Junior year is known as the most crazy-busy-stressful of high school for college-bound students Last fall we asked writer...
Junior year is known as the most crazy-busy-stressful of high school for college-bound students Last fall we asked writer Suzanne Monson and her daughter Kelsey, then a junior at Shorecrest High, to each keep a journal of the rollercoaster year. Here are excerpts:
Kelsey: School starts in a few days, and my class schedule just arrived in the mail. I already know 11th grade can be the most burdensome year of high school. Teachers are always saying junior year is when we have to step up and become the "leaders."
There's a lot of pressure to take AP [Advanced Placement] classes if you want to get into a good college — but also a lot of pressure to keep your GPA up, get a good SAT score, have a lot of extracurriculars on your résumé and perform community service.
That's why I'm upset to see that I've been assigned pre-calculus instead of math analysis, an easier course. I started struggling with math last year and math anal seems like the best way to get my fourth year of math credit (because so many colleges require this) without receiving my typical B or C.
This is not the start I was hoping for.
Suzanne: Most everything I've needed to know about surviving my three daughters' school years, I've learned from friends. Sure, reading helps, as does volunteering, to stay in the loop with teachers. But ever since my Kelsey, my oldest of three, started preschool 13 years ago, advice from fellow moms and dads has been a lifesaver.
Now friends with older kids who have already maneuvered the sometimes bumpy road toward graduation are bursting with advice.
Senior year, they tell me, is an expensive whirlwind: senior portraits, college-application fees, prom and the post-commencement "spree" party. But first, they warn me to be ready for the powder keg of junior year: Emotions run high and free time runs low as college-bound juniors like Kelsey tackle what today's schools want ... : "Rigorous" Advanced Placement or honors classes; leadership and the "right balance" of sports, clubs and activities; "top scores" on the SAT or ACT; and even a part-time job or volunteer gig. And, while they're at it, these same kids have to begin targeting colleges and how they're going to pay for it.
It seems like just yesterday I was on the maternity-ward delivery table with Kelsey. At least back then I could yell for an epidural.
How did my husband and I get from there to here?
Wasn't it just yesterday we were applying to college? Wasn't it much simpler back then?
Suzanne: We attended "back-to-school night" earlier this month, and I'm still shaking: Each of Kelsey's classes and teachers is more challenging than the last.
Like her friends, she sets her goals high, so she's taking three Advanced Placement classes. Each comes with its own stress-filled test in May. Good scores can earn college credit — and punch up a high-school transcript.
Talk about change: When I was a senior 26 years ago, Washington state was experimenting with four AP courses in a handful of high schools. Mine was one, so I took a few, but most parents my age never did and colleges didn't blink. Today, many high schools offer dozens of demanding AP classes.
Kelsey's course load scares the heck out of me. Her teachers are great, but will there be enough time in her life to do well in each? Should she drop her tough pre-calculus course? Will it hurt her college-admission chances if she does? What happens to her GPA if she doesn't?
I try bringing this up gently, but Kelsey is sick of me talking about this. She tells me to back off.
Hours later, when I'm ready for bed, I see her at the kitchen counter — hunched over her pre-calculus assignment, with a mountain of other homework still to finish.
I've got to remember: "This is her life, not mine. This is not my journey." But I'd sleep better if I could at least have a little peek at the road map.
Kelsey: The year is off to a tough academic start. Tests in my APUSH [AP U.S. History] are already frequent and challenging. I'm staying up until 2 a.m. to study.
Fortunately, my school gives each student a take-home MacBook laptop, and that makes schoolwork a lot easier. I write my English essays and watch DVDs en Español for Spanish class in bed. My friends and I can help each other with homework through e-mails and instant messages.
I love my laptop!
Suzanne: I've been to bridal shows, job fairs and home shows, and I have never seen so many faces in states of panic as at the College Fair.
And it's not the kids stressing — it's the parents.
Kelsey invites several friends to join us at the Washington State Convention & Trade Center. Inside the doors, they separate to explore their own interests.
I watch some shell-shocked parents following their teens from booth to booth. Others are steely-eyed, dragging their kids between exhibitors.
For some, this is college-search nirvana: recruiters representing many top universities, schools and military academies all under one roof. But others are clearly overwhelmed.
Even my ordinarily friendly teen isn't sure how to approach an exhibitor. After we practice on the sidelines, she plans three solid questions and engages in a brief conversation with her first booth host.
This spiel improves with practice. I trail her after my attempts to steer meet with resistance. Within two hours, she's ready to leave, armed with a bag of brochures.
I, on the other hand, leave with a headache and sense of accomplishment. She's a strong student, with a high GPA and a healthy list of volunteering and extracurriculars, so I'm confident that the event has opened her eyes to choices. I'm envious. It would be fun to be young again ... .
When we get home, Kelsey tells her dad that the College Fair was helpful — but she's only planning to apply to the UW. Period.
