The narrative arc of schooling is that the whole process culminates in university. That is supposed to be the inflection point where individuals transition definitively from childhood into adulthood, from sheltered environments into the ‘real world’.
University years are also meant to be ‘the best years of their lives’. Given all these pressures and expectations, it is no wonder that there are many anxieties associated with making choices about higher education.
As the best way to address such problems is to acknowledge them, it would be worthwhile to consider some of these recurring anxieties.
WHAT TO STUDY?
Students are constantly exhorted to plan their futures based on self-knowledge. This is especially true when it comes to choosing a subject or university course to pursue.
As students approach the pre-university stage, they are expected to figure out what their strengths and interests are; and they are meant to have developed a sense of who they are, what they want, and what they value.
These fundamental questions are not trivial. After all, they all boil down to issues of identity. As countless philosophers have pointed out, ‘knowing thyself’ is a monumental, lifelong task.
It is an unfortunate truth that making decisions on what to study at university have become weighed down by all sorts of other much larger questions. It feels like the consequences of this choice are far-reaching and decisive for these beleaguered young adults.
The good news is that students do not have to go it alone. There are people out there who want to help. Schools will have extensive resources like counselling sessions and mentoring programmes and talks by speakers from college admissions offices.
In addition, some schools purchase external careers services like ISCO Inspiring Futures, which is used at the British International School of Kuala Lumpur. These services have a range of offerings, including personalised careers reports.
Beyond the school, individuals will have their own networks to explore: discussions with family members and friends will help students to gain a wider, more nuanced understanding of the options that are available.
Work experience placements are useful avenues to explore. Even if they don’t point the way to a particular career, they can at least clarify what might not work.
Pre-university students should also remember that a career is no longer thought of as a monolithic entity. There is wiggle room. Gone are the days of committing to a single company or career for one’s entire working lifetime.
Millennials are already making it common to hop from job to job and from one industry to another. Of course, this increasing flexibility in career paths might offer precious little comfort to students who have to think about the huge financial commitment that is demanded by a single university course.
Knowing that they can change trajectory at a later date may help remove any present paralysis in their decision-making process. An awareness of the nonlinearity of careers may also guide them in their choice of course: a student who does not have a specific profession in mind might choose a subject which will equip him or her with a range of transferrable skills.
Another way to address the existential crisis of selecting which subject to pursue at university is to delay the choice. In most US institutions for instance, majors do not have to be declared immediately. Instead, students take a cross-disciplinary range of required subjects and only decide in their second year.
Delaying this decision is not as problematic as it sounds. At first glance, it might seem like the original problem will still remain and will still have to be addressed. However, this approach might actually make sense. There are three immediate points that can be made in its favour.
Firstly, students would benefit from having a taster of how a subject is tackled at university level. Secondly, students may be able to make a more independent and self-aware decision when they have spent some significant time outside of the scope of parental influence. Thirdly, there will be a much greater variety of people to discuss these decision with at university. In sum, there should be no shame in not having it all figured out at 18.
Another source of apprehension about higher education is linked with having to choose where to go. Committing to a new place for the better part of three to four years can be a terrifying prospect.
For all the excitement associated with leaving home, there will be anxieties about being away from familiar support systems, adjusting to a different lifestyle, and about finding one’s way around a new location. Moreover, your young adult will have to live with the consequences of their own choice.
Decisions have to be made about location. A student might ask himself or herself: ‘Do I want to remain in Malaysia? If I leave, do I want to explore non-English-speaking countries? Will I have the requisite language skills and qualifications to do so? Which system will answer best to my needs and to my learning style? Wherever I go, will the university fees fit into my family’s budget? Will I flourish in a city with its variety and available networks, or will I appreciate the camaraderie and community of a smaller, set-apart campus? Along the same lines, would I prefer the bustle of a big university or the quieter intimacy of a liberal arts college? Will there be a significant population of other international students?’
Each question seems to spawn even further questions. It is no wonder that students feel overwhelmed by these multiplying considerations.
The most important step in addressing this flood of concerns is to accept that not all the requisite boxes will get ticked. In reality, what happens is that people muddle through and figure things out as they go along. Thus, the calm of a secluded campus can be livened by full participation in clubs and societies, while the chaos of a city can
be mitigated by constructing a small circle of like-minded peers.
Similarly, the more impersonal learning environment of a big university can be balanced out by forming study groups, and the lower name-recognition of a liberal arts college can be offset by exploiting that institution’s warmer, more personal alumni networks.
Ultimately, higher education is not just about planning and anticipating the actual experience. As long as there is due preparation, higher education may be more worthwhile if young adults also have to learn to be resilient and resourceful and open-minded. More than the details of subject matter and university ranking, those core skills are probably what will keep students in good stead for the rest of their lives.