My College:
High School

Preparing for the Senior Year of High School

Suzanne Shaffer


If you have a student entering their senior year of high school your life is about to get crazy.

Once your child becomes a high school senior with plans for college, your time is not your own. Your family (not just your teen) will eat, drink and sleep all things college.

As the year progresses you might wonder how you will survive mentally, physically and emotionally. It will be a roller coaster of highs and lows for both you and your college-bound teen.

Looking Ahead

We entered the beginning of my daughter’s senior year with anticipation and excitement. She had lofty goals and high expectations. I would like to say we were prepared, but we were not. You can be, however, by taking a quick preparation inventory.

Following these suggestions will help ensure a less stressful admissions process:

Get organized.

Start your filing system now, before school starts. Have your student set up a separate email account ([email protected]) for all college-related emails, create a landing zone for all college-related materials, and start adding tasks on a calendar (either a wall calendar or an app that can be synchronized with the family).

Here are some free apps for college prep organization.

Decide what role you will play in the process.

Choose not to be the parent who shoves, manipulates and does the work for their student.

Be the parent who encourages, supports and offers help and advice when needed. Be a coach, not a bully.

You can help them search and apply for scholarships, stay on top of deadlines and brainstorm essay topics. They may want to bounce ideas off you; they may also prefer to talk to their friends about all of this. Either way, let your teen “drive the car” as one admissions officer often told me. They'll feel overwhelmed at times, and it’s acceptable to offer help when needed, but they should take charge of the process.

Prepare for emotional outbursts.

This may be one of the most stressful seasons your family has experienced. There will be meltdowns as the stress intensifies. Your student will say things they don't mean. You'll lose your temper and wish you hadn’t.

Make a conscious effort to bite your tongue, take a deep breath, and count to 10. You are the parent, and your teen needs you to model emotional stability. Just remember that most of what is said is fueled by the stress of the process and when it’s all over everyone will breathe a sigh of relief, hug and move on.

Discuss the money.

If you want to avoid disappointment when offers of admission arrive, have the “money talk” before your student applies to colleges. Decide what you can afford, what you will be willing to contribute toward the costs, and what you expect your student to contribute.

This is a good time to discuss the dangers of too much student loan debt.

Read "Sticker vs. Net Price: Understanding the Real Cost of College" >

Be open and prepared to compromise.

Be open to any college choices your student might make. You will not be the one attending the college and it’s not up to you to choose for them. You can give your advice and direct them toward what you think would be the best path, but don’t shove them toward your alma mater or toward a college with a prestigious name if that is not their choice.

If your student mentions a gap year, don’t panic. Gap years are becoming more popular, and it might be exactly what they need. If college does not interest them, help them explore other options like trade schools, apprenticeships, a year of service or even the military.

Don’t push — it won’t help.

If your student is unmotivated, it won't help to nag and push them to do the college prep work. There is one lesson I learned from both of my kids (and the clients I work with): If your student isn't invested in the college process they won’t be invested in college.

Save yourself time, money and heartache and wait until they're ready and know that college is what they want. Our teens and young adults deserve the chance to determine their own unique paths. My own son needed to study for a while at "the school of hard knocks" but he did graduate from college eventually — after nine years and an unusual journey.

Fall Tasks

Senior year is jam-packed with tasks and deadlines. Here’s a quick overview of the key elements you and your teen should prepare to act on at the beginning of the school year:

1. Get recommendation letters.

There’s no time to waste. Teachers, counselors and administrators are busy people. With multiple students asking for recommendation letters, your student wants to be first in line.

Choose people who know them well and will be able to make the recommendations more personal.

2. Complete the college essays.

It’s time for your student to put the finishing touches on that college essay they began working on over the summer.

An application essay is your student’s chance to offer the admission officer insights into who they are. The admissions committee wants to know more about the applicant than test scores and grades. The essay gives them that opportunity.

3. Make a final visit to the colleges on the list.

Fall college visits will help your student finalize their list. Visiting a college also demonstrates interest. Once the colleges receive your student’s application, they will check to see how interested they are in attending and that will influence admissions officers.

Of course, in many cases — especially during the pandemic — in-person visits aren't practical or even possible. Your student can also attend virtual tours and events, and encourage them to ask if video or alumni interviews are available.

4. Finalize the college list.

It’s time to nail down the college choices. Look at the entire picture for each college: Is it a fit academically, socially and financially? Is your student at the top of the applicant pool and in the best position to receive merit aid?

Make sure they have some colleges on their final list that are reach schools, some that are perfect fit schools, and some that are schools where they are likely to be accepted.

5. Complete the FAFSA.

The FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is available online October 1. Filing when it becomes available should be a priority. Colleges will be awarding financial aid along with their admissions decisions. If eligible, your student wants to be first in line for both need-based and merit aid. Students must complete the FAFSA in order to be considered for federal aid and also for college-based aid such as grants and scholarships.

6. Submit college applications early.

Your student may want to consider applying Early Decision or Early Action to their top choice schools. Applying early means your student will hear from the colleges sooner and also get information on the financial aid award. Applying EA (Early Action) doesn't entail a binding commitment if your student is offered admission, so they can apply to more than one school. If your student is looking at schools that offer Rolling Admission, it would be great to hear from those early as well.

This is an exciting time in the life of your teen! They've worked hard and have so much to look forward to. They should be proud of themselves (and you can be proud as well).

Enjoy the year ahead, even when you feel stressed and overwhelmed. It will pass all too quickly and before you know it, they will be walking across the stage to accept their diploma and get ready to head to college — or out into the big wide world.

Suzanne Shaffer counsels students and families through her blog, Parenting for College. Her advice has been featured in print and online on Huffington Post, Yahoo Finance, U.S. News College, TeenLife, Smart College Visit, Road2College and more.

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