The second semester of your senior year in high school has a lot in common with your senior year in college. The first semester of your senior year of high school, however, is really its own ball of wax. This article examines the commonalities and differences, and how to approach each.
High School Senior Year: A Tale of Two Semesters
First semester of senior year is the most intense part of all of high school for one reason: it’s the last semester of high school that colleges can evaluate as part of their application process.
Academically, that first semester of senior year may feel a whole lot like your junior year in terms of the pressure to get good grades and take A.P. courses. In terms of your extracurriculars, you might also have greater responsibilities as you rise to a position of leadership (team captain, editor-in-chief, band leader, etc.).
But it’s the looming pressure of college applications that really ratchets up the heat. You have all sorts of moving pieces to manage: researching and visiting schools (which is a good reason to do these before senior year), standardized tests and score reports, interviews, letters of recommendation, essays, early and regular decision deadlines, etc., etc. Your parents may be pushing you, and every adult in your life is going to start asking you The Question:
“So, where are you going to college?”
While you should have worked with your college counselor to determine your safety/target/reach schools, there’s probably always going to be that creeping feeling of uncertainty about your college apps. The Waiting Game is hard. (Check out these tips from Empowerly on how to manage the wait.)
College Senior Year: Grad School-Bound Students
The small number of college seniors who plan to go straight to graduate school will experience a redux of that college application process. These are the college seniors who want to go directly to law/medical/business school, or are ready to pursue an advanced degree (a Master’s or PhD) in their academic field of interest. (Note that most college grads work for a few years before going back to graduate school, so the actual number of seniors applying directly to graduate school is quite low.)
The stress for these graduate school-bound students, however, is typically significantly less than what you went through with high school college applications. First, they are applying to specialized programs, so they will only have a limited number of peers to compare themselves to. Second, graduate study is more about finding the best program for your interests than an impressive, “brand name” school. Third, if you don’t get into a graduate school program, you can keep applying year after year.
Senior Year: The Joy of Learning
As a high school senior, once you get those college applications in at the end of first semester, everything feels a lot less pressured. Your courses and extracurriculars are the same, but you’ll be blissfully aware that the hardest part of senior year is behind you. While there are many good reasons not to get too relaxed during the second semester, the easier tone and pace does somewhat make up for the pressure cooker of the first semester.
Many second semester seniors are able to enjoy their classes more once they aren’t obsessed over their GPA. Education can be very different when you are there to learn — not just earn a grade.
College seniors are fortunate in that they get to enjoy this feeling of “learning for learning’s sake” during both first and second semester. Your major in college will require capstone classes for seniors. These are courses designed to provide you with a more profound and personal exploration of your major, and some are even graded on a pass/no pass basis.
It is common with these capstone series courses to have small group discussion sections led by faculty members (seminars). These are designed so that you can really engage in your subject of interest with your fellow majors. Your major will also typically include a thesis project (which you carry out independently under the supervision of a faculty member), and internships/externships (placements in working environments for which you get school credit).
Second Semester: The Comparison Game
There is one unavoidable part of senior year that plays out in both high school and college: the second semester Comparison Game.
There will always be those seniors that gossip and gloat about who-got-into-which-college. Today, there is the added vector of social media to broadcast where everyone got accepted.
This same dynamic replays in senior year of college as everyone compares their post-graduation plans. However, unlike high school – where students will know where they are going to college – a good percentage of college seniors will have little to no idea what they are doing after graduation. While this makes for a less gossipy dynamic, it also means that those who haven’t yet landed a job may feel insecure when they hear about their peers’ upcoming jobs. (It can be helpful to remember that you only get accepted to college once, but you have a whole lifetime to keep pursuing the right job.)
Leaving the Nest and Taking Flight
There are some other small traditions that define the second semester of senior year. In high school, you’ll have the prom, and in college, you might do a spring break trip with your friends. At the end of both high school and college, you’ll don a gown and be minted with a piece of paper that says you’re ready for the next stage of your life. (Graduation ceremonies are infamous for hot sun and long speeches; bring sunglasses and some bubbles for fun.)
The last few weeks of senior year in high school and college do have one final thing in common: no matter how acutely you may be feeling senioritis, you know that you are on the verge of a major life transition. You might even catch a fleeting glimpse of your life as a senior and a tinge of something both sad and beautiful. You may have that heady feeling of knowing one chapter of life is ending, and an even greater one beginning.
Your senior year should be a once-in-a-lifetime experience…except that you actually get two chances to get it right! Enjoy them both.