Career Options for School Leavers
What do you do next when you have reached the end of compulsory education? This is a question that is faced by thousands if not millions of young people around the world every year—and there are far more options than you might think. The real question is not so much ‘What can I do?’, as ‘How on earth shall I choose?’.
This page explains the various options available to school leavers in broad terms. It is not specific to any particular country or jurisdiction. However, aspects like the precise age at which you can leave school, or what age you can move onto different options, or when certain schemes and possibilities close, may vary. It is therefore worth looking carefully to see what is available to you.
Leaving school or leaving education?
At what point are you a ‘school leaver’, and is it the same as finishing compulsory education?
The answer is actually quite complicated. It depends where you live, and the arrangements in place in your country.
In the UK, for example, many people leave school at 16 years old. Indeed, many schools only take pupils up to the age of 16 (or rather, to the end of the academic year in which they turn 16). However, that is not the end of compulsory education, because young people are required to be in some form of education or training until they are 18 years old. The precise form that this ‘education and training’ takes is fairly flexible. Those aged 16 and 17 can go on to study A-levels, or they can do some form of technical or vocational qualifications, or they can combine work and study, for example by doing an apprenticeship.
Compulsory education ends at 18 years old (or at the end of the academic year in which you turn 18).
However, plenty of people continue to study beyond that date—and not just in higher education. At further education colleges, you may find young people over 18 who are retaking exams to improve their grades, those who have missed a year or more of school because of illness or other issues, older adults who want to gain new qualifications, and those who have come straight from school.
This page considers options in broad terms, rather than looking at what is available to each age group. It should therefore give you a reasonable idea of what might be open to you—and you can then go and look at the options in your country, state or location.
Options for School Leavers
Broadly speaking, the range of options for those who have reached the end of compulsory education includes:
A degree or other qualification from a higher education institution
In the UK, almost 40% of all 18 year olds went on to university in both 2021 and 2022.
It has therefore become very much the ‘default’ option for many people. Ongoing study is also generally the option that is most favoured by schools and colleges themselves, because it makes them look good if more students go on to higher education. Academic and selective schools are especially likely to encourage their students down this route. However, it is by no means the only option.
Degrees are now expensive, and many students have to take on a considerable debt to achieve one. It is therefore worth considering if a degree is necessary for you to pursue your chosen path in life.
You may be interested in reading our page on Decisions to Make Before Applying to University, which considers the question of whether a degree is essential.
Further study at a lower level than a degree
Most countries offer various levels of qualification, and additional study.
These may be worth considering, for example, if you have not achieved the level of results required for a degree, or if you want to study a new subject that you have not previously pursued.
In the UK, for example, you might choose to do another A-level, a T-level or a diploma. You might also take a foundation course in art, which is helpful if you want to study art at university. All these could lead to further opportunities, including work, transfer to a degree course, or an apprenticeship.
Vocational or trade qualifications
One alternative to study at university is vocational or trade qualifications.
This will give you a grounding in a practical area of your choice, and may be combined with working, possibly even through a formal apprenticeship scheme. It is a good choice if you have a clear idea of what you want to do with your life, and these qualifications are necessary. It is NOT such a good choice if you are merely doing it to defer the evil day when you have to get a job.
You may also find that these qualifications are not necessary, at least initially. Getting a job in your chosen field may be a better route to deciding whether that is the right choice for you. You can always get the qualifications later if you decide that would be helpful.
As with all these options, the reasons for making the choice are crucial.
Apprenticeships are formal training schemes in particular trades or professions.
They are offered by organisations to individuals, and combine on-the-job learning with formal study at a recognised further or higher education institution.
A few years ago, apprenticeships were dying out. However, they have seen a revival in their fortunes, and in the UK at least are now available at multiple levels. Some are equivalent to A-levels (designed for 16–18 year olds), others are diploma-level (for school leavers) and some are degree-level. The huge advantage for many people is that they are funded. Those who choose to do an apprenticeship are therefore paid as they learn, and do not have to take on student debt. They also gain essential workplace skills, and are therefore likely to find that they are more employable than brand new graduates with no work experience.
School leaver training schemes
School leaver training schemes are similar to apprenticeships, but without necessarily having the formal title.
They are schemes run by particular organisations or employers to train up the next generation of workers in that organisation. They are similar to graduate training schemes (and for more about those, see our page on Careers for Graduates).
Like apprenticeships, these are a good option if you know what you would like to do, and wish to start earning immediately, instead of taking on student debt.
Retaking exams or qualifications if you have not achieved the desired results
If you have failed to achieve the results that you want to go onto your preferred option, you may want to consider retaking your exams next year.
This may not be the ideal situation—but it is worth pointing out that you can always have another go. Despite what you may have believed throughout your secondary school career, there is in fact no time limit on doing public exams or qualifications. You can take them throughout your life, and at any stage.
However, it is also worth saying that if you have genuinely worked hard, and put in the time, but still failed to achieve the results you need for your preferred option—then perhaps your preferred option is not for you.
If you are going to have to work your socks off every day of your life just to keep up with those around you, then maybe you would happier looking at an alternative career.
A ‘gap year’
Many school leavers choose to take a formal ‘gap year’, a year out from studying, often before going on to university.
This might be to enable them to get a job and earn money before going on to university. However, many people also choose to work for a while, and then go travelling or volunteering abroad. A lucky few may be able to spend the whole year travelling or volunteering. A gap year is generally seen as a good way to gain some skills and ‘life experience’ before further study. However, not all universities and courses encourage it, so it is worth checking with your preferred institutions before making any commitment.
An entry-level job
Last, but very definitely not least, school leavers can simply move into the world of work, and get a job. Jobs for those leaving school are known as ‘entry-level’ jobs.
Some organisations deliberately target those leaving school. Others simply specify school-leaving qualifications as job requirements, rather than a degree or other higher education qualification. These jobs may be permanent—and some people may continue in them in the longer term, moving on within the organisation, or shifting to another organisation or field.
However, for other people they are a short-term solution to the problem of having no money, and needing to save before embarking on a degree course.
The Choice is Yours
There is therefore a wide range of options available to school leavers. The choice is also seldom ‘either/or’.
It is not unreasonable to combine options. You might, for example, get an entry-level job to test out the world of work before considering further study, or take a gap year to start your own business, but with a place at university if your business doesn’t work out. It is of course true that some options will be more suitable or applicable to some people than others.
The most important aspect is that you know what your options are—and then you can make your own choice.