Now fully-fledged adults, the recent graduates of the class of 2023 have made the seamless transition from their campuses to the “real world”. Free from the shackles of a structured education system, they’re finally able to pursue the paths they’ve set for themselves—all with no ambiguity whatsoever as to what their futures hold.
Okay, probably not. But it always feels like everyone’s got their stuff together except for you, right?
Whether or not that’s entirely the case, what college students have got planned for the next phases of their lives can seriously vary.
To explore this further, we took a look at the responses to the question “I have a 5-year plan” from the 2022 Marriage Pact surveys at Princeton, UFL, NYU, and UCLA. Responses lie on a scale from 1 to 7, where 7 indicates a clear sense of their life’s direction, and 1 represents no direction at all.
Average responses to this question were relatively consistent across schools, falling right in the middle of the scale.
What kind of people even have a 5-year plan? For starters, the more a student considers their next few years to be set in stone, the more likely they are to:
Consider themselves to be an adult,
Think that their reputation is important to them
Keep some friends at their school because they will be useful to them
Find extreme ambition attractive, even if it interferes with family and friends
Conversely, the less sure of their future a student is, the more likely they are to say:
It's okay that their partner does softer and harder drugs
Stability is just a synonym for boring
They would go on a spontaneous trip, even if that meant putting off their responsibilities
Of course, a student’s confidence in their future career path—and that path in and of itself—depends heavily on their field of study. When we broke things down by major, we found that students in the biological sciences—including neuroscience, physiology, and molecular biology—indicated more rigorous future planning. It’s not too surprising that these majors top the charts, given their higher concentrations of pre-med students. Since jobs in medicine often come with several more years of school after students get their undergrad degree, it tracks that their next few years are spoken for.
On the other hand, fields like engineering, English, or journalism don’t necessarily require further schooling after a bachelor’s degree—so perhaps the days and months after graduation may be a little less clearly laid out for these students.
Seniors tended to have relatively higher averages than their peers (the second highest at NYU and the highest everywhere else.) If your confidence in what’s coming next flounders throughout your college career, you aren’t alone.
That isn’t to say that every senior has got it all figured out. More on this later.
The more conservative students on each campus are more confident in their plans for the next few years as compared to peers of other political affiliations.
At every school, men were the most likely of their peers to have clear future plans—though their differences with women were meager. Nonbinary students were the biggest outliers, though this may be influenced by their much smaller sample sizes at each school.
At all four schools, the differences between the average responses of students of each demographic were not particularly extreme (none of the averages cross 5 on our 1 to 7 scale).
Looking solely at the averages from each school, you could deduce that regardless of their identities and backgrounds, half of the students have got everything figured out and planned to a science, and everyone else is scrambling just to figure out what they want to do next week. But the reality is not as cut and dry.
This is the distribution of responses from all class years at each school. They’re varied, and from a data visualization perspective, pretty standard distributions.
This is the distribution of responses from just seniors at each school.
Sure, seniors have had more time than the rest of their peers to think about what the next few years of their lives are going to look like, but the responses are still quite varied and trend towards 1. Over half of the seniors at each school answered 4 or less, making it pretty clear that if you’re feeling a little lost post-graduation, it’s a good bet that a lot of your friends and classmates feel the same way.
The “real world” is scary, whether you think you’re ready for it or not. All the planning in the world might not accurately predict what actually happens after graduation. That’s not to say that you’re better off never making any goals for yourself once you’re handed your diploma—rather that it’s okay if you haven’t got everything figured out yet. No matter what it feels like, most of your peers haven’t, either.
Whether your next few years consist of grinding through medical school, chugging along in a new job, or just seeing what’s out there for you, no first step you take is the wrong one.