This month, hundreds of thousands of young South African are sitting the most important exams of their schooling years. But the pressures at this time are a lot more than the stresses of studying and the anxieties about how they are going to perform. It is also a time of facing incredible uncertainties about the huge life-changes that are looming up ahead and the big decisions that need to be made about their lives after matric.

We put Samantha Pretorius, Counselling Psychologist and Head of Programme at SACAP (the South African College of Applied Psychology) on the couch to answer burning questions from South African matriculants and parents about how best to make these all-important decisions:

What’s the best way to make a decision that will affect the rest of my life?

It is incredibly daunting for a 17 or 18 year old to think that they are making a decision that will affect the rest of their life. It helps to settle the fears by going through the process of making a holistic decision that takes into account everything that you know about yourself. To begin that process you need to gather all the information you can about yourself; consider, reflect on and know your skills, values, passions, talents and abilities really well. During this information-gathering phase it also helps to consult with people you trust and have your best interests at heart. Those might be your parents, teachers, other family members or select peers. Find out from them what they perceive about your skills, values, passions, talents and abilities and consider their feedback.   You can then start to identify career fields that you are aligned to. Make sure you have an understanding of the different kinds of career opportunities that may be available to you in those fields once you have graduated from further studies. If you struggle to find the resources to go through this process alone you can go through a career counselling process with a psychologist who will collaborate with you and help you through this process. This could include psychometric testing which can be a reassuring confirmation of what you already know or provide new insights that you have not considered before.

What if I make the wrong choice?

It may seem right now that your life itself hangs in the balance with the answer to the question: ‘What will you do after matric?’ It is important to remember that while it is possible that you may not make the so-called ‘perfect’ choice initially, even a ‘wrong’ decision results in invaluable learning. For instance, if you now choose a particular degree and after your first year of study you are sure it is not for you, you have still gained a great year of new knowledge, skills and experience through the one year of training you have undergone. You will have still grown as a person. You need to try and see this not as a ‘waste’ of your time or of finances. More often than not, our greatest learning and most vigorous personal growth come from our ‘mistakes’. It helps to take the heat off your decision-making process to take on the perspective that a ‘wrong’ choice at this stage can be rectified in time, and you still would have gained many other skills from your experience, such as study skills, self-management skills, perhaps leadership and time management skills. There’s no doubt you would have improved your self-knowledge. This helps you to take on a more positive approach where you are willing to explore and open to changing course when you realise you need something different.

What if I don’t know what I want to do after Matric? Should I be taking a gap year? What is the advantage of taking one?

Gap years have worked wonders for some, and others feel that it made life more difficult for them. Before you decide on a gap year, you should seek to understand how to make the most of it and then follow that recipe for success. Because the decision about what to do after matric is so daunting, a gap year can be a good option – it certainly can provide time to mature, time to gain life experience and time to grow as a person, which in turn should improve the outcomes of your decision-making process. However, a gap year in and of itself does not guarantee enhanced maturity, experience and self-growth. It does not guarantee you would work out the best thing to do next. What you choose to do with the time that a gap year affords is what can lead to greater clarity and personal development, or equally, not. Rather than leave the outcomes of a gap year to chance, you can rather define the outcomes you want and then plan how to achieve them in the time you have. The traditional gap year for South Africans has been all about travel and a specific 12–month time span, but the concept of a gap year to ‘take time out to find oneself’ can be far more flexible and adaptable to your unique needs. For instance, you can have a highly effective gap year without going anywhere, by allocating perhaps six months to do local short courses, gain work experience, intern and volunteer. On the other hand, exposure to foreign countries and cultures may well ring all your bells. It’s up to you to question, reflect on and know what would work for you, and then properly structure your gap year to achieve your goals. A gap year can also certainly help those who need to earn money before they can study.

How can a parent support their matriculant to make a career decision that might not be what the parent imagined?

Parents need to be as open-minded as possible so that they can acknowledge and support the individuality of their child. You can’t assume that your career path would be good for your child; or that it wouldn’t just because you did not enjoy it. Conflict with someone as influential as a parent about what to do after matric, can prevent your child from getting on a path to success that is right for them. If you have high hopes for a doctor or a lawyer in the family, and your child is passionate about graphic design, pushing your agenda can have a seriously negative impact. You have to remember that the impact of your perspective is huge. Children care what their parents think of them throughout their lives, whether they admit it or not. It is a great time to let go of the authoritarian role and instead become a fellow explorer and collaborator. Showing an interest helps so much, as does practical support such as taking them to open days at potential higher educational institutions. Parents can help with the research of different careers fields and types of jobs. They can activate their networks to find work shadow opportunities and help find bursary options. What they need to avoid at this sensitive stage is getting into power struggles. It is not helpful to be saying: ‘I’m paying for this, so you will…’ Keeping your focus on your unique child’s life satisfaction and future happiness will be a reliable guide for you as to what to do and say. It is also very important to realise that your child is part of the fast-moving, quickest-changing generation known in history. Career expectations, opportunities and trajectories have fundamentally changed over the last few decades. The goal of 3-decade long career with one company, in one industry has been completely overturned. The rate of tech-driven change is so fast that there will even be a host of different careers available straight after your child has graduated from post-school studies. The wise choice at this time is to be open-minded and collaborative.

Join SACAP’s ‘On the Couch’ chat sessions on Facebook every Tuesday night on the Mindset Facebook page from 3 November, where more questions are addressed, and matriculants and parents can engage directly with experts to get the support they need over this time.

Join SACAP’s ‘On the Couch’ chat sessions on Facebook every Tuesday night on the Mindset Facebook page from 3 November, where more questions are addressed, and matriculants and parents can engage directly with experts to get the support they need over this time.

For any matriculant interested in the field of psychology and counselling, SACAP offers a wide range of qualifications including (Higher Certificate, Advanced Certificate, Diploma, BAppSocSci, BPsych and BsocSci Honours) and a one-of-a-kind approach to learning: academic rigour and applied skills. Graduating confident “work ready” practitioners is key, which is why SACAP combines an academically rigorous curriculum with a strong emphasis on the ability to apply knowledge through the training of relevant skills. Registration for 2016 term one, closes at the end of January. For further information, visit: www.sacap.edu.za

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