Where did the last four years go? I think that’s the question that every parent of a high school senior asks him/herself at the beginning of that last school year. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself looking forward to having your child move out and on to college by the end of the school year. You’re not a bad parent, you’re a real parent. It’s all part of the life cycle and the struggle between control and independence.
The transition to post-secondary really kicks into high gear during junior year. Most high school counselors will begin holding parent and student information meetings that are filled with tips for choosing a college, career or other post-secondary option. You’ll hear about the SAT and the ACT, and other types of assessments that are linked to college admission. I encourage you to attend any and all meetings so you remain informed. If your child is typical, s/he will not think about telling you anything about the transition process until and unless there’s a deadline to meet, and they are very late. At these types of meetings, you’ll get timelines and good tips for staying on track and ahead of the game for post-secondary choices.
• What Option to Choose. I’ve seen so many kids feel pressured into choosing a career, a major, and/or a college based upon the wishes of their parents. This typically ends badly for everyone. The best thing you can do is honor your child’s talents and interests by listening to his/her plans and by having an open dialogue about the pros and cons of the choices. My mom wanted me to be a nurse. What she failed to realize was that: 1) I was terrible at science because I wasn’t interested in the subject; 2) whenever I saw someone barf, I added to it. Not a good characteristic for a nurse. Thank goodness she didn’t press me to follow her dream; she honored mine. I entered the field of education and, after 40+ years, I can still say that I love what I do. That’s not too shabby. So go ahead and offer guidance, but avoid making the decision for your child.
• Assessments If your child is planning to attend a 4 year college, they must take either the ACT or SAT. They are very different tests. I used to live on the East Coast where everyone took the SAT. Now I live in the Midwest and everyone takes the ACT. Talk to your child's school counselor about which test is best for your child. You also want to check the entrance requirements of any colleges your child may be interested in; they will tell you what tests they require for entrance. Junior year is typically when kids start taking these tests. Some will wait until June, when they have completed the bulk of their coursework. Others may take tests earlier in their junior year because they’ve had the coursework that typically helps them achieve well. Check with your school counselor on what your child should take and when. Registering is done online, so it’s pretty easy to get signed up.
• College Visits. I strongly encourage my students to start their college visits mid-way through their junior year. Some will use spring break for visits, and others wait until summer. The visit is almost a mystical experience. The minute you get out of the car, you’ll know if it’s a good fit for your child. S/he will let you know. On our first college visit, my daughter asked me, “how much farther?” I should have turned the car around and gone back home right then. The entire visit was a bust as she followed the tour guide with disinterest. When we made the visit to her eventual choice, we pulled into the parking place and she said, “this is it.” And it was.
My son did an interesting thing on our first visit. He wouldn’t walk with me or the tour group. I finally asked him why he wasn’t walking with me. He looked at me and said, “Mom, I have to see how I fit into this school, how it feels to be a student here. I can’t do that if I’m walking with my mom.” I thought that was pretty smart. College visits are critical because kids live there. It’s not just about the academics. They have to have a life, too. Checking out the dorms, the cafeterias, the fitness facilities, and the areas for fun is very important. Sure kids can learn there, but can they live there? Visit!
• Have “The Talk”. Not every college is affordable for families, so it’s important to talk to your child about the expense. Be clear about what you can and cannot afford. Talk with the school counselor about financial aid possibilities and scholarships. But, bottom line, your child has to choose a place you can afford. They’ll still get a great education, even if they don’t attend their dream school. There’s always grad school for that.
• Applying. The fall will be a flurry of completing applications, writing college essays, filling out financial aid paperwork, and all within deadlines. Can I just make a request here? PLEASE let your kids fill out their own applications, etc. They need to make the choices of where to apply, what major to consider, and they need to get the paperwork turned in on time. If you do it for them, it belongs to you. And if the choice turns out badly, it’s your fault. They have to take the responsibility upon themselves. You’re not going to be there next year when they’re pulling an all-nighter because they left that paper until the last minute. That’s a great learning experience. It typically only takes one screw-up, and it doesn’t happen again. So let them do it on their own. Feel free to contact the school counselor about deadlines and timelines. You can leave notes on the fridge reminding them when applications are due, but don’t do it for them. It’ll kill you, I’ll be honest. But the responsibility is theirs, not yours. If you do it for them, you’re enabling them, and they’ll perpetuate that behavior. Resist the temptation to rescue.
• Senioritis. This affliction can hit in the fall or in the spring of the senior year. It’s that feeling that “I’m done (or almost done)” and “I’m invincible.” However, I’ve seen far too many seniors get themselves into such a bad situation that they almost don’t graduate. They don’t bother doing work, they don’t study; all they want to do is relax and play. That’s a bad combination. Students are accepted at college based upon the successful completion of the school year. Many students read “you are admitted,” and don’t bother to read the fine print. I’ve had the very unfortunate situation of having to sit with a family at the end of the school year, reviewing a letter from the college that the student had been admitted to, only to read that the college had changed its mind based upon the senior year antics of the student. As parents, it’s so important to maintain academics as a priority right up until graduation. “Taking a break” also means taking a break from skill-building and skill practice, and that doesn’t bode well for college in the fall. It’s not going to be easy, but remain resolute and stand your ground.
• Leaving Home. And that brings us to that day when you pack up your car and you head down the road to drop your baby off at college. I’m guessing it may be a day of mixed feelings. On the one hand, it will be very nostalgic as you remember the first day of kindergarten and you wonder where the time went. On the other hand, you may be counting the seconds until you can drive away and leave him/her behind. My son really flexed his “I’m independent” muscle the summer after senior year. It was awful. He thought I was an idiot and was very disrespectful. I remember talking to my mom about it and telling her that I couldn’t wait for him to go to college. She gave me her great insight, as always: “God has a way of telling you when to cut the apron strings.”
I sometimes wonder if that last summer was his way of hiding his anxiety and the fact that he may have been a bit scared of the future. He behaved like a swashbuckler who cared for no one other than himself. But, as we pulled out of the driveway that day, I couldn’t help but notice that he could not bring himself to look at the house where his beloved pup was in the window watching him drive away. He had to be solid and brave. He had to be in order to have the courage to make this leap. He was ready to step into this brave new world. iIt was time for me to let him go and figure it all out for himself.
Parents worry about their kids no matter what their age. Both of mine are in their 30s and I still worry like crazy. They have blessed me with five beautiful grandchildren, and I now have the best job in the world. I’m “Grammy.” I don’t know if I did everything right, but as I watch my children and realize the wonderful parenting they do, I feel proud. It’s a journey, for sure, and there are some lessons learned that I’d gladly have traded. But those stories are for other blogs. Stay tuned…
This piece is part of a series examining how parents can help children through school transitions. Check out some of the other posts about starting elementary school, transitioning to middle school and beginning high school.