringly hot July day the summer before my junior year. A bunch of my family members had gone there, and I was in the area visiting family that summer so my dad proposed I check it out.

The guides gave me a thick folder of promotional flyers and info. Being my oft overly-critical self, I sighed at the atrocious waste of paper and ink wasted on pictures of thrilled-looking students who probably didn’t even go to the school.

I was in a group of maybe 25 other prospective students and fell to the back of the group. I tried to pay attention to the eager student leading my tour, but all I could think about was getting inside the next air-conditioned building we would walk through to peer at classrooms, dorms, labs, and all else. I also had four family members with me, all asking questions and (as I saw it as a bad-tempered and overheated sixteen year-old) being terribly annoying.

Cornell University was quickly ruled out.

Not because I didn’t like the school, but because I had developed pretty crappy associations with it…heat, annoying parents, long and grueling distances between buildings.

I let my sensory experiences of that hot summer day overrule the good things about the school — the strong academics, the size, cool town of Ithaca that it’s located in, etc. What’s more, I had a terrible attitude and a pretty closed mind.

I did reconsider Cornell later and decided, rationally, that it wasn’t right for me.

After that, I went on many more tours and learned plenty about how to look critically at a school while keeping an open mind.

Here’s what I learned:

  1. Don’t focus on the statistics during your tour. The guide will have plenty of these. Figures, facts, history, data… number-related information and trivia that you can probably find on the college’s website. For me anyway, the whole point of a tour was to feel the place. You can always go back to the website later to check out averages, enrollment numbers, and all that stuff.
  2. Figure out if having your parents/others there will help or hurt you in deciding whether to pursue the school. I found that my parents had too much to say during my visits to campuses. Their input was important to me, but I could more authentically tell how I felt when I was alone on my tour. At the very least, I’d ask them to give me some space in the tour group so they could get the information but not sway my thoughts with their comments.
  3. Spend a couple hours exploring on your own. The tour is meant to show you highlights of campus, the showpieces. The school is, after all, marketing to you. These highlights are important, but aren’t really enough to get a sense of how well you’d fit in, socially especially. I suggest checking out the student union, info boards around campus, academic buildings of fields you’re interested in, and wherever else you find yourself. Pretend you go there. What does it feel like? Do you see places you’d like to hang out? People who you might be able to relate to? Are there interesting activities and events going on?
  4. If you can, sit in on a class. Actually being there for a class is a great way to tell what to expect academically. Pick one that sounds interesting, and is an average size for the college. I was in PSEO at the University of Minnesota and St. Kate’s, so I was lucky to get the full experience of a college class at both a large and small college. Obviously that’s not for everyone, so give it a shot for couple hours during your college visits.
  5. Take notes. You’ll probably have a lot of thoughts and feelings about the college, so write them down to come back to later! A notebook will also help you blend in while you check out campus alone ;).
  6. If you hate a college, pay attention to why. The bad tours can be just as valuable as the good ones. Maybe you learn that small campuses make you feel claustrophobic. Maybe the big ones seem too impersonal. Maybe you’re turned off by the dominance (or lack of) sports on campus. When you learn that something just doesn’t do it for you about a place, remember it and use it in the future when looking at other schools.
  7. If the college is in a city or town, spend some time there. When I toured McGill University (where I am enrolled starting next fall), a good chunk of what drew me to it was its location in Montreal. I love that city. It’s lively, historic, musical, and close to a bunch of cool hiking areas. For some people, location doesn’t matter as much but it was a big factor for me, as I love to explore new places. Wherever the locale of your potential college, think about whether it will matter to you; it might not and that’s totally fine!
  8. Keep an open, open mind. Your tour guide could have a super annoying voice, it could be pouring rain, maybe your mom won’t stop commenting on the cement block architecture or reminiscing about her own orientation week (TMI, mom!!)… Don’t let these things get in the way! Similarly, don’t let the inconsequential good things cloud your vision either. Just because the campus is chock full of crazily attractive people doesn’t mean it’s the right school for you! Keep your mind open, but stay conscious of the judgments you make, and how you make them.

This is your chance to be at a school and imagine yourself there for 8 months of the year. And remember– every school has cheesy pamphlets. Get over it ;).

Happy college hunting!

Introducing Avery – Gap Year

AveryHey! I’m Avery. I spend a lot of time drawing, reading, drinking coffee, and meeting new people. I’ve lived in Minneapolis my whole life, and I love it here. However, I’m ready to get out and explore more of the world, which is why I’m taking a gap year before college. I’m moving out to northern California for a forestry job for the fall. After that, I’m headed to Cambodia for an internship with a human rights organization. That will take me into early spring, but I don’t know what my plans are after that. I’m super excited to try new things in the coming year and to learn a ton before heading back to school.

  • High School: South High
  • After Graduation: Gap year to travel and do human rights internship. I plan to attend McGill University next year.
  • Intended Major: Geography or Anthropology with a minor in biology
  • Dream Career: Travel writer or muralist
  • Hobbies: Art, hiking & camping, music, philosophy, cooking, travel
  • Spirit Animal: Fox
  • Favorite thing about Minneapolis: The music scene, green space and bike paths