The reputation of how demanding junior year of high school is can make teens fearful—with good reason. It is an important and busy year for students. But it does not have to be an overly stressful year with proper planning and the right attitude.
How can parents help their teen deal with junior year stress?
Junior Year is Busy
Students have to juggle a lot in their junior year. Heavy course loads, standardized testing, and extracurricular activities (not to mention trying to have a social life) can make it difficult for teens to balance everything on their plate.
A slow academic start freshman or sophomore year is not usually cause for concern but a dip in junior year performance can be an issue, especially if a teen is applying early decision or early action to college. Colleges are looking for upward trends in grades and evidence that students are willing to stretch intellectually and academically in core subjects.
Brittany Maschal, Ed.D, Educational Consultant, says, “Considering the importance of junior year grades, and the likelihood that a student’s course load is heavier than ever before, the amount of time spent studying to maintain or even raise a GPA can be cumbersome.” In addition to their school classes, teens also have to prepare for standardized tests, which means even more time hitting the books.
If academic obligations weren’t enough, most students are heavily involved in activities outside of the classroom. When it comes to extracurricular activities, there is no magic resume that will guarantee admission to a student’s first choice college.
Christine K. VanDeVelde, co-author of the book College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, says, “Sitting around playing video games will not be looked upon kindly—unless you're designing video games. Colleges are looking at what students do outside the classroom to understand who they are, but also to understand what they will contribute to the community once they're on campus. Also by junior year students should probably be thinking about taking on leadership roles in at least one activity that is important to them.”
Starting the College Selection Process
If present day commitments weren’t enough to deal with, juniors also need to start thinking about the future and doing college research. VanDeVeldeexplains, “Teens have to take a four-digit universe—2,242 colleges and universities—and turn it into a two-digit list of possibilities: the preliminary list of the dozen or more schools they think they might like to attend. It's no small task and it's vital that students not approach it casually.”
VanDeVelde cautions that students can get so busy with junior year obligations that often they don’t put in the time to really investigate colleges. By the end of junior year/beginning of senior year, teens should have a list of six to ten colleges they are interested in. DeVelde explains. “Colleges will be looking to see if a student is a genuine fit with their school. But if students have not adequately researched that list, they won't know each school well enough to know whether they really like it or to be able to articulate in their application why they're a good fit.”
A Tendency to Overextend
The key to having a manageable junior year is planning and organization. Maschal says, “Junior year is a busy one but it doesn’t have to be too stressful. Planning ahead and knowing that the college process is a marathon, not a sprint, can save both students and their parents a lot of time and energy along the way.”
One of the biggest mistakes teens make junior year is overextending. Maschal tells her clients, “You can not do all things and do them all well. Focus on academics first and your top two or three extracurricular activities. Do not add on clubs to pad your resume or skip giving yourself time to just relax.”
The Need to Be Independent
Teens have so much going on junior year, it is natural for parents to want to step in and help them. But as much as parents may want to take control of certain aspects of the college process, it really is up to the teen to lead the search.
Kate Roberts, Ph.D. advises, “At this age, teens want to create more independence from their parents and may have a hard time asking for help because they want to feel and appear independent.” They may also worry about disappointing their parents—not getting good enough grades, not getting in to a parents alma mater, etc.
Parents get stressed too. Roberts says, “They want to give their teens space to be independent but they don’t want them to fail so sometimes they overstep. It is difficult for parents to allow their child to fail and recognize it is part of the learning experience.”
How Parents Can Help
The main role of parents of juniors is to be a support system. VanDeVelde explains, “Parents should set the stage for an ongoing discussion of grades, activities and college applications, but they should not attempt to control the agenda. In other words, follow the student's lead.”
Be positive and encouraging but also realistic. Focus less on results and instead praise effort. Remind teens not to overextend themselves and to stay healthy by eating well and getting enough sleep. Help teens to realize that they need their best without stressing or worrying about the things they cannot control. Roberts reminds parents, “A person’s life is not defined by their high school success. It's defined by the way they approach tasks and their character development.”