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(Almost) Five Years Later: dealing with the uncertainty of life after VCE

Anna Wittwer

June 26, 2019

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When I look back at Year 12 and compare it with my life now, I realise that the times in my life when I have grown the most are also the times when my future was uncertain. It's been almost five years since I left secondary school, and I'm about to graduate again, at the end of this year, hopefully with an Honours degree firmly under my belt. What I’ve noticed is that some of the nervousness and insecurity I'm feeling now are my 'old friends' that I got to know very well several years ago.

Something that I'm sure you're aware of by now is that generally, feeling uncertain about your future just feels plain bad. While I enjoy being challenged and find novel experiences rewarding, not knowing what my next steps will be tends to make me feel anxious. I'm not alone, either. According to the Harvard Business Review, one of the top reasons why people resist change is because we hate it when we feel like we can't control where our lives are heading. I'd always like to think that I am the ‘master of my fate' and the 'captain of my soul', to quote the Victorian era poet William Ernest Henley (you know this poem well if you're studying Invictus this year), but it doesn't always feel like I am.

For those of you currently going through Year 12, you might be experiencing some of these emotions: worry, fear, insecurity - the list goes on. You might not have any idea of the career you'd like to have after you finish your education. You might not have any idea what course you'd like to get into if you are thinking of going to university, or you might not have decided which one you want to attend. It's likely that you're wondering if the ATAR you'll receive in December will be good enough to get you a course offer.

For the first two points, I'll tell you a secret - very few people are truly certain about what they want to do 'when they grow up'. I would describe secondary education as linear; you progress gradually from Year 7 to Year 12, and as you get closer to finishing school, you are given more freedom to choose which subjects you do.

Tertiary education is most certainly NOT linear. I can confidently say that most of the people I've met at uni have changed courses at least once, swapped unis, failed subjects, changed their majors, or decided that uni wasn't for them and left to pursue other things. If they did follow the 'usual path', they've often chosen a career that has very little to do with what they studied (my lovely employer Lisa is a perfect example!). There is a huge amount of flexibility available to tertiary students, and nowadays most universities make it a priority to offer high-quality advice to students, both present and future, about all kinds of things. Open days are a great way to access this advice, but don't be scared to approach these services on your own. Universities love potential students and love encouraging them to come on board by answering their questions!

Now, about the last point, I'd like to emphasise that ATAR stands for 'Australian Tertiary Admissions Ranking' - emphasis on the word 'Ranking'. The number you receive at the end of the year represents your scores compared to the scores of the rest of the state, and it is NOT a mark out of 100. Essentially, this means that there are two things that go into this ranking: your performance, and everyone else's performance. Which of these can you control? If it's the second one, maybe pay a visit to the Avengers, they might have a spot for you in the MCU. Bad jokes aside, the most realistic approach to take towards your ATAR is simply to do the best that you can and accept any resulting outcome. I'd also recommend visiting the VCAA website to look at their resources explaining how the ATAR is calculated to clear up any confusion you may have.

It's all very well for me to try to talk down your worries, after all, I've been through them already. The future always becomes easier to handle once it's safely in the past, and I know that right now, nothing can fully take away the uncertainties you feel in the face of an unknown factor. With that said, though, here are some strategies you can employ to help you deal with turbulence in a productive way.

1. Get comfortable with stretching your comfort zone.

Try a new hobby, talk to someone you've never approached before, try a new food. The more frequently you put yourself in unfamiliar situations, no matter how minor, the better you get at handling them. I am not a naturally extroverted person, and I've found this extremely helpful for networking and job hunting.

2. Honour uncomfortable emotions.

We often barrel through life desperately trying to avoid feeling emotions that don't make us feel good, but a rich and full life involves a full spectrum of experiences besides happiness. The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living by Russ Harris is where I learned this, and it's a fantastic, easy-to-read book with lots of useful exercises to help you come to terms with the reality that humans are not meant to be happy all the time.

3. Seek help and take a rest when you need to.

I might seem like I'm contradicting my last two suggestions, but I'd argue that this is the most crucial point. Up to this point, I've been focusing on day-to-day anxieties, the worries you'd expect any young person on the cusp of their future to feel. There's a big difference between that and the kind of feeling that can completely put you out of action or prevent you from going about your daily life. Sacrificing your mental health for academic success in Year 12 or career opportunities later in life is not a good idea (and that's putting it mildly). Keep your family and friends close to you and take advantage of professional help if you need it.

Whichever methods you use to deal with uncertainty, from one unsure student to another, I can assure you that stressful periods of life can help you become a stronger, wiser and more resilient version of yourself. It's a big fat cliché, but life really does go on, and as my mum and dad would tell me, "All you can do is your best, and that's all we can ask of you.".

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