You are not your ATAR

When I was studying for my VCE (as it was called back then) I, along with most other people my age,  suffered from stress. Unlike many, I had little direction or idea about what I wanted to do. I felt like I was being asked to decide my whole future on the basis of results with which I couldn't identify and subjects that just didn't interest me.

In years 9 and 10, science had excited me, but as texts and exams got harder, as I was asked to memorise more formulae, and practice more challenging examples, I became less committed. It wasn't easy anymore, I wasn't the best in the class and I just didn't see the point. Why struggle and spend so much time on something that might never get you to where you wanted to go?

It didn't help that I had no idea where that was.

At this time of year, many young people are struggling with the realisation that they didn't do as well in their finals as they were hoping. They aren't able to get into the course they wanted to do. Or maybe they don't know what they want to do and are struggling with the choices they are being asked to make. Choices which can feel at times artificial perhaps arbitrary, or worse, irrelevant.

Without a university degree, a job can be hard to find. Without sensitive coaching, many young people will never be able to find that place in themselves that could commit to the hard yards needed to have a fulfilling career. And without that commitment, the demands of study and starting out at the bottom of a teetering professional ladder can seem overwhelming.

Sometimes it can also feel like it is not worth the effort. That is why university rates of retention are so low in the first year of study. According to a recent article in The Australian, the national average drop-out rate for first years in 2016 was 21.09 per cent, with many students opting to change courses and some leaving university altogether.

Many young people arrive at university, only to find that it isn't where they want to be - and many more don't know where they want to go. University used to be a place of moratorium - somewhere young people went to discover what really excited them, to discuss the things that mattered, to meet other young people and to think about life. Nowadays university has become more like an unwelcome part of the pressures associated with the vocational treadmill - expensive, crowded and at times, overwhelming.

First year of university can be a particularly bewildering time with many young people unprepared for the confusion of busy campuses, crowded lecture theatres, looming deadlines and overburdened instructors. Many students find themselves friendless and alone in the big city where the pressures on them can feel insurmountable.

Not understanding why you are there or where your passions lie can make everything that much harder.

At a time when most people are struggling with issues to do with identity, trying to decide what we want to do with our life can present us with an insoluble dilemma. There is so much pressure on young people to follow a stable and predictable vocational pathway, when the reality is that most people will change careers several times during their lives.

The decisions made at 17 don't need to define us.

Every turn we take can lead us further into becoming truly ourselves - even the wrong turns, the mistakes and the failures. We learn from every part of our lives and the journey doesn't need to be smooth or predictable to be worthwhile.

Taking time out to discover who we really are can be the most important thing we ever do. That is why we need to ease the pressure on ourselves and on young people. Taking a gap year can help us find out more about ourselves. Working at a job that pays the bills and allows us to be independent can be just as productive - even if it doesn't lead us to where we want to go right now.

 Psychotherapy can also help us discover and learn about who we are. The therapeutic space doesn't need to be a place for crisis management, but can and should be a creative space, a place where we can explore and discover, and find out about ourselves - learning that will stand us in good stead no matter where we end up.