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Junior Year Advice: Ignore the Stress, Focus on Making Good Choices

My oldest just started his junior year of high school. I’d like to think it will be an exciting one, yet if I had a dime for every time someone told me we are entering the worst period of our lives, well, let’s just say I could pay for his college.

From offering unsolicited advice on which colleges we “must” visit (despite never asking about his interests or intended major) to inquiring about which AP courses and SAT subject tests he’ll be taking, the amount of suggestions we’ve received is overwhelming.

Every interaction with well-meaning friends and family is inducing flashbacks to the months before I gave birth, when even strangers took the opportunity to share their labor and delivery horror stories with me.

JUNIOR YEAR ADVICE

To minimize the stress, I turned to Suzanne Shaffer, founder of ParentingForCollege.com, who shared her strategies for navigating junior year as smoothly as possible:

Recognize that not all advice is credible

Parents aren’t the only ones getting plenty of input. “Your student must deal with comments from his or her peers as well,” notes Shaffer. “Everyone has a story and a complaint. Some are useful and valid; most are not.”

When it comes to suggestions, consider the source. “Be selective and investigative all the advice you receive,” says Shaffer. “Just like not everything you read on the internet is true, even if it’s posted in a college parent forum, it might not be accurate. Sift through the useful information and throw out the nonsense. Before you take it as gospel, verify it with other sources.”

Shaffer advises going right to professionals for objective insight. “The best advice comes from the experts,” she says. “These are college professionals and industry experts whose advice and instruction are endorsed by others in the field of college prep. Any guidance devoid of these recommendations you should take with the grain of salt. Even though there’s nothing wrong with asking for help and input from others, make sure the person you ask knows what they are talking about–what’s good for one student is not necessarily good for another.”

Accept that this will be an emotional time—for everyone

“Any parent who has been on a college visit with their teen will attest to the emotional roller coaster that often ensues,” says Shaffer. “This is a huge step for him and emotions are going to play a big part in the visits.”

“Parents should give their child the freedom to express their feelings on each college and try not to add pressure with their own opinions,” she advises. “There will eventually be a college that is that perfect fit. He may act calm, cool and collected, but he feels the pressure to make the right college choice. Let him make his own choices. Guide, but do not put your foot down and tell him he can only attend your alma mater or a college close to home. Your teen needs to make the choice since he will be attending the college for the next four years. If he doesn’t like it, he won’t be happy and stay when struggles come.”

Get organized

Whether it’s registering for standardized testing or signing up for a college tour, staying organized and on top of important dates can remove some of the stress while eliminating the potential to miss key deadlines.

Applying to colleges is an involved and complex undertaking, requiring vast amounts of paperwork and preparation,” said Shaffer. “The more organized you are, the smoother that process will be. By creating checklists with dates, students and parents can ensure tasks are completed on time and in full.”

Focus on the future

By the time junior year rolls around, students know it’s go-time. Many may experience frustration or disappointment that their GPA isn’t as high as they’d like. But fretting over the past doesn’t fix it. Instead, students should focus on doing their best moving forward.

“You can alleviate the stress by creating a positive study environment and not adding to the pressure,” says Shaffer. “If you see your child struggling, get a tutor. Let her know that all you expect from her is that she does her best, nothing more. The past is the past. All she can do is move forward and face the next year with a good study plan.”

Have the money talk

Financial concerns always produce mounds of stress, notes Shaffer.

“Make time to talk about your budget for college with your teen,” she says. “Hoping your student will get a full scholarship is unrealistic. You need to plan for the worst (little or no aid) and hope for the best (multiple scholarships and merit aid). If your student knows what you can afford to contribute and what is expected of her, the stress can be minimized.”

Having the chance to go to college is a privilege. Yes, preparing for it may come with mountains of paperwork, testing, and tough decisions, but I hope my son and I can enter this period grateful and focused on the opportunity rather than panicking about the pressure and anxiety that may accompany it.

Liz Alterman

Liz Alterman is a writer and mom of three boys. She recently completed a memoir chronicling her adventures in unemployment. Follow her on Twitter at @LizAlterman.