Tips and Tools to Avoid the High School Whirlpool

The high school whirlpool is 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 are usually highly focused on getting into elite colleges, so families in academically competitive schools and with high-achieving teens are the most likely to get sucked into the whirlpool.

It happens slowly at first. You hear a story, typically about some unidentified child that is supposed to represent every high schooler’s experience:

I heard about a boy who got a 32 on the ACT and didn’t get accepted to any of the seven schools where he applied.

I heard that Asian-Americans from my child’s school never get admitted to Ivy Leagues.

I heard that colleges frown on dropping a language during high school, so I shouldn’t allow my daughter to drop Spanish class.

One story becomes two, two become ten, and before you realize it, you’re drifting into the whirlpool. As the rumors continue to circulate, the current swirls faster, and parents and students begin continually changing course and redefining expectations.

Before you know it, rumors and comparisons have come to dominate your family’s high school experience. You’re on a course of reacting to the things you’ve heard in an effort to be “successful,” without ever defining what success means to you. This is the center of the whirlpool, the place where decisions are being made that don’t reflect your best interests. It turns high school into a chaotic vortex of competition and ambition.

The high school whirlpool is so insidious because it takes so long to realize you’re caught in it. If any of the items on the following list look familiar, you may already be caught in the current:

    • Taking classes that are too academically challenging because you think you need them to get into X college
    • Joining or staying with extracurricular activities that aren’t interesting to you because they’ll “look good” to colleges
    • Constantly changing course based on things you’re hearing from other students and parents
    • Feeling overwhelmed by too much conflicting information about the high school experience and/or the college process
    • Shooting for a 1600 on the SAT or a 36 on the ACT (i.e. a perfect score)
    • Obsessing over getting accepted to one elite “dream school” because of what it symbolizes, not for a specific reason
    • Parents: constantly comparing your student to other students or families, even silently (You should know by now that you can’t hide your thoughts from your kids!)
    • Parents: pushing your student toward a certain path out of fear that they’re not “keeping up” with their peers

The consequences of getting caught in the whirlpool can range from heightened stress and anxiety all the way to full burnout or breakdown. This is a serious matter, and parents and students often don’t come to terms with how serious it is until it’s too late.

Even worse: some people never escape the whirlpool. They stay stuck through college and throughout their adult lives, continually trying to conform to others’ expectations. “Keeping up with the Joneses” is one manifestation of the whirlpool beyond high school.

The good news is, we’re here to throw you a proverbial life preserver. You CAN avoid the high school whirlpool, or escape it if you’re already at risk. It is not an inevitable part of high school. You have the power to chart your own course, set your own expectations, and keep swimming in your own chosen direction.

Getting Out of the Whirlpool

The first piece of advice is simple: Don’t bury your head in the sand. Trying to avoid the rumor mill of high school altogether might seem like an easy way to avoid the whirlpool, but it’s not a realistic solution. Rumors and comparisons are everywhere, and there will be times you just can’t get away, short of plugging your ears and shouting “la la la” mid-conversation.

In fact, we recommend the exact opposite of burying your head in the sand: Get informed. The more information you have about your high school experience and especially the college application process, the more confident you and your family will feel about the decisions you make, and the less vulnerable you’ll be to what other families are doing.

But the most important, and most difficult, parts of avoiding the high school whirlpool are to focus on what’s best for you and create your own trajectory. The whirlpool pulls in students who aren’t, metaphorically, strong swimmers. It preys on a lack of clarity and insight. It devours you if you define your success in relation to others and take a reactive approach to doing high school right. In order to save yourself, you’ll need to change how you think about success.

Creating Your Own Definition of Success

Success should look different for every person, and should be based on intrinsic factors, such as purpose, excitement, and fulfillment, rather than external factors, such as a certain GPA, degree, or recognition. When parents are comparing students (or students are comparing themselves) to a mythical ideal or even to a neighbor, that’s a surefire sign that they aren’t thinking about what the best next step is for them.

Teenagers are not too young to begin building their own lives and finding a meaningful place in the world; in fact, high school is exactly when you should be starting to define what’s important to you, and how you want to achieve your goals on your terms.

To start creating that definition of success, consider the following elements that contribute to a positive high school experience. How many of them characterize your current daily life? What changes could you and your family make to make these more of a priority?

    • Feeling appropriately challenged by academic work, like you’re working at the upper limits of your ability but not overwhelmed
    • Finding meaning in daily activities, including extracurriculars
    • Making time for things that are important, such as relationships with friends and family
    • Having the freedom to explore interests, passions, and ideas
    • Thriving in an environment of encouragement and positive peer pressure


Action Item For Students: The Self-report Card

If it sounds helpful, we recommend creating a Self-Report Card that defines your vision of success, breaks it down into measurable goals, and then measures your progress. You will be responsible for honestly grading yourself, and should complete a Self-Report Card as often as you receive one from school.

Maintaining Your Own Course

While having your own vision and plan for success is the most important strategy, there are some other ways to make sure you’re avoiding the whirlpool as well. These are particularly important for parents:

    • 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 a fellow parent who seems 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.

If you are stuck in the high school whirlpool, the best advice we can give you is to get out now. The whirlpool is insidious, yes, but it’s not unstoppable. You have the power to re-calibrate and chart a new course. We can’t promise smooth sailing all the way, but by setting your own course and pursuing it relentlessly, you can escape the churning waters and swim for the horizon.

Get more in-depth advice on every step of your high school journey. Sign up for our monthly newsletter!

Picture of Jay B.

Jay B.

Jay Bacrania is the CEO of Signet Education. As a high schooler, Jay won awards for chemistry at the state level in his home state of Florida, and at Harvard, he initially studied physics. After graduating, Jay spent two years studying jazz trumpet at the Berklee College of Music.

More Resources