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How you can support your high school sophomore as they transition into their junior year and the college search process

I have spent my entire working career on both sides of the college desk: in undergraduate admissions and as a high school counselor. I may have the resources and background on some levels but when it comes to advising my sixteen-year-old son, I’m just as new to this as you are. In my opinion, he needs to advocate for what he wants, determine what options to explore, and learn how to rebound when he falls short. I like to think I am here to provide a plate of options, ideas to consider, and balance.

Sophomore year is the time to give your child autonomy as well as taking on responsibility for their own academic journey, navigating course selection, establishing study habits, and learning to complete school forms/registration on their own. Let them find their voice, and figure out where they run into challenges; your child does not have to take the same path as you did. By the middle to end of tenth grade, students are savvy with school sites, software platforms, and ways in which they prefer to communicate with others. As a parent, encourage them to set up meetings with their counselor. This will also help teach them how to schedule appointments and how to be mindful of keeping the appointments they make. You do not have to do the work for them, but you will need to provide a clear direction. Remember, as you work with your student, there should be no “WE” in course selection and high school life. This is your students’ journey; your job is to provide support and guidance, not re-live your high school years vicariously through them. When I hear parents comment, ”We are done with a foreign language, math really is taking a lot of time but overall everything is going well” … I cringe.

A close friend has asked, “Isn’t it better for my daughter to earn a B in the higher-level class than an A in a standard course?” My answer: If she is choosing the higher-level course, she needs to go into the class ready to get an A in the higher-level course. Why settle? Not the response she was seeking! If a student is going to struggle in a more advanced course, seek advice from the school counselor or department chair about that course. These people are the experts. They know the type of student who is successful in these courses, and they know how your child compares to others in the context of the class.

So as registration for the fall of the junior year gets underway, what sort of courses should your child be selecting?  Think balance – work to have five academic solid courses – Math, English, Science, History, Language, add an elective or two in the arts, or computer science areas. Select the most challenging courses that are being recommended.  Be mindful of prerequisites before moving into some higher-level classes. Review the documents the school has provided, and avoid getting your course scheduling advice from other parents in the school parking lot. Make the time to attend the counseling sessions that are provided, and do not wait until the last day of course registration to begin reviewing the school curriculum guide.

Encouraging your child to explore extracurriculars to find their bliss. What about elective type courses like arts, forensics, accounting, medical technologies, etc.? At this point, our kids are starting to discover their interests, and want to continue to explore these areas of study. My son wants to jump deep into the agriculture area of study. We have talked about ways in which he can have these experiences, yet stay on a traditional academic path of completing a solid academic schedule.  For him, it is better to stay on track with the traditional course of study and save the specialty work for college programs.

Be visible. In this year of the pandemic and remote learning, it’s very easy for kids to stay behind the screen as many have not had the option of in-person instruction. This means they need to be as active and engaged in remote learning as possible.

  • Turn on the camera and stay engaged with virtual learning. Answer and ask questions, try new things, just like students would for in-person school.
  • Attend virtual office hours and study sessions.
  • Remind your child to have conversations with their teachers. Students that communicate with their teachers tend to do better. Teachers want to know their students, and these interactions will help when it comes to letters of recommendation and future advisement for course placement.

What can you do? Take time to become familiar with the following documents and terms:

  • School profile – A document that includes information about the student body and the types of classes offered within the high school, such as AP, IB, etc. This may include a guide to grading, curriculum, special programs along with information about the school community. Some profiles will show grade distribution charts, matriculation lists of past graduates. This will help you understand the programs and offerings available.
  • Joint or dual degree / early college offerings – Sophomore year is the time that specialty programs will become options for your child. Does the school have a partnership program with area universities, community colleges, or online learning? Depending on the college or university in which your child enrolls, these types of programs may be beneficial but it varies greatly from school to school. Do not assume that taking a class outside of the high school curriculum makes it harder or more selective. Don’t rush to complete high school early, stay for all four years. Only in very few times have I seen an early graduate be a competitive candidate in the college selection process.
  • Advanced Course work – Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB), or advanced work beyond honors level. This may also include school-specific research programs.
  • Academic Terms – Grade Point Average (GPA) weighted, unweighted, rank, deciles, honors, Naviance (a software system that provides students with college planning and career assessment tools. If your school doesn’t have Naviance, I expect they are using something similar).
  • Standardized testing – know how it works, PSAT/ActPlan – sophomores and juniors, SAT, ACT, Subject Tests, AP Exams, TOEFL.
  • Financial Aid – Learn about financial aid and scholarships. What is the Federal Student Aid Application (FAFSA)? What does Net Price Calculator mean/ how does it work?
  • Summer programs – Understand select summer programs vs summer experiences that have hefty price tags. There is no need to spend thousands of dollars on summer programs.
  • Identify – Have broad, general conversations with your child to hear their preferences when it comes to the creation of a college list with factors such as academics, location, athletics, organizations and school size. Help to build awareness of college offerings through college search sites, virtual school visits, college fairs, and social media.

And lastly, don’t stress! The college process is a journey; one that should not be stressful for parents and families. Find a balance between academics, the conversation about the college process, and time management. Your teen may not approach the college search the way you hope, but allow them to share, and discover what excites them about their college future.

Susan Semonite ( is an Associate Director in Duke University’s Office of Undergraduate Admissions. She works with students from CT, NH, ME, RI, VT, and Upstate NY. She is also the mother of a sophomore in high school.

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