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Student Life

Senior Year — The Road to Graduation

Vicki Nelson

College parents, do you remember your student’s senior year of high school?

The angst over applications and essays and letters of recommendation, and the pressure around what felt like the most important decision in your student’s life so far? Even after the final decision was made, your student (and you) worried about classes, the roommate, the social life, and the transition. It lasted all year.

Well, it’s back. Your college senior is in the midst of another year of anxiety. This time it’s about completing major course work and possibly a thesis, conducting a job search or applying to graduate school, transcripts and references, interviews and resumés and — again — what feels like the most important decision in your student’s life so far: what to do next.

Oh, and on top of everything of course is that this is playing out during the challenges of the pandemic.

One big difference this time may be that your college student isn’t living under your roof (unless they are remote learning). But they may still reach out to you for advice or support or just a listening ear. According to Barbara Hofer, a Middlebury College psychology professor and co-author of The iConnected Parent, communication between students and their parents does not drop off during senior year, and may even increase.

Is there anything a parent can do to ease the stress?

A certain amount of emotional upheaval during senior year is inevitable, but there are definitely steps you and your student can take that should alleviate stress for your student and help them prepare for graduation. Here are four areas to think about.

1. Make the Most of the Present

Begin by reminding your student that, though graduation does loom, they should still be enjoying college. Focusing too single-mindedly on the next chapter may mean missing opportunities now.

  • Encourage your student to relish their experiences this year. Find ways to give back to others. Seek a leadership position — make their mark on campus.
  • It's a last chance to dig deep into their major. They can talk to faculty members and find opportunities for independent study or research. Take advantage of working side-by-side with outstanding professors or mentors. (This may already be happening if your student is doing a thesis or capstone project.)
  • They can combat “school fatigue” by finding new opportunities. Do an internship or service project; join a new club or team; during their final semester, take a class in a department they’ve never experienced.

2. No Unpleasant Surprises

While your student makes the most of their remaining time in college, they need to be sure they’re on track to finish at the end of the year. Are these practical tasks on their to-do list?

  • Look carefully at all of the college’s requirements for graduation. Responsibility for meeting these lies with the student, not the school. Your student should check requirements for number of credits, all-college or general education courses, distribution and major requirements, capstone experiences, required minimum GPA.
  • Request a degree audit if it is not automatically provided. Spring semester will be the opportunity to fill any gaps that may exist.
  • Find out if there is any necessary paperwork for graduation. Some schools require an “Intent to Graduate” form or other notification. Avoid missing important deadlines!
  • Stay engaged. Senioritis can strike in college as well as high school. This is not the time to kick back. They need to finish strong.

Is your student’s account in good order? Remind them to log in and if needed call or drop by the Bursar or Student Accounts office. Unpaid fees can hold up your student’s diploma.

3. Preparing for What's Next

While students savor senior year and complete degree requirements, they also need to prepare for whatever is next.

  • If your student is planning on graduate school — whether right after college or further down the road — now is the time to take graduate exams. They might not want the extra studying on top of all their other academic responsibilities, but postponing may mean delayed acceptance. This is also a good time to learn about any pre-requisite courses that they could take in the spring to get a head start.
  • Hopefully they've already established a relationship with the staff and resources of their  campus career office but it is never too late.
  • Your student can be job-search ready by taking time to update their resumé, conduct informational interviews or mock interviews, ask for reference letters when faculty may have a bit more time to be thoughtful, shop for interview appropriate clothes, and check all social media to make sure that whatever an employer finds there is the image that your student wants to present.
  • There is still time to line up a spring internship opportunity — or maybe even a couple of micro-internships. More and more employers expect students to have completed an internship or two, and a great internship may turn into a job offer.
  • Join a professional organization related to their intended profession. They’ll be able to find out more about the profession, follow current trends in the field, and network. Many organizations also have job boards available only to members.
  • Take advantage of any and all career-related opportunities on campus even if in 2020–21 they may be virtual: workshops, career-related speakers, career fairs, etc.

4. Parents Have Work to Do, Too!


Experiencing the best of senior year, making sure they’re ready to finish, and starting the job search are your student’s responsibilities. But parenting is never over.

There are some things that you can do to make sure both you and your student are ready for graduation.

  • On the practical side, make hotel reservations for Commencement if you’ll be staying overnight. Rooms often fill a year or more in advance for big events such as this.
  • Seek a balance between keeping your student moving forward and not adding additional pressure during a stressful year. Know when to be present and when to stay out of the way.
  • Engage your student in some life discussions. (These are good conversations for winter break.) Do they know how to estimate their expected post-graduate living expenses, create a budget, find necessary insurance, consider benefits in a job offer, plan for retirement, and make a debt repayment plan?
  • Ask about their hopes, dreams and goals. Listen a lot. And then help your student think about how to create an action plan to turn those hopes and dreams into reality.

For many students, senior year feels like coming to the edge of a cliff and taking a leap into the unknown. It can be paralyzing. As parents, we may need to gently help our students find ways to navigate this final year so they are poised and ready to make that leap with confidence and joy.

Students who get a solid start in the fall and winter will have a year with a plan — and with a lot less anxiety.

It’s the best early graduation gift you can give to your college senior.

Vicki Nelson has more than 35 years of experience in higher education as a professor, academic advisor and administrator. She also weathered the college parenting experience successfully with three daughters. She established her website, College Parent Central, to help college parents achieve the delicate balance of support, guidance and appropriate involvement as they prepare for and navigate the college journey with their student. Vicki also serves as co-host of the College Parent Central podcast.
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