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  • Writer's pictureDanielle Kelmar

Surviving Senior Year And The College Process

Updated: Feb 10, 2020

There are proven ways to help your teen cope with all the pressures

Families of high school seniors often find it hard to believe their teen is wrapping up high school. I often ask, “Has there been a moment this summer to even step back and hit pause?” The answer is generally, “No!”

It’s usually because junior year in high school was ruthless, and the just-past summer felt like childhood lost: AP homework, internships, working, traveling, athletics, volunteer work and more. Then, there’s the “create a standout narrative” for the college application. It’s an extremely demanding time.

Collectively, parents and schools want to slow it all down, but the college system hasn’t caught up with a harsh reality––our teens are experiencing a rise in anxiety, depression and suicide. So, that leaves parents wondering how to make it all work.

Your senior may be plugging away willingly at the application process and able to juggle the heavy load of applications and APs, while many are paralyzed by the demands. For the senior who hit the developmental milestone of wanting to expand their world and demonstrate who they are, this process comes easier. However, for those who haven’t hit this milestone, they may be bottling it all inside. This inward manner can be painful and at times dangerous. The good news is that there are ways to support and guide them, as well as notice when something is amiss and more support should be enlisted.

Consider these tips and recommendations:

  • Some teens may not want parents to see the applications they’ve written. I highly suggest if you are not working very closely with a college counselor outside of school, take a look at their writing. Let them know that everyone needs an editor, even the top minds and writers in America enlist one.

  • Others may be lost on what to write for their applications. They may have a hard time getting started, or may struggle with learning challenges. If a college counselor is involved, they can help make all of those things clear. Let your teen know that the student, the counselor, and the family all work together as a “team” to make the process easier.

  • Having empathy and patience helps. Communicate to your teen that you truly understand that they have a lot to balance––and without judgment in your tone or expression.

  • Make sure the college wish­­­list is well-balanced. If the list is all “reach” schools, the essay questions may be too hard to answer, thus adding to the anxiety. In this case, you should probably revisit the list.

  • Help them set up a schedule. Ensure there are breaks, and supply some of their favorite drinks and snacks. Healthy, of course! 

  • Work with your teen to ensure good nutrition, including protein, and some social time. They also should get at least seven hours of sleep each night, and exercise 4-5 days a week. A balanced life is important.

  • Show kindness. While we know this usually comes naturally for parents, it’s especially important now. Kindness and tenderness may not totally stop the madness, but it will certainly slow it down.

  • Most of all, frequently tell them how proud you are. This expression can ease stress, and has been shown to decrease anxiety and even suicidal thoughts. Let your teen know that there’s no way they will disappoint you, and that you will love them and be proud of them no matter what happens. When you do this, think of it like you’re flashing a neon light. A teen under extreme stress may not hear you, so you must really say it clearly and look them in the eye to ensure they get the message!

And what if your senior is planning a gap year? For them, the same strategies apply. They too may be stuck or paralyzed by the college application process. Teaming up with your teen to set boundaries about expectations and goals is very important, as it’s too easy for procrastination to set in. This is key to decreasing their anxiety.

Lastly, we sometimes cannot tell whether a teen is in true pain, or simply overloaded. This is when the village of loved ones needs to pay even more attention. A teen who asks to come home on the first week of school should not be alone. If you notice a decrease in appetite, sleeping more, not spending time with friends, or any sort of unusual behavior, then it’s time to call for support. That support is calling for a therapist to meet with your teen. Always trust your instincts on this.

In the meantime, I hope these guidelines help. I have personally been through the senior year experience with my kids, so I know it’s tough. But, you can do it. And remember––before long, you’ll be sending them off to college as a freshman. Senior year in high school will be a distant memory, right? Well, maybe not. 


Danielle Kelmar, LCSW


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