How to Stay Out of the High School Whirlpool

Back-to-school season is officially in full swing, which means the high school whirlpool is churning once again.

What is the high school whirlpool, you ask?

It’s a phenomenon that begins when parents and students start to “hear things” about how to be “successful” in high school, usually in 9th or 10th grade. These rumors tend to be highly focused on getting into elite colleges, so families in academically competitive schools and with high-achieving teens are the most likely to be affected.

The elements of the high school whirlpool vary slightly from one grade to the next, but the danger remains present from freshman all the way through senior year.

Today, we’re sharing our best tips to help students from each grade avoid getting sucked in.

Tips for Freshmen

  • Get informed. Having plenty of good information about your child’s high school experience, and particularly the college application process, will give your family confidence in the decisions you make together, and make you less vulnerable to being influenced by what other parents are doing.
  • Focus on what’s best for your student. It can be tough to shift the emphasis from what other kids are doing to your own child, but it’s vital that you prioritize their mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual development above all else.
  • Help your student create their own trajectoryStudents need to think through what they want out of high school, and then kick, pull, and paddle hard to stay on their own path. This process involves defining what success means to them, across multiple dimensions.

Tips for Sophomores

  • Step back and reflect. Think about all the ways in which your decision-making has been impacted by the gossip and rumors of the high school whirlpool. Some ways will be more obvious than others. We recommend written reflection to help clarify your thoughts.
  • Bring in trusted advisors. There are plenty of people ready to throw you a life preserver! Talk to your student’s guidance counselor, a therapist, or even fellow parents who seem to have their head above water. Signet also offers consulting and coaching around the college admissions process, which gives families the knowledge and confidence they need to swim away from the “he said, she said” crowd.
  • Challenge your assumptions. If you have your heart set on a certain path for your student, ask yourself why it’s so important to you. It’s possible that you’re holding on to a set of beliefs that doesn’t apply to the child you are raising, and that what you’ve always thought of as “best” isn’t actually best for the person who’s growing up in front of you.

Tips for Juniors

  • Encourage your student to stay true to who they are. When it comes to college admissions, families sometimes put the cart before the horse: students get their heart set on being accepted to a particular school, then try to fashion themselves in the image of that school. But it’s important to remember that choosing a college isn’t about getting into the best possible school. It’s about finding a school that matches your student across several dimensions: intellectual, social, geographical, professional, and financial, to name a few.
  • Stop obsessing over a perfect SAT/ACT score. Many students and their families have a preconceived notion in their head of what constitutes a “good” SAT/ACT score. We encourage you to remove the words “good” and “bad” from your vocabulary entirely! Instead, have your student set a realistic target score that aligns with their personal goals. That way they have a concrete and realistic goal to work toward.
  • Be open-minded about the notion of leadership. Colleges look closely at students’ extracurricular activities as a component of their applications. Many colleges also talk about wanting to see students demonstrate leadership in their extracurriculars. But leadership doesn’t have to be public or larger than life. It might be quiet and behind the scenes. If your student doesn’t naturally gravitate toward traditional leadership (e.g. class president, captain of the lacrosse team), encourage them to embrace alternative leadership opportunities born from genuine interest and engagement in an activity.

Tips for Seniors

  • Maintain a steady pace. The high school whirlpool can make students feel like they have no choice but to go a million miles a minute just to keep up. Reject this notion and instead help your student set a steady pace for this critical final year. Filling out college applications and writing a personal statement can be stressful, of course, but these tasks are more manageable when your student isn’t scrambling at the last minute.
  • Avoid unhelpful comparisons. Waiting for college acceptances to come in is one of the most nerve-wracking times of a high school student’s life. When the buzz around other students’ acceptances begins, try to avoid making comparisons. Remember that finding the right fit is ultimately more important for students than getting accepted to the most prestigious school on their list.
  • Soak it all in. The high school experience is a sacred time, and it’ll soon be coming to an end. Amid all that your student needs to accomplish in this final year, remind them to take the time to enjoy themselves, too! This is their last chance to be a kid; they—and you—should cherish it.

Staying out of the high school whirlpool isn’t easy, but it is possible. Even if your student does get sucked in, there is a way out.

Contact Signet to learn more about how academic coaching can help your student discover and meet their full potential.

Picture of Sheila A.

Sheila A.

Sheila Akbar is President & COO of Signet Education. She holds a bachelor's degree and master's degree from Harvard University and two doctoral degrees from Indiana University. She joined the team in the summer of 2010, bringing with her a wealth of experience teaching SAT, ACT, GRE, literature, and composition in both one-on-one and classroom settings.

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