Junior year of high school is a pivotal time for our teens.
When my daughter began 11th grade just weeks ago, I’ll admit I felt the same trepidation I experienced when my son, now a college sophomore, started his junior year in high school.
Then I remembered this truth: While this third year of high school — sometimes lost between the excitement (and fear) of freshman year and the exaltation of senior year — can be intense, it’s also when our students hit their stride and take significant steps toward future goals. Junior year is a big year filled with big changes.
For our teens, junior year is:
- The stress of knowing the next standardized test is never more than a few weeks away.
- The comfort of classes filled with familiar faces, and finally knowing where you fit in and who your friends are.
- Having the maturity to reflect on your strengths and weaknesses, and realizing it’s better to focus on the things you do well than to dwell on disappointments.
- Finally feeling like an upperclassman.
- Juggling a heavy course load, and working harder than you’ve ever worked before. (If college will be the next step, admission offices will look for upward trends in grades, and evidence that you’ve stretched yourself in challenging and rigorous classes.)
- The excitement of getting your driver’s license!
- Too often comparing yourself to other students around you, and worrying that your less-than-perfect grades or a schedule not packed with Advanced Placement classes may doom your future.
- The thrilling anticipation of Junior Prom (should you start dress shopping right now even though the event is more than seven months away?!).
- Living in the present while also thinking about the future.
- Committing to your extracurricular activities not to pad the resume, but for the sheer joy they bring to your life. And having the opportunity to take leadership roles in those activities.
- Knowing you’re more than halfway there!
For parents, junior year means:
- Helping your teen keep their life and perspective in healthy balance, especially if they tend to over commit, panic, etc.
- Encouraging independence and recognizing you can’t do all the work for your teen. However, you can serve as a resource and a helpful guide when they’re ready to start the college search process.
- Familiarizing yourself with the college application process, including costs and financial aid, standardized tests, the Common Application, scholarships, and the different decision plans and deadlines. Have honest money talks with your student so they understand how your family’s financial considerations will help shape their list of schools to apply to.
- Understanding that going to college immediately after high school isn’t the right choice for every student, and being open to your student’s ideas about a gap year or alternative path.
- Helping your teen identify the characteristics they’re looking for in a college: large or small; rural, suburban or urban; close to home or far away. Start talking about how to create a balanced preliminary college list. This list will evolve over time, but identifying some schools they might want to apply to next year will help start the conversation.
- Visiting colleges in the spring. College visits will help your 11th grader clarify what they want in a college, and touring during the school year when classes are in session gives a realistic feel for the campus atmosphere. Your student should be the one to research websites, contact admission offices, and suggest some places to visit.
- Identifying if your teen is in need of extra academic support. They may be taking a more difficult course load than in previous years and since junior year is the last full year of grades on their transcript, their performance in these classes is important. Listen for signs that they’re stressing out too much about grades. If they need extra help, identify a teacher, tutor or another high school student who can offer assistance.
- Encouraging your 11th grader to form relationships with their teachers and guidance counselor. Teachers from junior year are often the ideal people to write college recommendations, and a letter from the guidance counselor is a required piece in the application process. These people also really want to get to know your student better and support them through a successful conclusion to their high school career. The counselor especially is there to talk to your student about any challenges they’re having.
- Ensuring your student is exploring interests —and having fun — outside the classroom. Junior year isn’t too late for them to try new things, and for you to help them identify what they’re good at. And it’s not too early to start think about how they will spend the summer before senior year. Whether they volunteer, work, travel or attend a pre-college program at a university campus, it should be something meaningful that they can look forward to.
Remember that this big year filled with big changes will mean some big emotions. There may be feelings of frustration, stress and exhaustion. It’s a challenging time for parents as well as students.
Offer support and listen to your teen. Nurture their ability to problem solve, but get involved if things threaten to become overwhelming. Sometimes just creating a timetable with your student will help them see that everything can indeed get done. And don’t forget the need for balance. Make time for family fun, and enjoy these months you have left with your teen living under your roof. I know from experience it goes very fast.