Your Student’s Senior Year of High School Should Be Hard

Senior year of high school. Your student is almost at the finish line! Well, actually, your student has almost arrived at the starting line — of college. It all depends on how you look at it.

Senior year of high school is definitely a milestone, and it’s natural — and appropriate — to feel pride and satisfaction and a sense of completion. It’s worth celebrating.

But one of the most common mistakes that high school seniors make is to see this year an easy year, a year to slide through, and a year that doesn’t count. Senioritis sets in — sometimes early in the year.

It’s important to talk to your senior or rising senior about how they can, and should, make this a year that matters. Talk about why this year is important in the larger scheme of things, about setting goals and meeting challenges, about thinking ahead to preparing for and succeeding in college — not just about getting into college.

Why does senior year matter?

Much of junior year is about looking at colleges, taking SAT and/or ACT tests and completing many required courses. The beginning of senior year is about putting together the college list and completing applications. The middle of senior year is about waiting for admission and then making final decisions. And then, finally, admission done, decision made, it’s all over.

But your student’s senior year of high school also serves as the bridge to their college experience. In the bigger picture, this year is preparation for college, and that isn’t always an easy task.

There are some important reasons for your student to take on some difficult and challenging tasks this year.

  • This is the perfect time for your student to practice organizational and time management skills. Senior year is a busy year — between classes, admission, scholarship applications, and senior activities, it’s easy for students to become overwhelmed. Time management is one of the biggest factors for college student success. Using senior year to practice this skill, rather than struggle  through the first semester of college, will give your student a head start in the fall.
  • Students who continue to take on challenging courses demonstrate their desire to learn and to do well. On a practical, admissions level, admissions counselors look not only at GPA and grades during junior year, but they also look at the courses a student is taking in senior year. This factor may count more than many students realize.
  • If your student decides to take Advanced Placement classes and receives a good score on the AP test, they not only have practice with college level material, they can begin college with a head start on credits. This could mean a lighter course load in a future semester or put them on a fast track to finish early. They will also have the confidence that they can do college level work.
  • If your student can identify a deficiency or weak area and take a course in that area, they will be able to address deficiencies and solidify their skills. This could increase the chances of success for your student or mean that your student can avoid taking (and paying for) remedial or developmental courses in college.
  • The transition to college academics will not be as difficult. Taking on a challenging senior year of high school means that your student will be honing their skills, staying ”school sharp,” and using the year to build toward the transition to college rather than slipping into lazy habits.

How can my student reasonably take on senior year challenges?

It’s one thing to think generally about taking on a challenging senior year, but it’s another thing to decide how to do that practically. There are a few things to consider.

  • If your student isn’t a senior yet, help them think about what courses they might register for during senior year. This may require them to discuss their schedule with their guidance counselor. Although AP and/or Honors courses are good choices, your student should think about courses that are challenging for your student. These might be courses to help your student build skills or just practice doing difficult things and taking on challenges — definitely essential qualities in college.
  • If your student’s schedule has openings, they might consider a course in a new and different area. This can be an opportunity to expand to a whole new area of study rather than stagnate in familiar and comfortable areas. This new type of challenge can be exhilarating.
  • Get a head start over the summer if possible. If your student has not yet started senior year, use the summer to get started on some tasks to relieve pressure on the final year of high school. Your student might use the summer months to complete their college list, make some tentative decisions about college choices by scheduling visits, contacting admissions offices, beginning the Common Application or other application materials, drafting (or even completing) their college essay, gathering information and materials for scholarships. This will make the fall of senior year more manageable.
  • Use the college essay not just as a means to admission, but also as an opportunity to explore goals and dreams. Your student can do some serious self-searching to find what is truly important to them. They can examine what each course in their schedule (even those required ones) will do for them moving toward those goals. This will help motivate them throughout the year.
  • Take a math course senior year. Even though your student may have already completed their high school math requirements, taking math senior year will keep their skills sharp (for potential required math in college). Many colleges recommend this — and some look carefully at transcripts to see whether students are challenging themselves this way.
  • Making the final college decision is difficult for many students. Your student can use this process to learn about critical thinking and their own decision-making process. This learning opportunity can be applied to future decisions in college (such as choice of major or minor or future job decisions.)
  • If your student’s schedule is already set but has some openings, your student might consider taking a course at a local college. This course might be a semester course in the spring, once college applications are in. Taking on a college course will keep your student challenged, prepare them for college, and even give them some college credits.

Finally . . .

Senior year is a time of lasts and of celebrations. It is a roller coaster of emotional ups and downs. Your student needs breaks, social time, and time to reflect and celebrate. But maintaining a challenging schedule, and a mindset and attitude of skill-building and focus, can be a stabilizing influence. A sailboat with forward momentum is less likely to be blown off course than one sitting still in the water.

Help your student find balance. Help them learn both to work hard and to relax well. There will be times when your student will feel overwhelmed, and they will need to practice focus — and patience with themselves. Help them think about how to plan and stay on course — and also to go with the flow and adapt. They will be using this final year of high school to prepare for what lies ahead.

Note: Check out the College Parent Central e-book 60 Practical Tips for Using the High School Years to Prepare for College Success for many more suggestions to help your student get ready to succeed in college.

Related articles:

Eight Benefits of Taking Difficult Courses in College

Can a College Revoke My Student’s Admission?

Why Your High School Senior Is So Stressed Right Now

Using Senior Year to Prepare for Success in College: Nine Skills Your Senior Needs to Polish

If your student is in high school, check out our e-book 60 Practical Tips for Using the High School Years to Prepare for College Success. This guide is not about getting in to college. It is about how to work now to help your student succeed once they get to college. Open the door and get the conversations started!

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2 thoughts on “Your Student’s Senior Year of High School Should Be Hard”

  1. What resources are available on campus to students who feel they need assistance coping with stress? Are there counselors available?

    • Marc – Almost every campus has a counseling center. If you can’t find one, ask the Dean of Students what to do. Services at most college counseling centers are part of the cost of tuition and don’t cost extra. Unfortunately, at some schools there is a wait to see someone. Any student in crisis – or who knows another student in crisis – should reach out to a professor, Resident Assistant, or staff member to ask for help.


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