A Guide to Cliff-Jumping: Handling Senior Year Stress

Senior-Struggles-2.jpg3_

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.