Select viewing preference

Stress Is Not a Given: 5 Ways to Support Your High School Senior

September 29, 2017 :: Admissionado

Updated: October 27, 2022

help students avoid stress

It’s fall and, like you, I’m the parent of a high school senior. Are we having fun yet??

I know, it’s intense, even if you’ve been through it before (this is my third and last child). But there are things we can do to keep stress levels (theirs and ours!) in check and empower our kids. Here’s what I’m working on right now with my own son.

1. Stay Calm and Stand Back.

I don’t feel calm a lot of the time, believe me, but I understand that my role is a supporting one and it’s important that my son own this process. He is moving SO SLOWLY (in my opinion), but he needs to get there through his own initiative. This is important if he’s going to be successful next year when he’s actually at college and wholly in charge of his daily routine, personal and academic goals, etc.

2. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

I first heard this from Christine VanDeVelde, co-author of College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, Step by Step. It honestly hadn’t occurred to me that, when people asked me where my oldest son was applying to college, or they asked him, we shouldn’t pipe right up.

You will feel instantly lighter as soon as you recognize that these conversations only need to take place within your family or with a small group of trusted friends and advisors. The dentist doesn’t need this information or your neighbor. Other kids’ parents don’t need to know, and maybe they will follow your example. Fair is fair — this means you do not ask your student’s friends where they’re applying unless the friend brings it up or seeks you out for advice.

COACH YOUR CHILD IN THIS TACTIC RIGHT NOW. It helps to have an answer ready to go. “Thanks for your interest; I’m still working on my list,” or “I’ll let you know when I have some news.”

3. Be a Sounding Board. Keep Perspective.

When your child starts talking about a school because everyone else is, ask questions that get them thinking about whether this is a good reason to be interested in said school. Remind them that prestigious, highly selective schools are hard for EVERYONE to get into (even kids with A+ credentials). On that note, even with a well-chosen list of colleges, your student is unlikely to receive offers from them all, including potentially their top choice. Help them prepare for disappointment.

Your child will have plenty of options. Now is the perfect time to read Frank Bruni’s classic essay  or the entire book, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be. I also recommend Getting In Without Freaking Out by Arlene Matthews.

4. Be Open to Improvisation and Get Help If Needed.

Some students aren’t ready for college. A gap year, or a year or two of work while taking classes at community college, can be terrific options. More high school graduates are taking these less direct paths to a four-year degree all the time (here is a link to a three-part student/parent gap year narrative; email me if you’d like to hear more stories). Maturity, refreshment and a stronger sense of purpose can all result.

If your student seems stuck:

  • Encourage them to visit their high school guidance counselor.
  • Look into an outside college counselor/mentor or essay coach.
  • Help them connect with current college students or recent graduates who can answer questions and dispel some myths and anxieties.

5. Enjoy This Year With Your Child.

Through this busy autumn, be sure your senior is having fun and staying healthy. Remember that college applications are just one item on the family docket! Make time to go to movies and ball games, eat meals together, hear live music, celebrate holidays and milestones, and grab those rare but magical moments when they open up to you about what’s in their hearts.

A few more practical ways to help:

1. Organization — Have they mapped out tasks and deadlines on a calendar? Do they need a tutorial on checking and responding to emails from colleges?

2. The List — Help them refine their list. Encourage sensible college contacts (attend admission visits at the high school; get on the college’s list for alumni/regional interviews if offered; fit in a campus visit over fall break or take a day trip). Discuss affordability as it applies to your family and the importance of maximizing financial aid (whether need-based or merit).

3. Essay Help — Brainstorm topics with them and provide feedback on their drafts. Resist the temptation to tell them what to write about, or rewrite what they produce. It’s fine to proofread.

4. Concierge Services — Throw in a load of laundry, keep their favorite foods stocked, offer a ride to school when they miss the bus.

Diane Schwemm is Senior Editor and Content Manager at CollegiateParent in Boulder, Colorado. She and her husband have a dog, a cat and three sons — a high school senior, college junior and recent college graduate. Email her at