The Last Exam Blues

Did you hear that? It’s the sound of thousands of graduating students breathing a collective sigh of relief following the writing of their last-ever exams.

At least, I think it’s relief.

Yes, it’s that time of year when universities across the country finally set free those students who were able to stay in it for the long haul, who devoted 4, 5, 6, even 7 years of their lives to completing an undergraduate degree. Students who devoted thousands of dollars in tuition and textbooks; dozens of litres of blood, sweat and tears; and immeasurable quantities of “social life” to those institutions in order to get an education and some mysterious piece of paper called a “degree” at the end of the day.

I vividly remember writing the last exam of my undergraduate degree. The class was Cultural Psychology (incidentally, one of my favourite psych classes). It was a night class, so the exam was at about 7 or 8 p.m. The exam format was predictable: mostly multiple choice, with four or five short answer and one or two essay questions.

When I finished, I walked up to the front of the lecture hall, handed in the exam, and left. I waited for some kind of gleeful moment, some feeling of great accomplishment, even a wave of relief. But nothing came. I didn’t feel much of anything, to be honest. It was kind of surreal and, if anything, sad.

To be honest, the feelings of joy at being finished never did come. Life just kind of went on—it didn’t pause to allow me to indulge in my newfound university-graduate-ness. Maybe things were different for me, as I had already decided to do a Masters degree and was waiting to hear back from the graduate schools I’d applied to. But there was still an omnipresent sense of uncertainty looming in the back of my mind.

Sigh of relief? Gasp of fear may be more accurate.

The thing about being a student is that you have a free pass on the “what are you doing with your life?” question. When someone asks what you do, you can say “I’m a student” without having to justify or elaborate on that response in any way. And if you’re like me, you procrastinate on trying to answer the question “what comes next?” almost until you have no other choice but to answer at last.

When school’s done, decisions about what’s next come at you full force. You no longer have a good answer to the “what do you do?” question that society loves so much to ask. So you might feel great after you write that last exam, but you might also feel scared. You might feel lost, like an integral part of your identity is no longer there and you have no idea how to replace it. University might be intimidating at first, but by the time you have to leave, it’s a comfortable place to be—you’ve learned the rules, the environment, the best ways to succeed. You’ve likely made some friendships, a few of which will last, probably a bunch of others that will inevitably dissolve over time.

I think the sentiment I’m going for here is that things change. All of the above—the fear, the loss of identity, the reluctance to move on—are feelings that I experienced after writing that last exam. They’re also feelings I’ve seen written all over the faces of many of the alumni that come into my office for help with “what’s next.”

The good news is that, like any other transition from one stage of life to another, people do it successfully all the time. There are services you can use (like your university’s Career Services centre, which likely helps alumni as well!) that will help smooth the transition process. If not, there are tons of employment resources in the community that will provide career counselling or guidance for little to no cost.

But by far the biggest message I can convey to anyone starting the transition process out of school, and hopefully into gainful employment, is: stay active. Keep doing something. Talk to people, do informational interviews, arrange job shadows, make cold calls. Don’t lapse into passivity, the number one job search killer.

Also, don’t feel like you have to have your career direction figured out. That happens later, when your career direction has already started happening. Taking meaningful action, regardless of the direction of that action, will create opportunities and create chances for you to influence the direction you’d like to head in.

So write that last exam, and be happy about it, if you can. If there was ever a time in your life to celebrate, it’s now. Just don’t be surprised if it’s not a life-altering moment of unadulterated joy, because it’s normal to be underwhelmed, and even to be afraid.

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