How School Undermines the Self-Efficacy of Recent Grads

Self-efficacy is one of the core concepts in developing a healthy sense of self-esteem. At its basic level, it is a competence and sense of competence about one’s ability to handle life and to navigate it intelligently. A healthy sense of self-efficacy develops through overcoming specific challenges and mastering things at which others may just give up. Self-efficacy is foundational to a healthy sense of being able to navigate reality. Without it, people feel like they are at the force of things and are mere sail-ships blowing in the wind instead of feeling like captains of their own fate.

Schools and Self-Efficacy

If the purpose and goal of education ought to be to give individuals the proper cognitive, physical, social, and philosophical tools to navigate reality and to lead happy, fulfilled lives, then education should foster a sense of self-efficacy.

In many ways, existing schools appear to do this. Students are given tasks that they must overcome in order to successfully level-up within the school system and eventually exit it (itself a large, discrete task which clear objectives and requirements). Many high schools practice their own senior superlatives in the final year with students who were the best students often taking titles like, “most likely to be successful” or “most likely to be a millionaire,” or “most likely to make a difference.”

(This ignores the issue of poor-performing students entirely — the subject of another essay — who often find their efficacy undermined by the school while in school. These students are told that they aren’t good at certain areas and competencies and start to internalize this feedback, making it harder to become better at these areas or develop a better sense of self-worth later in life.)

There’s a jarring difference between the microcosm of the school system and the complex layers of reality outside of it for many students, especially those who performed well in the system. It’s not unusual to find elite students and their peers struggling to balance work, social life, intellectual life, and spiritual life outside of the school system as young adults. Areas in which they were once quite proficient now elude them. There are fewer teachers, less-rigid requirements, and greater options than they had ever before dealt with (I’ve written on this general phenomenon before and call for a period of “deschooling,” especially among those students who identified heavily with their student-lives).

Graduation and the Jarring Complexity of Reality

The reality of the school and the reality of the rest of the world rarely align* with each other and recent grads find their sense of self-efficacy suddenly undermined, making large negative marks on their self-esteem. Imagine the difficulty of reforming your identity after a dozen years of tying it closely to your ability to easily overcome the challenges presented to you in the schools. You identify closely with your ability to understand the system and respond appropriately in it and are then thrust violently into a new system with different (and more complex) rules, often while losing the existing support systems you had from the last system.

The issue goes deeper than merely feeling out of one’s depth at work. This undermines a sense of self by showing the existing understanding of efficacy to be a mere facade. Even in areas like sociability and emotional intelligence, the sense of self-efficacy can be undermined quickly.

Imagine a recent college graduate who moves to a new city to start a new job. The job presents its challenges but the student is aware of the differences between school and the rest of the world — perhaps he held a series of internships while in college and is well-acquainted with the observations of adaptability among recent college graduates in the workforce. He always prided himself on his ability to handle himself maturely and to make friends quickly. The youngest person in his office and in a city he knows little about, this turns out to be considerably more difficult than he expected. Combine this with some changes at work — criticism from the boss, a coworker getting a promotion for little obvious reason to the graduate (i.e., in schools, we know when people move to the next level of the game as the rules are often more concretized and transparent than in other settings) — and some unrelated familial upheavals and our recent graduate finds himself at the effect of the world around him. There’s no social network he can plug himself into to instantly gain a few friends, there’s no exam he can cram for or final paper he can focus on to pull himself up in the eyes of the decision-makers. His sense of self-efficacy is undermined and his self-esteem with it.

This starts a dangerous downward spiral if he is not careful to find outlets to improve his self-efficacy (i.e., a hobby, a sport, some kind of master-able trait outside of the work setting).

A Solution? Global Competencies vs. Local Competencies

Our hypothetical graduate’s struggles come from the fact that the competencies in areas with which he personally identifies are undermined by experience. He has expectations about his own ability to cope with certain challenges built up by school but these expectations are violated in reality outside of the schooled context. He believes X to be true about himself but feedback from the world around him shows that X is false. He believes himself able to take on work/intellectual challenges (i.e., he was an excellent student) but finds himself lagging behind in work, no matter how many extra hours he puts in or how late he stays. He believes himself to be adept at making new friendships and taking on the persona of a social butterfly but finds himself struggling to break through to more than a small handful of people. He believes himself to be fit and athletic and able to make time for his health with a busy schedule but finds himself skipping out on classes and the gym because of work and social obligations.

His conception of himself and reality’s feedback about himself don’t align. He can either escape reality (as many do through drugs) or confront this feedback.

Confronting the feedback doesn’t have to be negative, though. It doesn’t have to mean accepting that one is not actually smart, or not actually sociable, or not actually athletic and fit.

One can develop competencies in areas not directly attacked by the school-versus-reality shift. Students can do this while still in school or recent graduates can do this in order to re-develop a healthy sense of efficacy.

One of the ways of doing this is developing what I call local competencies in addition to the global competencies we unconsciously develop (i.e., believing ourselves to be smart, to be fit, to be good workers, etc.). Local competencies are those areas of mastery or achievement that are separate from the largest and most-encompassing elements of one’s life. These area competencies that, should one fail out of school or get laid off at work or have a devastating end to a personal or familial relationship, the competency in this area remains undisturbed.

Some examples:

  • Learn to play an instrument with the goal to perform in concert by a date
  • Learn a complex martial art with the goal to receive a degree by a date
  • Learn how to create art with the goal to sell or gift it to somebody by a date
  • Join an improv club with the goal to perform in an upcoming students’ show
  • Join a social organization or club with duties and obligations which can be mastered in time
  • Write regularly with the goal to write X000 words by a date
  • Focus on learning a new practical skill that can be put into use by a date

Each of these are discrete, measurable, time-restricted goals. This allows you to actually track your progress in these areas and know whether or not you are making progress on the timeline you would like. Different from a global competency which may take years to even begin to realize it is a competency, local competencies are small projects of self-efficacy which can be undertaken on the frame of a few weeks to a few years (even turning into decades if a passion).

Developing local competencies insulates the individual against the existential and deeply personal consequences of jarring experiences around the global competencies. This isn’t to say that the purpose is to ignore or to run from negative experiences around the global competencies — these negative experiences are themselves feedback that the individual needs to change course or change expectations — but to help develop a bulwark of self-efficacy against these moments.


* Unfortunately, this is not an adverse effect of modern compulsory schools but actually a feature. Johann Gottlieb Fichte wrote of the importance of creating a mini-society within schools in his Addresses to the German Nation, a series of speeches and essays which inspired reformers in Prussia and the United States in the 1800s-early 1900s.

How School Undermines the Self-Efficacy of Recent Grads