Finishing school can be a time of uncertainty

Last Friday (28th April) the NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) released the 2023 HSC exam timetable. This marks an exciting time for the current year 12 student cohort who now start the countdown to the end of their schooling journey.

Each year, individual schools, the media (and no doubt every person who has ever sat for or supported someone through the HSC!) share with students and parents their advice on the best ways to prepare for the HSC and manage exam stress. One aspect of the HSC that is less reflected on is the moment a student writes their last answer on their last ever exam paper. This last pen stroke marks one of life’s significant transitions.

Finishing school is a major milestone in a young person's life, opening up new opportunities and possibilities. However, it can also be a time of uncertainty and change.  Each young person will see something different in this ending. Some will already be clear about their next steps while others will need more time to find their own pathway. Some may find the end of school liberating, whilst others may struggle with the change that it inevitably brings.

One of the most important things we can do during this transition is to be patient- with yourself or your young person as they navigate their way. It is one of life’s truths that very few of us know exactly who we are or what we want from life by the age of 17 or 18! There are also other useful things that may help navigate this change.

Try to avoid comparing your (or your young person’s) pathways and choices to others. Learning from others about what worked for them can be beneficial, but judging one person’s pathway against others is rarely helpful and can add to the stress of all concerned.  

Having a support system can help you to consider all the options available to you and provide a sounding board for your thoughts and feelings. Who is in your ‘support team’ is up to you, but professional supports, such as the careers advisor at school, a career coach or an employment service may also help you understand your post school options. Headspace Work and Study support provided by headspace National (Work and study support | headspace) or at your local Wollongong and Nowra headspace centres can also be great options.

One of the lesser considered yet big adjustments following the end of the HSC can be the changes to friendships. This can include the loss of friendships that were an important part of the last 13 years or new relationships to navigate. Research has shown that having strong social connections can provide a buffer against stress, is linked to better physical health, increased resilience in the face of challenges and improved mental health outcomes.  Investing the time into maintaining those relationships that are nourishing and important can buffer against the uncertainties of transitioning from school.

During times of change its important to make self-care a priority. This can include getting enough rest, eating healthy, exercising regularly, connecting with others, and taking time for relaxation.

Self-care also includes looking after your mental health. Change can make some people feel anxious, sad, frustrated, and uncertain of the ‘right’ path.  Know you are not alone in the feeling of being really sure in one moment and lost in the next. Talk about these feeling with someone you trust.  You can also reach out for help from your GP or a mental health professional for guidance and support if needed. e-headspace might be a great option- it offers 1:1 counselling via phone or webchat and is available 7 days a week between 9am-1am (Connect with us 1-on-1 | headspace). There are also great digital mental health resources available- try the Head to Health website for a comprehensive directory for supporting yourself or someone else.

Preparing for life after school may begin now but above all else, once that last pen stroke on that last exam falls, take the time to celebrate this important milestone. Completing 13 years of school is an enormous achievement for both students, their parents and all those that support them. We wish everyone embarking on this for 2023 all the best as you navigate these waters.


Thank you to the Illawarra Mercury for inviting Jenny Valdivia, Executive General Manager - Youth & Primary Care at Grand Pacific Health and Jo Kain, Business Development Project Officer at Grand Pacific Health, Executive Members of the Illawarra Shoalhaven Suicide Prevention Collaborative to share their thoughts for this opinion piece.