I go to my bedroom, bury my head in a pillow and SCREAM!!!
Kelsey: My mom took me and a few friends to the big college fair. Our English teacher required it, but I would have gone anyway. The best part was seeing all the differences between big universities and small colleges, and privates and publics.
My favorite was the rep from Texas Christian University. He was really colorful and funny — but he warned me that Fort Worth is drastically different from Seattle.
Vanderbilt's music school looks really good, but even though Nashville is one of the music capitals of the world, a lot of people are really scaring me away from going to the Deep South.
The whole thing didn't really make me change my mind about my college choice.
There's really only one place I want to go: the UW. They have great political science, history and music programs — and I want to live in a big city so I can be close to work and internships. It's a lot less expensive than going out of state, so I can save my money for grad school anywhere in the country. I like the idea of a big school because I really want to meet new people and make new friends.
As long as I keep doing well, I should get in.
There's really only one place I want to go, and as long as I keep doing well, I should get in.
Kelsey: I recently decided that I will not play basketball for my high school this year. Even though I've played since kindergarten, and swung for varsity last year, I know that I am not good enough to play for college, so I would rather focus on my schoolwork, and on something that may help me get scholarship money andthat I genuinely enjoy: singing. So, instead of playing basketball, I'm going to take voice lessons.
Suzanne: This "it's not my journey" thing is really getting put to the test.
After much soul-searching, Kelsey decides this month that she doesn't want to play competitive basketball anymore. It's the end to 10 summers of basketball camps. The end to playing almost year-round with friends on her school and select teams — including one that her dad coaches. She says she's done.
Her reasons: The game no longer gives her the joy it once did, and she can't see how it will "help" her future.
But she worries about hurting her dad's feelings and disappointing her school coach. She fears I'll be mad at her for "wasting" money and time on sports camps and tournament travel.
We sit on the stairs and talk about the difference between "quitting" and "pursuing a passion."
Her passions, she has discovered, are music and tennis. She's ready to focus on lifting these to the next levels.
After telling her coach and her dad about this choice, Kelsey goes straight to the computer and begins researching tennis lessons and vocal competitions.
For the first time in weeks, she's truly chatty and upbeat at dinner.
Later, I cry some because I know she's closing a big chapter in her childhood. And then I cry a bit more because I know she's making good decisions on her own.
Kelsey: Pre-calc is taking up a greater percentage of study time than any one class should. My teacher is so patient. I would be sick of me by now. I'm either staying after school for extra help or coming in during TAP (mid-day tutorial) for tutoring almost every day.
Now my mom keeps asking me about where I want to apply. I am so mad at her. I think she's crazy. Why should I apply everywhere when there is only place I really want to go? Even my dad tells me I'm right.
Suzanne: I'm tired of being a nag. Yeah, yeah, it's not my journey. But Kelsey really needs to make some serious choices about taking the SAT, signing up for next year's classes and looking at more than one school. Worse yet, when these mother/daughter talks go from calm "have you thought about ... ?" to heated "why can't you see it my way?," Kelsey brings her dad in to side with her.
I feel as if I'm waging a battle on two fronts. He's having a really hard time thinking about his little girl leaving the nest, and all I can think about is whether her wings will be ready when she does. One of my friends enlisted the help of a local college guidance consultant. She says it helps diffuse the emotional issues, among other benefits.
I'm calling for an appointment tomorrow.
Kelsey: I met with college counselor Judy Mackenzie. She has great insights into schools and suggests things without being pushy or criticizing my preferences. Going to see Judy wasn't my idea, but if my mom feels more comfortable sending me to a college counselor, this is OK with me.
My favorite part of working with [her] is getting to talk to her about exactly which classes I should take in my senior year. There are only a few counselors at my high school, and I feel like they're already busy helping kids with their problems or making sure they graduate. I'd like more time to ask for college advice, but I feel guilty.
Judy makes me feel more comfortable about my grades. I have confidence in Judy to tell me what grades I'm still going to have to earn in order to be admitted to certain schools. It was disappointing to learn some schools won't calculate my P.E. and music grades into my overall GPA.
I just found out that my tennis coach is still pretty sick from his chemotherapy treatments. He's not going to coach this spring. It's hard to think about school when I'm thinking about this.
Suzanne: Judy administers surveys for both the student and the parents that require some heavy introspection. The results spin out a healthy list of potential colleges that meet Kelsey's criteria. It's not only realistic; it's also a bit rewarding for Kelsey to see that she's qualified to apply to many strong schools — as long as she stays on track.
At home, she now spends hours exploring Web sites of colleges on this list for the "right fit." She now has an open mind about applying to more than one school. Hallelujah.
Suzanne: When given a chance to join her dad on a business trip to California, Kelsey agrees to stop by a few schools on her list. She learns a big lesson: Don't judge a school by its Web site. Pepperdine was friendlier than she'd expected from the site's "perfect-looking" kids, while USC wasn't as glam as its image.
