How to Make Life After High School Worth All the Hard Work

What's next? Here are some things to consider when it comes to life after high school.

Published May 27, 2023
Smiling young woman with smartphone walking on the street

Life after high school looks different for everyone. For some it's compiling lists of every possible item you might need in the dorms and others it's asking an adult to look over your employee intake paperwork to make sure you filled out the tax information right.

But, if there's one thing we all have in common when we graduate, it's feeling a little lost. Well, there's no better way to prepare yourself for the unknown than demystifying it.

You've Graduated High School, Now What?

You spend about twelve years of your life working towards this mythical end-goal of graduating high school. But, once you've got that diploma in hand and no concrete goal ahead of you, you can feel like a marionette doll whose strings have been cut. No matter how much helpful advice you read in congratulations cards or sitcoms you see play out the trials that pop up in early adulthood, there's no comprehensive packet to reference.

Having the whole world at your fingertips can feel overwhelming, but it doesn't have to be. Whatever path you take outside of high school will help nudge you along to becoming the adult you're meant to be. Here are some options and tips to consider.

Seek Out Higher Education

college student using laptop in dorm

In the social environment we live in, degrees are the currency we dole out to get hired at even the most basic entry-level positions. Yet, in America, higher education is a hefty investment at every level. There are other educational options out there beyond a traditional four-year path though.

Trade/Vocational Schools

Trade schools were once recommended by guidance counselors in schools all over the US, but as our society's grown to prioritize traditional education, they fell to the wayside. Yet, they're making a huge comeback as university prices skyrocket.

While trade schools do cost money to attend - amounts which vary depending on your state - they're significantly less than university. You also learn a concrete skill (aka trade) during your training that you can immediately go to work with after you graduate.

Some common trades people learn at trade schools are:

  • Cosmetologist
  • Electrician
  • Plumber
  • Mechanic
  • Real Estate Agent
  • Massage Therapist
  • Paralegal
  • Dental Hygienist
  • CDL Driver

Community College

Community college has a reputation for being the less-difficult, less-competitive little brother to four-year universities. However, that reputation is starting to change with rising university costs. At community colleges, you can get your associate degree (estimated to take two years to complete) which you can use to enter into a career.

Or you can go to a community college to finish all of your basic general education courses and transfer the credits over to a four-year university, and only have to deal with the higher tuition costs for two years. Be careful when doing this, because not every university will accept community college credits. Private universities are less likely to accept all of your credits, so they might end up foiling your plans.

The biggest appeal of attending community college is that they're substantially less expensive than university, but their accredited courses look the same on the diploma as a university's does.


The traditional pathway that's marketed to teens today is the four-year university. Both private and public universities have their pros and cons, but one of the biggest controversies surrounding higher education in the past few years is rising costs.

With student loan debt mounting, it's a good idea to think about what exactly you want to do for a career and see if it requires a four-year degree. The kind of money that university costs means you don't want to make assumptions about the kind of requirements your career path needs.

Quick Tip

If you were unsure of your plans after high school during senior year, you're not out of luck if you decide on higher education. Some schools or community colleges have rolling admissions options that may allow you to be accepted and enroll in about a month. Less exclusive colleges may also have later application deadlines.

Online Degree Programs

Choosing to take classes online through an accredited college or university is another option for today's teens after they graduate high school. While you won't get the traditional on-campus experience, there are lots of other perks, including flexibility and possibly lower tuition costs.

Gain Life Experience Through Non-Academic Pathways

Female Engineer Measuring Voltage

After you graduate from 12 straight years of education, you don't have to feel pressured into signing for several more years of the same thing. There are other things you can do after high school as you move forward in life.

Take a Gap Year

Taking a gap year simply means that you decide to wait a year before committing to any kind of educational program. It's a great idea if high school left you really burnt out or you're hoping to figure out what excites you from a career standpoint.

However, it can be all too easy to turn a gap year into a gap forever. So, give yourself an end date that you're ready to commit to. So when that day comes, you can either choose to follow a career, an educational path, or something else.

