The road ahead: planning your life after highschool

When you’re stuck in school, it often seems like you’ll never reach the end. Then, the years fly by and all of a sudden, you’re focussed on your final exams pondering that big question: what should I do next? It’s not like you’re short of options - you can head into university or the trades through an apprenticeship, take a gap year and explore the world, or use all your newfound time to explore a passion. The correct choice can be hard to work out, so we’ve put together a handy guide to explore the advantages and disadvantages of each option.


Going straight from high school to university has its upside. A majority of high school students who’ll go to university will go in their first year out, which probably includes a lot of your friends. It’s a chance to be a part of your year group’s main university cohort, to be a part of the stories and legends that happen that year and be in the mix, making your friends for life.

Whether or not the social side is of major interest to you, getting academically engaged straight away gives you a head start on your career. If your goal is to get started professionally and you have a strong idea about what you want to do for a job, why wait? 

On the other hand, university will always be there. You’ll meet just as many great friends if you go a year later. In my first year of university, I made friends with another first-year student who took five gap years before beginning. It didn‘t stop her from making friends or doing any of the things everyone else was doing. 

It is definitely a good idea to wait a little bit if you’re not 100% sure about what you want to study. A lot of people find that a year out of studying will change their minds. This is a natural process that occurs as your interests change and you find out more about what different jobs people do and how they came to do them.

I wanted to study urban planning in my first year out of high school, but took a gap year and ended up enrolling for environmental science. A year into that degree, I changed my mind again and majored in biotechnology, which I graduated with. If you’re not dead sure, it can be a good idea to wait a year to make sure you don’t spend your time studying papers for a major you won’t graduate with.

Take up a trade

If you’re thinking you want to try your hand at something more practically minded, an apprenticeship might be for you. You will get paid as you learn your trade on the job, beginning from the ground up. People tend to think of apprenticeships as being just for the physical trades, like building, drainlaying, or electricians. However, apprenticeships also cover lots of other skills like hairdressing or tourism.

Apprenticeships are studied through Industry Training Organisations (ITOs). They organise the structuring and delivery of apprenticeships and match you with individual professionals to study and work under. Each field has its own ITO, and a full directory is available online.

There are plenty of benefits to choosing an apprenticeship over study. You’ll earn money right off the bat, rather than taking on debt. You’ll also learn skills practically and on the job, rather than learning an academic perspective which you’ll then have to apply to a job later.

Think about it - take a gap year
By the time you finish high school, you’ve been learning for 13 years - so why not take a break and do something else for a while? Taking a gap year has several advantages and disadvantages, but at its best it can be a rich and rewarding experience that provides a different kind of education that is equally as valuable as vocational or academic training.

I took a gap year myself - I was able to get a job as a cook after finishing high school and used it to save for a three-month volunteer program abroad in the United States. A volunteer program can be a great way to give your overseas travel more structure and purpose, as well as being the best way to meet people.

As you go through life, it’s important to learn more than just academics or skills. Over time, you learn about people and cultures, and learn how to lead a good life and be happy. There’s no shortcut to learning this kind of wisdom, but taking a year out of education and training is a great way to start.

Travelling isn’t the only option for a gap year either. You can use your time any way you see fit - pursuing a hobby or passion, volunteering, or simply working a job straight out of high school. Volunteering is a great way to learn about yourself and give back to the community. Centralised volunteer recruitment services exist for Auckland, Otago, Waikato, Canterbury, and Wellington. These services will help match you up with a volunteer role that suits you.

In my gap year, before I left overseas, I volunteered with the Salvation Army. I visited an elderly man every week to do house chores and also just to spend time with him in order to combat loneliness. It’s incredible what a difference a little bit of your time can make to other people. I thoroughly recommend 

Your future is yours
Whatever you decide, keep in mind that a year isn’t a long time in the scheme of things. Many people will change their minds after a year and that’s not a problem. Lots of people will study for a year and decide it’s not for them, before going traveling. Some will have a gap year and decide halfway through they actually want to start an apprenticeship. Just get stuck into something and keep an open mind, and you’ll find your path eventually. Not everyone knows straight away, and that’s absolutely fine.

Written by Jack Buckley