As my midterm marks start to get turned back towards me and my essay due dates are slowly creeping up on me, it’s finally dawning on me that I’m nearly done ¾ of my undergraduate degree. And with those late nights and panicked study sessions comes the anxiety of getting the best grades possible so that I can become a decent enough candidate when applications for graduate and professional school roll around towards the end of the calendar year. And with this anxiety – comes the very explicit fear that a life without the semi-consistent structure that school offers will be difficult and bleak.

I know – all very daunting and pessimistic talk for a twenty-year old. But with so much on the line at this point in my life, can you really blame me? Within the next few months I’m going to have to make one of the biggest decisions of my life – where I want to go next.

After years of working hard to build up my résumé (I’ve gone from three-quarters of a page to TWO whole pages of valuable experience in the past couple of years!) and countless hours forcing myself to stay in the library reading about realist theory and John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty for yet the hundredth time, I still can’t really say that I know what I want to do next. Will I get to be the next Amal Clooney like I had once imagined? Will I get to say that I made valuable contributions to the world?

I can surely tell you that after a few long-distance calls to my older brother and hours lying on my floor agonizing over my future, I’ve come to a decision – and here’s how I did it.

  • Panic! No explanation here, it just happened. Ask my friends – I spent at least a week only being able to talk about how stressed I was getting about even thinking about applying for graduate and professional school. I cried a little, pulled some of my hair out, and hyperventilated a little. All in a university students’ day’s work.
  • Breathe. After about a week of high-running emotions and being no fun at all, I started to think rationally about possible paths going forward. Write out plans, send out emails to admissions if you’re not sure about prerequisites and other requirements, and understand that pretty much everyone is in the same boat as you.
  • Keep your options open. While some of you may be set on a certain goal, know that it isn’t the only path that’s available to you. Graduate school doesn’t have to come immediately after getting your undergraduate degree, and you don’t have to get into law school at 21. Apply broadly, and as I’ve been told in the past, don’t put all your eggs into one basket.
  • Continue to work towards your goals. Yes, I know I just said to keep options open – but it’s important to keep working hard to make your top choices as plausible as possible. Keep getting those high marks, keep expanding your networks, and keep making connections that can help you in the future.

Most importantly, I’ve found it the most helpful to paint my life in broad strokes. I’ve finally realized that my entire future might not go as I planned back in 12th grade, but as long as I continue to work towards a main, achievable goal, I can keep the end in sight and make more rational choices about next steps – without all the tears and hair loss.