Jump Into the Workforce

Many graduated high school students jump right into the workforce. It's a great way to start gaining valuable job experience that you can use in the future while also financially supporting yourself. Getting a job and working every day is a great way to begin to discover the skills, roles, and environments that you thrive in and the ones that you don't enjoy all that much.

Gain New Skills With Skill-Specific Courses

You can also take a hybrid approach to your immediate future. Explore the different options ahead of you in a less financially committed way while supporting yourself by trying out a few online courses. There are so many different course programs out there, like Skillshare or Coursera, that can teach you valuable life and job skills for a fraction of the cost of university. Similarly, you get to take it at your own pace and can focus on only the things you're interested in.

Things Many Adults Wish They Knew Before Graduating High School

Hindsight is 20/20, and every adult looks back on their early adulthood wishing there were some things they'd done differently. But, as is often the case, you don't know what you don't know. So, use these hard-earned cheat codes from the adults who've been in your shoes.

Be Sensible With Your Money and Budget

It's so tempting to blow through your first few paychecks. And while we definitely encourage enjoying the money you're getting for your hard work, it's never too early of a time to save. It might be years down the line that you're looking at making a larger purchase, but when it comes, you'll be wishing you hadn't cashed that bonus check in on a restaurant-quality soda machine.

Set up a budget as early as possible so that by the time you really need one, sticking to it will be like second nature.

Start Building Your Credit

Credit is a vital part of adulting that you just can't avoid. But, if you're not accruing debt and paying it off, you're not building credit. So, it might be time to get yourself a credit card, as it's the easiest way to build a consistent credit profile.

Quick Tip

If you're worried about racking up credit card debt, decide to only use your credit card on one specific purchase. For example, only use your credit card to fill up your gas tank. Then, you can easily pay it off every month, build good credit, and avoid accruing debt.

Enjoy Life While You're Young

You might feel like you need to figure out your five-year-plan and hustle to make every second count towards building a career. But looking back, so many adults wish that they'd really enjoyed life while they were young. When you've got disposable income, no partner or kids to be accountable for, and no serious bills to save for, life is an open world just waiting to be explored.

That's not to say you can't explore it when you're older, there are just more roadblocks in the way. Take those road trips, visit the strange sites you want to see, and stay up late at night while it's still as easy as waking up in the morning and just going.

Employers Care More About Experience Than Good Grades

In higher education, good grades really serve one purpose - moving you onto the next stage of higher education. Most employers will never go through your transcript to see what grades you made on your courses. All you need to do is get the degree.

But, something that will give you a leg up on other college grads is job experience. Now, college is a full-time job, but in the summers or during the semester, try to do internships, connect with people in your field, and take on small projects. Build a portfolio of skills and connections that you can use to make yourself the best candidate for a post-grad job.

Your Don't Have to Make Your Passion a Career

Hustle culture and capitalism have created this compulsion where many people feel like they're a failure if they're not somehow profiting off of their passions. But, you don't have to turn all of your passions into careers. Some things you can keep just as hobbies.

Once you start getting to paid to do something you love, it might lose that veneer of pure pleasantness. A hobby doesn't have deadlines or metrics or expectations. Of course, you can be passionate about your work, but you don't have to take everything you love to do outside of work and make it into a side business.

Growing Up Means Growing Apart From Some People

Humans are meant to evolve. You're going to be a vastly different person at 30 than you are at 18. Naturally, that means you'll lose people along the way. But you'll gain new ones that match your place in life and don't expect you to be a past version of yourself. In order to grow, you have to surround yourself with people who push you to be a better version of yourself every day.

Life After High School Moves On

The earliest days in your adulthood are some of the hardest. You'll push your independence and self-reliance to the very brink. But life goes on. Every day presents a new challenge, and no matter what you choose to do after high school, you'll learn to navigate adulthood through trial and error. And you'll come out on the other side more self-confident and assured because of it.

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How to Make Life After High School Worth All the Hard Work