For Deb Schertel, a veterinary technician from Farmington Hills, Michigan, communicating with her children about life after high school has been an ongoing process. She and her husband, Jack, have three children - John, 19; Kate, 17; and Sarah, 6.
"I've tried to expose them to a variety of things and let them see all the different opportunities there are for them," Deb says. For example, when Kate became interested in art but knew she didn't want to be a painter or sculptor, Deb took her on a tour of the Disney animation studios to demonstrate a less obvious artistic opportunity.
What if your teen is about to begin his junior year and you realize you haven't really spoken with him about his plans? Kenneth Kaplan, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, recommends approaching your teen casually to inquire about his plans. If your teen has an "I'll think about it later" attitude, gently remind him that now is the time to start preparing.
If your teen fancies himself a rock star, try to keep an open mind - you may think it's unrealistic, but there are people who are rock stars. Dr. Kaplan suggests that rather than immediately dismissing your teen's idea, you should initiate a discussion and ask questions about what he'll need to do to reach his goal.
Considering the Choices
Going to college, getting a job, or taking time off are the common choices your teen will likely face. Here's how you can help him make the right decision for him.
College or Technical School
Although you may remember starting your own college search in the fall of your senior year, many teens these days need to get started earlier because of the extensive research involved and the deadlines for early admissions programs to more competitive programs. Many students begin as early as the fall of their junior year.
A good preparation for your teen is to sit down and start writing - this is great practice for the application process. He should list his goals as well as his accomplishments, even if he hasn't yet decided on a field of study. Ask him to write down a list of his academic and personal strengths and weaknesses, extracurricular activities, awards, grade point average, class rank, and SAT, ACT, or AP scores. Next, your teen needs to think about and list the qualities he is looking for in a college. Does he want to go away to school, stay close to home, or take online courses, for example?
Armed with the preliminary information he has gathered, it's time to begin the research. Guidebooks, the Internet, and counselors at school are particularly helpful resources. As he chooses potential schools, you and your teen should start to make campus visits, during which time he can talk with students attending the college.
Experts suggest narrowing the choices to a diverse mix of about six to 10 schools where the odds range from low to high of your teen gaining admission. Applications should be filled out completely and neatly, including the essay, which your teen should revise until he's confident that it's his best work.
If college is not an option or your teen needs extra time to earn money for tuition, going directly to the work force offers many choices and benefits, such as health insurance and tuition reimbursement programs.
Entering the military can be an excellent choice for a teen who feels uncertain about his future. Discipline, earning money, saving for college, learning a trade - all of this is possible in the armed forces. Veterans are also entitled to many benefits both while in the service and after. Your teen should carefully explore all the pros and cons of a military career. After all, if he doesn't like the service, he can't easily drop out, like he could at a college that doesn't suit him. If your teen wants specific training through the military, make sure the contract he signs specifies that.
Getting a job immediately after high school remains a good choice. If this is the route your teen wishes to take, he needs to learn how to search for employment, write a resume, and develop interviewing skills. Many companies reimburse their employees for continuing education in related areas. Your teen should ask about this benefit through the human resources departments of potential employers.
Another option is an internship. Over the course of a year, your teen could potentially participate in two or three internships to explore career choices. Most internships are unpaid, so planning ahead is crucial if your teen needs to save money for living expenses. Internships provide participants with the opportunity to learn about many facets of a particular career. Internships are also a great way to make contacts and and develop mentoring relationships.
Taking Time Off
For some teens, taking a year off between high school and the "real world" can be beneficial. This can be a good time to travel, do community service, or even live in a foreign country before the responsibilities of life make it harder to do so.
Community service organizations offer a wide variety of choices a teen can match with his skills and interests. Americorps, for example, offers hundreds of programs across the United States with a small stipend, plus a chance to obtain money for college or vocational training. Many religious organizations provide community service programs.
Your teen should keep in mind that the brochure may look different than reality, such as in the case of work and service camps in developing countries. He should expect difficulties but know that the rewards of community service often outweigh the hardships incurred - and can actually change the direction of his life. Speaking with previous participants in a program should give a more realistic view than any promotional material.
Taking time off doesn't necessarily put your teen at a disadvantage for college admission. For many teens - especially those who choose an internship or international service - it can actually be an advantage. If your teen is researching colleges, he should find out if they have delayed admissions programs. If there is no delayed admissions program, talk to the colleges to find out their attitude toward students who take time off and your teen's chances of getting in if he reapplies.
It's Your Teen's Life
When the subject concerns the future, some teens may try to shrug it off. Here are some tips to get the ball rolling and keep communication flowing:
*Really listen to your teen and resist the temptation to provide gratuitous or unsolicited advice. If your teen is struggling to make a decision, a story or two about how hard it was for you or someone you know could go a long way in reassuring your teen that he's not the only one.
*Provide your teen with respect and support while giving up some of your control. You've spent so much of your teen's life being the one in control; it may seem hard to let go. But trying to direct your teen's future probably will not benefit him in the long run. This is the time for him to develop his decision-making and problem-solving skills.
*Prepare your teen to take care of himself away from home. This includes making major decisions regarding dating, drugs, alcohol, and sex, as well as day-to-day living skills. Cooking, cleaning, laundry, grocery shopping, writing checks, and managing a budget are all important and necessary, but they are usually not learned in school.
Where to Get Help
The Internet is a good starting point for researching information on your teen's interests. Enlist the help of school counselors. These professionals can help steer you in the right direction or refer you to other good sources of information.
Don't overlook your local library. In addition to books and magazine articles on subjects of interest, the librarian can be a wealth of information. There are many associations, both local and national, for thousands of occupations. Find out where they are located and get information on the appropriate steps to take in pursuing particular career paths. Your teen may also be able to attend meetings or arrange to interview someone at work.
Finally, resist the temptation to lecture and try to remain supportive and enthusiastic even if your teen frequently changes his mind. He needs your positive influence at this transitional time.
Updated and reviewed by: Kim Rutherford, MD
Date reviewed: October 2001
Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD