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How to Prepare Students for Life After High School

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The topic of universities and colleges for families with children often generates anxiety and many questions. After all, we are living in uncertain times and getting a university degree is supposed to be one of those required achievements in order to reach our goals. At St Nicholas School, learners graduate with the IB Diploma and have access to more than 5,000 universities in over 100 different countries – a true paradox of choice that increases stress for many. Which country has the best employment opportunities? Which classes should my child take if they want to study ______? How can my child choose a degree subject or career now if all jobs will change within the next decade? Is it worth getting a degree from a university abroad if classes are online? How can I best prepare my child for university? Underlying all of these questions, most families would agree that they ultimately want their children to be happy and successful in their futures. Considering happiness and success are defined on a personal level, it is important to focus on the individual learner. 

This is why university and careers counseling is essential to a learner’s successful transition from secondary school to higher education and beyond. In addition to providing a wealth of information about university admissions and application processes for both families and learners, our role as a school is to guide individuals on their unique adventure. In order to discover who they are, who they want to be, and how they can make a difference in this world, learners must embark on an exciting (and sometimes daunting) years-long journey of developing greater self-awareness, reflection, and independent thinking. The following is an overview of St Nicholas School’s University Guidance process and the steps learners take in high school, Years 9-12.

In Year 9, learners should be honing their study skills and exploring possible interests through extracurricular activities. In addition to being beneficial for their overall development, Year 9 is the year that many universities will begin to evaluate learners’ academic history and extracurricular activity. At age 14, however, very few know with certainty what they would like to study at university. Even if they are “certain” that certainty can change after new experiences and growth. Lessons that guide them to reflect on their current subject preferences, strengths, and study skills are crucial at this stage.They should also be encouraged to discover new interests which can lead to long-term extracurricular activities and involvement in enrichment programs. This helps them to maintain a balance with their academic work, narrow down possible degree subjects and courses for their future, develop essential soft skills, and demonstrates commitment and engagement to universities.

In Year 10, learners make decisions that can affect their future university options. At St Nicholas, they choose their IB subjects for the Diploma Program. As many countries and universities have specific subject requirements for their courses, it is important to educate learners according to their interests and preferences. With annual university and career fairs at St Nicholas, learners and families have the opportunity to speak directly with admissions representatives from around the world, allowing them to better understand which countries and universities best suit their future goals. Taking formal assessments like personality and careers testing are also key to identifying their aptitudes and subject and career interests. We use two platforms and their tools to do this: Morrisby Profile for Careers Guidance and BridgeU for University Guidance. Educating them about career trends and essential soft skills also allows learners to better understand what’s relevant to the world today and in the future. With the assessment results and knowledge about the learners, we provide individual guidance and empower learners to make informed choices. 

The last two years of secondary school are the most crucial. In Year 11, learners should be researching universities, planning applications, and preparing for standardized tests (if applicable). At St Nicholas, learners receive personalized strategic plans for preparing university applications based on interviews and questionnaires from learners and families. They participate in workshops ranging from country-specific essay and resume writing, how to request letters of recommendation, preparing for an interview, to how-to-apply guides. Using BridgeU’s Intelligent Matching tool, an algorithm that uses data from over 28,000 global universities and the learner’s individual profile, gives learners the ability to discover best fit universities based on preferences such as location, student body size, class size, number of international students, approaches to teaching, cost, and more. With this preparation, Year 11 should have a mostly-finalized shortlist of universities to apply to by the end of the school year. This will allow them to start preparing college applications during the holidays before they enter the second year of the IB Diploma, easing the intense academic workload of Year 12. 

And finally, Year 12 – application season. In order to prepare and send quality applications, providing learners with feedback and guidance on CVs, college essays, and personal statements is essential. At St Nicholas, knowledge of the individual learners’ backgrounds and experiences allows the University Guidance team to tease out stories and attributes sometimes overlooked by the applicants, resulting in applications that really showcase their best qualities. They also learn about the post-application and post-exam processes like applying for visas and housing, and participate in workshops about what to expect at university and other life skills like creating LinkedIn profiles. 

On the day of high school graduation with a CV in their pocket, some learners will take a gap year not knowing what they will study or what job they will have in five years – and that’s okay. The academic and soft skills they will have gained from studying in the IB Diploma program and from participating in the University Guidance program will prepare them for a changing world and to face uncertainties with confidence. They will leave knowing that their agency is key to making future choices and to embrace the process of discovery on their unique learning adventure.

Ai-Lien built St Nicholas School’s University and Careers Counseling program and has been the university advisor for the past 5 years. She is a Smith College (Massachusetts) alumna and secretly hopes that one day, a graduate will choose to study at her alma mater.


  • Ai-Lien Vasconcelos

    Ai-Lien built St Nicholas School's University and Careers Counseling program and has been the university advisor for the past 7 years. She is a Smith College (Massachusetts) alumna who majored in English Language and Literature and Portuguese-Brazilian Studies. She secretly hopes that one day, a graduate will choose to study at her alma mater.


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