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Dear College Senior: You Don't Have to Have Everything Figured Out

Elizabeth Spencer


First of all, my dear senior, CONGRATULATIONS!

You are nearing the end of a journey that’s an uneven road under normal circumstances — and we all know normal left the building before you even had a chance to start your senior year.

You and the rest of the class of 2021 have done what no college graduating class has ever done before in exactly the way you’ve had to do it. And, you’ve done it with determination, perseverance, commitment, and integrity.

I would say I couldn’t be more proud of you, except that long experience has shown me about a minute from now, I will be.

And yet, I see your face when I offer my congratulations: tight, hesitant…like you’re not sure you should accept. Guarded, as if you’re afraid someone’s going to call you out if you get too excited about what you’ve accomplished. I hear the reservation in your voice when you respond to my “great job!” with your own “thanks” —which is an altogether different response than, “Aw, thank you so much!!”

I read in your eyes some of what I imagine might be going on in your mind:

What am I going to do next?
Did I pick the right major?
Will I be able to find a job?
What if I make the wrong decision?
I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do.
I’m not sure what I want to do.
How do I figure this out?

A long time ago, I was in some ways where you are today, and one of the best things about all the miles between there and here is that they’ve shown me a couple fistfuls of truth I couldn’t grasp then but that I’d like to hand off to you now.

1. You’re not supposed to have this all figured out right now.

I know it might feel as if your diploma should come with clarity not only about your field of study but also about young adulthood in general. But of course that’s not the case. Life is a constant series of lessons, and while you accumulated a transcript’s worth of them over the last several years, adulthood is a study in continuing education if ever there was one.

I’d be worried if you did think you have everything figured out right now. You might not know exactly what you don’t know, but knowing you don’t know everything sets you up beautifully for future learning.

2. Uncertainty is a part of life.

Feeling unsure about what to do next is uncomfortable, but it’s also entirely normal in this gig called “being human.” Uncertainty can hinder when it paralyzes you, but it can actually help when it pauses you and coaches you to make careful, considered choices.

3. The majority of life’s decisions do not come down to all “right” or all “wrong.”

Most of them (a generous “most,” and that includes the big ones) come down to “best in a certain season under a certain set of circumstances only you fully know.” It's not a case of Door #1, which leads to health, wealth and happiness, and Door #2, which leads to infirmity, poverty and misery.

So do your research, evaluate the facts, seek out some wise counsel — and then open the door that seems right for now and walk through it with more hope than fear.

4. It’s okay to do one thing at a time.

Just because you, as a brand-new college graduate, could theoretically graduate AND find a job AND buy a car AND set up your own apartment AND get involved in a serious relationship AND make new grown-up friends AND volunteer in your community AND resume a hobby you’ve put on hold AND learn some new skill AND travel doesn’t mean you should or could do it all. And it especially doesn’t mean you should or could do it all at once. Sometimes, making the most of a season means doing less in it.

5. It’s also okay to be content with less.

Our society is big on more: more drive, more friends, more income, more square footage, more prestige. And being ambitious, having goals and moving forward are laudable if they’re done thoughtfully.

But you are entering full-on adulthood at a unique time in history, which means you’ve earned the right to hold back some if you want. You don’t have to move across the country from your home of origin just to prove you’re independent. You don’t have to amass a cast of close friends big enough to start your own sitcom spin-off. You don’t have to aim for a job in the corner office. You don’t have to park your new-model car in your own parking space at the trendiest apartment complex.

Being content with older or smaller or fewer or closer doesn’t necessarily mean you’re settling; it could very well just mean you’re pacing yourself wisely.

6. You have positioned yourself for open doors.

All the hard work you put in, all the daily decisions you made, all the effort you exuded…everything you did to get yourself to where you are now has set you up for possibilities. The options you said “no” to in the past — giving up, taking the easy road, following the crowd — translate to a lot of “yes” in your present.

7. This is a great time to take some (informed) chances.

There may come a day when you have a spouse, career, children and a home — all vying for your attention, energy and commitment. If that day comes, it will be a happy day; those are all good things that deserve to be protected and honored.

But this is not that day. This is a day when you can expand the margins of your familiarity and audition some life changes you might want to make a permanent part of your show. Or (and this is informative, too) they may end up being options you want to close the curtain on.

8. You don’t have to switch gears all at once.

You’ve been a student since you carried a character backpack and had light-up tennis shoes. For more than a decade, the rhythm of your days — even days you weren’t in school — has been set by a calendar of firsts and lasts, classes and breaks, homework and extracurriculars.

There was some comfort in that pace, so it’s okay now to take a little time to find a new drumbeat. You don’t have to go from being a student to being a professional overnight. You don’t have to turn in your family key. You can feel your way along, knowing that we, your home team, are still cheering you on.

9. You’re not done learning or making mistakes in the process.

No matter how much or how little “student” officially describes your status going forward, if you’re wise, you’ll be a learner for the rest of your life. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that where there are lessons, there will be some tests you fail or just barely eke out a passing grade on. Which is okay: in real life, those are almost always the lessons you learn best.

10. I’m still here, just back a step.

When you were born, I carried you. Then, for a long time, I walked beside you. But now I’ve dropped back where I belong at this particular mile marker of your journey, watching you steer and navigate. But I’m still here. I’m your roadside assistance or your emergency exit. I’m on call, and I call it a privilege.

11. I’m proud of you and I love you.

I know this might seem like a lightweight last point, but it’s really the anchor. It’s what has always been true and always will be true, no matter what else in your life fluctuates.

It’s what you can count on. It’s what you don’t have to wonder about. It’s what you don’t have to figure out.

No matter how murky your tomorrow might look, my pride in you and my love for you are what I hope you can see clearly, on every new today.

Elizabeth Spencer is mom to two daughters (one teen and one young adult) who regularly dispense love, affection and brutally honest fashion advice. She’s been married for 26 years to an exceedingly patient guy she picked up in church. Elizabeth writes about faith, food and family (with some occasional funny thrown in) at Guilty Chocoholic Mama and on Facebook and Twitter, and is the author of Known By His Names: A 365-Day Journey From The Beginning to The Amen.

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