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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 was hoping the year would be exciting, but people keep warning me otherwise. 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, people offer suggestions that we find 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.

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

5 Tips for Junior Year:

1. Recognize that not all advice is credible.

Parents aren’t the only ones getting plenty of input. “Your student must deal with comments from their 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 investigate all the advice you receive,” says Shaffer. “Information posted in college parent forums 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. “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.”

2. 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 them and emotions are going to play a big part in the visits.”

“Let your child make their own choices. Guide, but do not put your foot down and tell them they can only attend your alma mater or a college close to home. Your teen needs to make the choice since they will be attending the college for the next four years. If they don’t like it, they won’t stay when struggles come.”

3. 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.”

4. 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 them know that all you expect from them is that they do their best.”

5. Have the money talk.

Financial concerns always produce mounds of stress, notes Shaffer.

“Make time to talk about your college budget 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 you let your student know what you can contribute and what is expected of them, you will minimize their stress.”

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’s work has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and more. She’s also the author of a young adult thriller, He’ll Be Waiting.

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