High School Graduation: What Next?

Congratulations, Class of 2014! You’ve stuck through your high school years, and have made it out the other side. Well done!

And, if you’re at all like me, you’re left thinking “what’s next?”

This blog is about college advice, so my thoughts on this are specifically for those of you who have graduated high school and are preparing to head to a college or university in the fall. You’ve just finished a mad dash through the busiest part of your high school career, have struggled through senioritis and final exams. You’ve been at the top of your schooling days. And, whether you loved or hated high school, you had that building and that structure that you called home.

Regardless of what life after high school has in store for you, you can probably say goodbye to the school bus.

Graduation can be a bit of a jolt. Suddenly you’re not a high school student anymore, and you’re not a college student yet. You’re an adult, but you’re (probably) still living at home. You’ve just accomplished one of life’s big milestones, and you have the next on the horizon. It’s the short-term future that’s tricky: it’s filling these next few months.

The summer between my graduation and the first day of college was one of the longest, slowest, and (in retrospect) best summers of my life. I graduated in early May, but my school in Oregon didn’t start until late September. More than four months of unstructured time stretched ahead of me, and I nearly drove myself crazy with trying to figure out what to do with all those empty days.

Here’s my advice on what to do with your time between high school graduation and college. It’s somewhat based on what I did, and somewhat based on what I wish I’d done. It balances advice to take things easy with a recommendation to stay busy. I recommend you take the time both to look back and to plan forward.

What to do the summer before college

1. Read

I’m serious. Read a bunch of books. The summer before I went to college, I wrote to a future professor of mine, asking for book recommendations. Her (rather disappointing, but still helpful) advice was to read broadly, and to follow my interests. I wanted something more substantial. I wanted a list. You could follow my list of recommended books to read before college, or those of a former philosophy student, or a science professor, all provided here on the blog. You could also find other lists of recommended books online or through various bookstores.

The thing is, you’ll be reading more in the fall than you ever have in your life (probably. It depends a bit on your discipline, but I’d say this is almost always the case). Be in the habit of reading. Read some books you might see again, or might help you identify areas of particular interest. Read something on a subject or genre you’ve never encountered before. Find something different and exciting. And read and read and read.

2. Travel

The Dublin Botanic Gardens...which I visited for the first time a year and a half after moving here. Go see your city! There's probably cool stuff around all those unexplored corners.

Whether you can take a big summer trip with friends or family, or whether this means camping or hiking or even just wandering through different parts of a major city where you grew up. Go see the tourist attractions in your hometown. Visit museums. Get lost somewhere near home, and find your way back. Travel by bike, on foot, on a road trip. Take a train. If you have the resources and the inclination, get to a different country. Do something new.

Traveling is a great way to take advantage of this time, and you'll be glad of the stories when everyone asks what you’re doing with this summer. You’ll appreciate the chance to brag accurately on your city or state if you’re leaving for school. And if you’re moving to a new place for college, you’ll be doing some of this wandering and getting lost in an unfamiliar place very soon. Learn to travel, and see what you find.

3. Spend Time with Family and Old Friends

Soak up some time with all the people who are important to you. Your relationship with these folks will inevitably change when you leave for college. Some friends you keep, and some will fade a bit. Take time to build some new memories with everyone who has been central to your journey up until this point. Even if you’re dying to be off on your way, and everyone in your life is making you a bit crazy. Try to hold a bit of space for your community.

Take advantage of old routines and do some of the things you’ve always done. Camp in the childhood camping spot, go visit your grandparents, get ice cream at the same place you always went with your best friend. Live those old favorites again. And also try to build some new experiences or adventures into the time as well. Go someplace new, binge-watch a whole TV series with a group of friends, take up some new activity together. Make some memories with this group of family and friends that will celebrate all the times you’ve had before, and serve as a bridge for all that’s yet to come.

4. Work

I highly recommend a summer job. Ideally a somewhat flexible one. Do it for the adventures that money will buy, or the experience you can put on your resume (because sometimes even not fun jobs can lead to cool opportunities in the future—for example, Ireland is full of “help wanted” signs in restaurants at the moment… where might a summer waiting tables or working a barrista job take you someday?).

5. Skills  

Do a bit of preparation for all the looking after yourself you’ll be doing next year. Learn to do laundry. To cook some basic meals. Learn how and when to call your bank, what your medical insurance covers, and where all your important documents are kept. Learn how to back up your computer on an external system, and learn some basic tech fixes and troubleshooting while you’re at it. If you’ll be driving at school, find out how to look after your car if you haven’t already.

Take a little survey of all of the things grown ups have to do to make one week smoothly follow the one before. Can you do these things? If not, this is a great moment to ask for help while still at home.

6. Pack

Aahh... the big college move. DO NOT bring this much stuff to your dorm room. It will not fit. (Summer 2009)

Mostly what I mean by this is pack up all the childhood stuff that is less meaningful to you now. That doesn’t mean throwing everything away—unless you absolutely have to, I recommend leaving your room looking something like it does now, so you can come back for winter break to your house feeling like home. But probably you have a closet full of clothes you don’t wear and things you haven’t used in ages. I know I had about twelve pairs of pajama pants I hadn’t put on in years, but was keeping “just in case.” If it’s significant, keep it. If it’s not, pack it up, give it away, or toss it. You’ll be happy to have less clutter to deal with when you come back.

7. Dream

Do some dreaming. Write some manic lists of things you hope you’ll do someday. Make lists of skills you want to learn and concepts you’d like to understand. Write out places you’d like to visit and experiences you’d like to have. Make them as pie-in-the-sky as you’d like. But write several separate lists over the course of the summer. Do some dreaming and some scheming. Let yourself go down paths of wild imaginings.

Keep these mostly to yourself, or to particularly sympathetic friends. This is not a list of set-in-stone plans for your life. This is letting yourself imagine all that could be, and should be kept for reference and inspiration.

Keep these lists. Write down their dates. Write new ones as time goes on. Then you’ll never be stuck for ideas when you find yourself with time on your hands.

8. Learn something new  

Learn one new thing, from start to finish. Maybe it’s something practical, like how to create a website or how to speak Spanish or First Aid. Or maybe it’s something like crochet or gardening or bookbinding. Or ping-pong. Or guitar.

There’s a practical reason for doing this, whatever you choose. College is far more self-directed than high school. Learn how to learn. Learn what it is to teach yourself how to do something, and how to seek out information when you need it. Learn how to motivate yourself and how to manage your time, and how to nurture an interest from a first tentative google search until you feel confident and competent.

Plus, teaching yourself something is awesome. Imagine how much cooler you’ll be when you can competently salsa dance or bake bread or maintain your bike.

9. Say thank you

Take a bit of time to appreciate and affirm all those who have supported you in life thus far. Send thank-you letters (or emails, if that’s more comfortable). Thank old teachers, coaches, bosses, family friends, mentors, and friends. This is good practice at all times in your life, but particularly when closing one chapter and moving to the next. Write a list and send a few words (or a few hundred) to all those who’ve helped you so far. Gratitude is one of the truest virtues, and thanking the people who have helped us is one of the best things we can do for making the world a better place.

10. Don’t worry

Try really, really hard not to worry. College will have its ups and downs, but you will find your niche, make friends, get through your classes, and generally find your way through. Relax, deep breaths, and enjoy your summer!


If you enjoyed this post, please check out guest post "The Transition from High School to College, by 'Professor X,'" and blog post "How High School AP Classes Got Me a Job."

Please leave any comments, questions, reactions, suggestions, or general thoughts in the comments below! I promise to write a similar blog post for college graduation in the near future.