A School Leavers’ Guide to Planning for the Future

Check out all your options before you make any plans for the future.

Reviewed by Hayley Ramsey

School leavers wondering how to plan for their future

Though Mom refers to her college years as the best of her life, you may not be as keen on moving miles away from home as soon as you graduate. At the same time, Dad may even be trying to persuade you to gain some work experience before choosing a major, saying hard skills are more important than a degree. But perhaps you’re not ready for the grind either — at least not yet.

Though the “adultier” adults in your life could be making some good points, the decision about what to do after leaving school should ultimately be yours. And, because we know how hard it can be to decide when you’ve got many options, we’ll give you some advice on how to approach the situation.

Read the tips in our school leavers’ guide below and see which ones resonate with you the most. By the end, narrowing things down should (hopefully) become a little easier!

Choosing your next steps

Deciding what the next chapter in your life should look like can be difficult. As you want your decision to be as informed as possible, it’s good to start the brainstorming process early. Bringing other people into it can also provide you with some ideas you wouldn’t have otherwise thought of.

Here are some things you may like to try before the decision-making begins:

Getting advice from teachers

If you’ve got a teacher you really love or look up to, ask them to have a chat with you. Your teachers have been observing you and your classmates for months: they’ll know your strengths, talents, and personality.

Share both your dreams and concerns with them, and allow them to give you an honest opinion on where they see you in a year’s time.

Speaking to your high school counselor

Many, many students struggle with choosing a degree or university, and that’s exactly what career counselors are there for. On the surface, you may appear undecided about whether college is right for you; beneath that, however, may lie the fact that you’re uncertain what you should spend the rest of your life doing.

Taking a career test

If you don’t have access to a career counselor, there are plenty of career-matching tests you can take online to take some of the guesswork out of choosing a major. These tests, such as our own, CareerHunter, are typically created by career experts and psychologists and can help eliminate your uncertainty.

Visiting colleges

Seeing a campus in full swing could help you visualize yourself there — or not! Either way, we encourage you to keep an eye out for college visit days or go for a walk around public campus areas. You could even contact university admissions, who will be happy to answer any questions that come to mind.

Talking to friends for inspiration

They may drive you mad half of the time, but you’d trust your friends with your life — figuratively, at least. Though you’ve probably discussed your future plans with one another, to what depth did you go? How much of your fear, excitement, hope, and confusion did you share? Our advice is to talk openly to as many of your peers as possible. After all, they have a firsthand understanding of what you’re experiencing.


Big decisions can be a big source of anxiety. Make sure you prioritize your mental and physical well-being during this time. Minimizing stress can even help you make better choices.

Creating a back-up plan

Unless you get your thoughts in some sort of order, they can eventually overwhelm you. A simple way to give jumbled ideas a less intimidating form is to write them down in a list.

Listing all possible options can help you arrange them in order of preference. It can also provide clear-cut solutions to fall back on if something doesn’t work out.

What you can do after school

Once you’ve talked to your friends and family and done some thinking on your own, you will arrive at some great-sounding options for the future. As with most things in life, however, these options will have their pros and cons. Before making a choice, it’s important to consider the “for” and “against” for each possible scenario.

Go to university

If you have a clear idea of what you’d like to do for a living, then pursuing higher education is a reasonable next step upon leaving high school. The sooner you start studying for your chosen subject, the sooner you’ll graduate and work in a field you like. Even if you don’t land your dream job right away, college can still equip you with skills and knowledge that can be applied in other professions.

At the same time, college can be very expensive. There is always a possibility that you take out a student loan, enroll in a course, and then realize it wasn’t the right decision for you. Though this isn’t an “end of the world” scenario, it can be tricky to navigate.

Take a gap year

Gap years are becoming increasingly more popular, and for good reason. Taking a break from studying means you can clear your head and spend more time deciding on your next steps. Gap years also provide the opportunity to step outside of your comfort zone through travel, work, or volunteering. The more things you try, the more you’ll discover about yourself, and the better your decision-making will become.

At the same time, if you take a year out you may lose your momentum in terms of studying. Getting used to the classroom setting and endless revision time after a year off can make college an even bigger challenge.

Complete an internship

Similarly to enrolling in university right out of high school, completing an internship can have its perks and its downsides. If you know what field interests you and you’re eager to gain some real-world experience, finding an internship is the logical thing to do.

However, internships tend to pay little or, in some cases, offer no remuneration at all. If saving up money is your priority, then it may be best to find a job that requires no degrees or certifications. Contrary to what you may think, some of these jobs pay big bucks!

Enroll in an online degree

So, maybe you want to go to university but aren’t so enthusiastic over the prospect of leaving your hometown behind. That’s fine! If the people in your life or your current environment are a big priority to you, you can always sign up for an online undergraduate or associate degree.

Though online learning can grant you the comfort of staying home, you may find it less engaging compared to onsite learning. E-Learning will also mean fewer academic resources: no group study rooms, no physical library, no in-person meetings with your professors. This is why, generally, online degrees have higher dropout rates compared to courses taught in person.


Volunteering is an excellent way to gain valuable skills and experience and give back to your community. If you’re eager to spread your wings, there are also plenty of volunteer opportunities you can pursue in different cities, states, or even abroad.

Doing selfless work can help you learn more about yourself, form new friendships, and build your confidence in the process. Perhaps the only undesirable aspect of this otherwise rewarding experience is that it can be expensive.


"Voluntourism" scams are rising steadily. Before committing to an organization for an opportunity abroad, do your research. It’s important to ensure that what you’re signing up for is legitimate.

Find a job

Finding a job right out of high school is an excellent way to learn new skills and earn some money. It can also teach you self-reliance and discipline, which are excellent qualities to cultivate as a young adult.

Getting a job, however, can be significantly less thrilling than enrolling in a degree that excites you.

Luckily, if there’s a subject you’re passionate about, you could always combine studying with part-time work and get the best of both worlds.

Start a business

Though this may not be the most conventional path for high school leavers, higher education and training isn’t a prerequisite for developing an idea you have.

Signing up for an incubator program for your startup is a great way to receive mentorship around technical and financial matters. This can increase your chances at succeeding.

If you’ve just left high school, however, it’s likely that you don’t have much hands-on experience in the industry you’d like to break into. If you wait until your 30s or 40s, you’ll be statistically more likely to do a better job of setting up your own business.


Regardless of age, big decisions aren’t easy to make. Breaking down the process into steps, though, can simplify things. Download our checklist and stay on track:

School Leaver Checklist - Cover

Download the checklist

Key takeaways

As the end of the school year draws closer, you might notice your fear of the future intensifying. This is perfectly natural, so try to avoid beating yourself up about it. Accepting how you feel can help you overcome internal obstacles quicker, which can benefit you in the decision-making process.

To summarize, it’s good to remember the following when deciding on a new direction:

  • Consider your own priorities, interests, and ambitions. What makes sense for your friends might not work for you, so try not to compare yourself to them.
  • Do your research. To ensure your decision is the right one, you must have a thorough understanding of the pros and cons for each of your choices.
  • Trust your gut if it says you’re not ready for a degree or job. Ignoring your instincts and rushing to make a choice can backfire.
  • Follow advice that resonates with you. Though it’s important to ask your family and friends for advice, they shouldn’t make a decision for you.
  • Embrace change. Just because you thought you wanted something a year ago doesn’t mean you have to want it today. Allow yourself to re-evaluate things.

How do you approach making big decisions? Share any tips you’ve got with other students in the comments section.

Originally published October 28, 2016.