Life Skills: Life After High School

Helping Your Teen Decide What to Do after High School

Helping to prepare your teen for life after high school is one of the most important tasks you’ll have as a parent. Although it can be difficult to imagine your baby as an adult, with the right approach, helping your teen make the transition into adulthood can also be rewarding.

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 your adult-to-be make the decision that’s right for him or her.

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. In fact, 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. Teens should list their goals as well as their accomplishments, even if they haven’t yet decided on a field of study. Ask your teen to write down a list of:

  • academic and personal strengths and weaknesses
  • extracurricular activities
  • awards
  • grade point average (GPA)
  • class rank
  • SAT, ACT, or AP scores

Next, your teen needs to think about and list the qualities he or she is looking for in a college. Does your child want to go away to school, stay close to home, or take online courses, for example?

Armed with the preliminary information your teen has gathered, it’s time to begin the research. Guidebooks, the Internet, and counselors at school are particularly helpful resources. As your child chooses potential schools, you and your teen should start to make campus visits, during which time he or she 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 confident that it’s his or her best work. Many schools offer help in these areas. There are also individuals you can hire if your child’s school doesn’t have the resources to help.

And don’t cross college off the list because you’re afraid the tuition will be too steep. There are many ways to receive financial help. You can ask the following about scholarships and other programs that may help:

  • the school counselor
  • the colleges’ financial-aid offices
  • your employer; ask about any programs that they may offer

Federal aid programs are also available.

Job Options

If college isn’t 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 or her future. Discipline, earning money, saving for college, learning a trade – all of this is often possible in the armed forces. Veterans are also entitled to many benefits both while in the service and after.

However, your teen should carefully explore all the pros and cons of a military career. After all, if teens don’t like the service or if the thought of going to war seems too scary, they can’t easily drop out. If your teen wants specific training through the military, make sure the contract he or she 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 or she needs to learn how to search for employment, write a resume, and develop interviewing skills.

Many companies reimburse their employees for continuing education in areas related to their employment. 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. But 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. They’re also a great way to make contacts 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 or her 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 as well.

However, 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. Your child should expect difficulties but know that the rewards of community service often outweigh the hardships incurred – and can actually change the direction of his or her life. Speaking with previous participants in a program should give a more realistic view than any promotional material.

And 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 or she should find out if they have delayed admissions programs. If there’s 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 or she 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 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 or she isn’t 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 or her in the long run. This is the time for your child to develop decision-making and problem-solving skills.
  • Prepare your teen to take care of him or herself 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.
  • Don’t be afraid to set limits on how much you can financially support your teen if he or she decides to take time off. It’s important for teens to learn independence.

Where to Get Help

The Internet is a good starting point for researching information on your teen’s interests. Also enlist the help of school counselors. These professionals can help steer your child in the right direction or refer him or her to other good sources of information.

And 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’re 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 people at their workplaces to find out more about what they do. Make use of friends, relatives, or others you know in different industries. After all, there’s often nothing more flattering than having someone ask about what you do.

Finally, resist the temptation to lecture and try to remain supportive and enthusiastic, even if your teen frequently changes his or her mind. Your child needs your positive influence during this transitional time.

Updated and reviewed by: Barbara P. Homeier, MD
Date reviewed: January 2005
Originally reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD


Taken with permission from

© 2007 iMOM. All rights reserved.