Spring has arrived and if you’re a college senior reading this (or the parent of one), graduation is rapidly approaching. The month of May with graduation dates and end-of-college celebrations around the corner—and plans for senior week in full swing—may leave you feeling a mix of emotions including dread, excitement, relief, pride, and fear. If this sounds familiar, experts say you’re not alone. And guess what? Having these seemingly contradictory feelings are common and apply whether a job offer (or plans for graduate school) awaits you or not.
The good news is, given the low unemployment rate (3.8% as of March 2022) you will eventually get a job. According to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), the unemployment rate among young college grads has fallen to pre-recession levels.
Causes of Graduation Anxiety
If you struggle with anxiety, it may seem paradoxical that a looming graduation date can actually increase negative feelings, especially if you were a student who had difficulty adjusting to the newness of campus life when you were a freshman way back when! Take heart, if you’ve gotten this far you’ve successfully learned to balance an academic workload with a meaningful social life while remembering to exercise, eat nourishing meals, get enough rest and perhaps even working a part-time job.
The realization that adulthood—with all of its seriousness and responsibilities—is fast approaching can be a trigger. “There’s the safety of being a student, and that being taken away, that is often the biggest source of anxiety,” says Emily Berke, a 21-year-old senior at Drexel University in Philadelphia. “I’ve been a student since I was, like five.” Berke is more fortunate than many in that she already has a full-time job waiting for her when she returns to Los Angeles, her hometown. She’s been working remotely at school for her employer, an agency that manages producers and rock artists, but that doesn’t stop her from getting anxious when she ponders the changes she faces once back on the West Coast. “I’m going straight from being a student to being an actual member of society,” she explains. “I think it’s just kind of an identity crisis.”
On the other hand, students who have nothing definite lined up after graduation may find that facing this void is what ratchets up anxiety levels. Michele* is a 22-year-old senior at a liberal arts college who has many friends with job offers. Although she’s actively interviewing in New York a few short weeks from now has at times been a powerful stressor for her. “It’ll just be a lot of change,” she says, resigning herself to moving back into her parents’ home for the time being. “I have a routine here [on campus], I know everyone, I know what my tasks are. The idea of that ending is anxiety producing. I don’t know what my life will be, but I know it won’t be this.”
Strategies for Dealing with Graduation Anxiety
If you’re feeling nervous about your future, consider the possibility that what you’re experiencing is not genuine anxiety but a normal reaction to uncertainty, particularly if you thrive on order and familiarity. Tim Silvestri, PhD, the director of counseling services at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania says that people whose temperaments are less laid back tend to be higher achievers whose drive propels them to greater success. The bad news is that for young adults with anxious temperaments who are feeling internal and external pressures to find a job, or who have a job but are worried about what working full time will be like, this uncertainty—or novelty, as Dr. Silvestri refers to it—can be flummoxing. “Novelty trips us up,” he says.Article continues below
How can you deal with the uncertainty in your future once you walk across that stage to receive your diploma?
Here are some tips:
- Do a test run. If you have a job interview scheduled, head over to the building the day before, if possible. Acquaint yourself with its location and front-desk staff so when you return the next day, you’re no longer in an unfamiliar situation. If a visit isn’t possible, go to the company’s web site and learn the names of employees. Check out the location on a map so you have at least a sense of where it is before you arrive.
- Focus on what’s reasonable in your reactions. If you haven’t yet received an offer of employment, don’t beat yourself up for feeling anxious. “You’re having an uncomfortable but not unreasonable reaction to not having a job yet,” says Dr. Silvestri. Telling yourself ‘I’ll never get a job’ is unlikely to be accurate. Shift your internal voice to something like “This feels hard, but I know I’ll get a job eventually.”
- Zoom in. If you “zoom out” and imagine your entire future ahead of you as one bleak, jobless landscape, you let your anxiety get the best of you. Instead, zoom in. “Look at one little step at a time,” said Dr. Silvestri. Maybe you won’t get a job offer today, but you can send out five resumes. The grad school you want to attend is super-selective? Polish your essay and apply to more schools.
- Get feedback. If you’re not sure how you’re presenting yourself, talk to a resume writer. Go to networking events. Ask a trusted mentor to rate your interviewing skills. When you do this, according to Dr. Silvestri, “You’re controlling the things that are in your control.”
- Embrace “complex.” Your life right now is complex, not bad. If you got rejected by an employer, acknowledge that you’re having a complex day. Take care of yourself when things get complex and recognize that life is not one smooth path.
For Michelle, the senior who hasn’t landed a job yet, advice like this has been right on the money. She solicits feedback on her resume whenever possible and applies to several jobs a week, on average. If a promising prospect doesn’t come through, she focuses on the ones that do. Michelle also has come to the realization that she’s been through transitions before and handled them well, which helps quell her butterflies about the approaching milestone.
“Having a taste of working in the city already has made me less anxious,” she said, referring to a full-time internship she scored last summer in New York. She’s also comforted by the fact that she studied abroad in a foreign country during her junior year, which was a huge change and one that led to some real personal growth and confidence. The uncertainty she faces over what her life will be like a few months from now definitely is scary, “but it’s also a good scary,” she added, explaining that she’s optimistic due to the interest her resume has received. She’s also looking forward to getting an apartment with her college roommates and diving into life in a major city. “I’m ready to be in a larger pool,” she insisted. “And I’m excited about doing work that’s ‘bigger.’”
By Laurie Saloman