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Student Life

When College Is a Four-Year Journey: Senior Year

Vicki Nelson


This is the last in a four-part series about the college journey for students in a traditional bachelor's degree program. Although your student’s experiences and timetable will be unique, the evolution from new freshman to graduating senior often follows a common path. Read also Freshman Year, Sophomore Year and Junior Year.

The final year of college. When we drop our first-year student on Move-In Day, this year seems a long way off. In what seems like a blink of an eye, it’s here.

For most seniors, this is a year of mixed emotions — stress, anxiety and concern about the future, coupled with excitement, impatience and a dose of nostalgia. They are anxious to be done and to move on with life and also fearful of the unknown future. Leaving behind the place they’ve spent these last four years and the close friends they’ve made makes graduation bittersweet.

During senior year, students focus on graduation, next steps in building a career, adulting, finally living out their dreams, and joining the professional world. Although it seems counterintuitive, communication with parents can increase during this final year as students try to plan their next steps.

Academics

Although seniors are focused on life after college, the work of college is far from done. This is an important academic year.

The beginning of senior year is an important time for students to do a final check of their degree map and degree audit. They need to address any remaining requirements. Failing to keep track of these can mean delayed graduation involving an extra semester or even an extra year. The finish line is close, but students need to make sure they stay on track.

For many students, their final courses will include capstone classes or projects, research projects or internships. This is also a last chance to take any out-of-the-box dream classes they’ve always wanted.

Students who plan to attend graduate school will be busy completing required testing and meeting application deadlines. Much like senior year of high school, they’ll begin an anxious time as they wait for acceptance letters to arrive.

Although seniors know intellectually that this is their final year, an interesting moment of realization often occurs in the spring when underclassmen register for fall classes. Suddenly seniors realize that they don't need to scramble to register. This is their last semester! Reality hits home.

Senioritis

Much like the senior year of high school, some students may feel less motivated, miss classes, miss deadlines and put forth a lackluster effort in some areas.

The reasons for college senioritis vary from student to student.

  • They may simply be tired of being a student. They've been in school for 16 years!
  • For some, losing their identity as a student is scary. They've identified as a student for most of their lives.
  • Through internships and career exploration, they're getting a taste of the career world. Classes may start to seem meaningless or irrelevant to their career goals.
  • Some students feel paralyzed by how much they have to do. Capstone experiences, paperwork to graduate, job applications and interviews, decisions about where to live, packing and moving — the list goes on and on.
  • Others are paralyzed by the thought of making the leap into the unknown. It can feel like going over a cliff!
  • They may feel pressure to find the "perfect" job (even if such a thing doesn't exist). What if the career they’ve chosen isn’t right? What if they take a job that doesn’t work out?
  • And some students start to realize how comfortable their life at college has been. They're going to miss having fewer real-world responsibilities, food available when they want it, cleaning services, constant access to their social circle, and free entertainment on campus.

Professional Preparation

Sophomore and junior years were about career exploration; senior year is about professional preparation.

It’s time to be sure students are ready to step into their professional roles.

The list of tasks for seniors can be daunting, especially if they haven't addressed any of these during earlier years.

  • Visit and work with the Career Office of the school. They can give guidance and provide information about job openings.
  • Secure letters of recommendation from faculty members.
  • If possible, participate in one or more internships for practical experience.
  • Attend career fairs, career workshops and other informational events.
  • Engage in networking through organizations and career fairs.
  • Prepare a professional resume, cover letter, and for some students a portfolio of their work.
  • Decide where to submit applications. Apply, follow up.
  • Practice interviewing skills and then participate in job interviews.
  • Clean up social media accounts and set up and maintain a LinkedIn profile.

And they need to do all these things while maintaining a full load of courses!

Adulting

Students have been maturing throughout their years in college, but as they face the prospect of leaving school, they may also face adulting issues that are new.

As excited as most students are to finish college and step into their career, they also realize that they may begin a life of 9-5 work, fifty weeks a year, without the open schedule and flexibility of college life.  There are so many decisions to be made!

  • Where to live? Do I want to stay close to home or move wherever in the country I can find a job?
  • How will I find housing? Can I afford to live alone? How will I find roommates?
  • Do I need to move back home? How will that feel?
  • Should I hold out for a job I want or take something just to pay the rent?
  • How will I repay student loans after the six-month grace period?
  • How do I negotiate job benefits? Retirement? Healthcare? Insurance?
  • Will I live up to the expectations that my family and friends have for me?

Is it any wonder that the research on emerging adults finds that many young people are in no hurry to categorize themselves as “adults?” Sometimes, it doesn’t sound like very much fun.

Saying Goodbye

Finally, senior year is a lot about saying goodbye. It is another year of transition into an uncertain future – and students may feel as though they’ve just finished transitioning into college.

Students experience so many “lasts” during this year: last Move-In, last Parent Weekend, last sports events, last holiday festival, last theater performance or concert, last classes. It is also a time of saying goodbye to close friends who will be spreading out around the country. This becomes a year of finishing – and of leaving.

What Can Parents Do This Year?

  • Listen a lot as your student uses you as a sounding board for big decisions.
  • Encourage your student to do an early final audit of all requirements for graduation.
  • Help your student choose or shop for appropriate interview and professional clothes.
  • Help your student make a financial plan for repaying college loans and creating a working budget.
  • Help your student understand insurance needs, health insurance and retirement benefits.
  • Congratulate your student and celebrate a lot!!

College seniors look back even as they look forward, and sometimes that means that they feel as though they are going in circles. As they face the perennial question of “What’s next?” they need to enjoy the NOW even as they focus on the future.

The journey may have seemed to happen in the blink of an eye, but they are ready to step into the world.

Vicki Nelson has more than 35 years of experience in higher education as a professor, academic advisor and administrator. She has also weathered the college parenting experience successfully with three daughters. She established her website, College Parent Central, in 2009 to help college parents achieve the delicate balance of support, guidance and appropriate involvement as they prepare for and navigate the college journey with their student. Vicki also serves as co-host of the College Parent Central podcast.

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