At first I'm jealous because I have to stay behind, but the father/daughter arrangement turns out to be a godsend because my husband gets to see her enthusiasm firsthand. We share a heart-to-heart when they return. He now thinks he could grow comfortable with Kelsey going to school out of state.
Kelsey: I went on a trip this month to California with my dad to visit colleges. The thing I liked the most was that I had fun hanging out with my dad. He's really busy with work and I'm swamped with school, and now that I don't play basketball anymore it seems like we never get to spend any time together, just the two of us.
I e-mailed the music director at Pepperdine about whether I could study public policy and music at the same time, and they e-mailed me back within a day. Now I'm having second thoughts about where I want to go to college.
Suzanne: It's pressure-cooker time. Spring sports season is in high gear, AP tests are around the corner and Kelsey still needs to take her SAT. She's been studying from an 851-page SAT prep book since last fall, but it's hard to find time to schedule the test.
Her guidebook is comically thick. (My mom saved my dog-eared prep booklet and gave it to Kelsey as a joke: It has 24 pages of sample questions.)
Now, between prepping for AP exams, rehearsing for spring concerts and piano recital, and tennis practices, she gets about five hours of sleep each night. It's time for her to apply for a summer job, and we need to plan a summer vacation around some college visits.
Last fall's freshman class at the UW entered with a record average score of more than 1200. Their average GPA: a record 3.7. Only 63 percent of applicants — an all-time low — were offered a slot.
Kelsey: I've decided that I'm taking the June SAT just for practice and plan on taking it again in the fall for hopefully a higher score. I didn't mean to put it off; it's just that I wanted to focus on doing well on my AP tests first. Now I don't feel as much pressure about the SAT. My AP teachers are really preparing us well, so I'm comfortable.
Studying with my friends is helpful, too. We've had weekly study sessions almost all year, but it's hard to get everyone together. They have crew, flag team, yearbook and soccer, so sometimes we meet and study late.
My mom keeps asking me if I'm tired, but I'm really OK as long as I have Starbucks or Red Bull.
Last month, over spring break, I went with my church youth group on a mission trip to Mexico. Part of the time we were in a village an hour south of Tijuana, doing repairs and construction work. One day, we rode into the city to entertain school-age kids who didn't go to school. I've never seen such poverty. While the kids were with us, we could see their parents through the window, picking through the garbage dump for food.
When I came back, high school and college didn't seem that important for a while.
Kelsey: It feels like school is almost over. My APs are over, and I did the SAT.
I learned an important tip: Schedule your SAT on time. I got busy and didn't schedule mine, so I had to test on standby. It made me really uncomfortable, because I didn't even know if I was going to be able to get a seat.
Now that these tests are over, classes are a lot easier. I have more time to go in for math help.
Suzanne: What a difference a month makes. No more zombie-face mornings after long nights of test cramming. Senior friends celebrate their graduation and buzz about their college plans. Kelsey lands a summer job.
We're all smiling a lot more these days.
Kelsey: I love summer and I'm especially happy because I got a clothing sales job at the mall. Working with adults and customers, and seeing how a large company works, made me realize that there are bigger things out there than just going to school. Having a job is rewarding because not only do you get paid for your skills, but also because adults treat you like another adult. At work, unlike school, my managers don't require us to "sign out" when we need to go to the bathroom.
Many of my friends are working, too. Others are at sports camps because they're thinking about athletic scholarships. We don't have as much time this summer as we did last year for bonfires at the beach and hanging out on the lake.
When we're together, some of us love talking about where we want to go to college. Some are looking at moving to the East Coast. Some are being recruited for sports. Some want Christian schools only. Others hate talking about this because they just want to enjoy their senior year and don't want to worry about their future.
It's interesting to hear how some of my friends have parents who really want them to go to certain schools — even if they don't want to. One girl's mom made her apply to a place she didn't want to go and she had to write the whole application essay — just to make her mom happy.
Nearly everyone I know is applying to a first-choice college that fits their personality really well.
Suzanne: We work around Kelsey's work schedule to book a trip to the Midwest to catch several of the schools on her "list."
I know what the experts say about the importance of touring colleges during the school year to see a real-life picture of campus life, but for many families like us, summer is the only option.
With our younger daughters, ages 12 and 13, in tow, we hit the first three campuses in three days. After months of examination, Kelsey can quickly recognize "keepers," even if her choices don't fit mine.
We may take a trip back East next year to look at more schools on the list, but for now, I feel good that she has at least more than one on her "plan-to-apply" list. The last year has opened her eyes — but also mine.
We still reserve the right to ask, even prod her, for the reasons for her ultimate selection. But in the end, it is her life. Her journey. And her dad and I are blessed to be along for the ride.
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
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